Sunday, September 28, 2014

The Middle Flipper Is (Part 12)......

...the pickiest sea lion in all the land.

Meet Patty.


I can hear all of you collectively "awwwwing" at your computer or phone screen.  Why? Because Patty had an adorable face.  You know what else she had?  Here's a little list:

* Charisma
* Smarts
* A lovely singing voice
* A beautiful blond coat
* Sass.  Lots and lots of sass.

Patty was a 32 year old California sea lion who was rescued as a pup, like so many others*.  Perhaps because she received excellent, doting care when she was such a young gal, she did precisely what she wanted, when she wanted.  She underwent a mastectomy for breast cancer when she was 30, pulled through like a champion, and went on to tell Planet Earth that she ruled.  Despite being mostly blind at her ancient age (30 years old for a California sea lion is the equivalent to a 90 year old human), her eyes were always bright and ready.  She vocalized a lot in short, staccato-like pulses that resembled normal sea lion sounds but were orated with confidence.  There was no, "BARK BARK BARK".  There was, "Bark.  Bark bark barkbark? Bark....bark!  Bark bark bark bark?"  Or, "Bark."  Simple, elegant, definitive.  God I wish I knew what she wanted to tell us.

I met Patty in 2013.  She was one of the first sea lions I ever got to know well, which surprised some of the veteran trainers at my job.  Why? Because Patty was picky.  Very, very picky.  She had a long history of hand-selecting her trainers.  In some cases, she only saw one or two trainers for extended periods of time, so I'm sure that didn't really help her be open-minded about her human servants.

Yes, my queen.

When I started to learn what Patty was all about, I witnessed her show this extreme differentiation between trainers.  You know, it's not like pickiness is unique to this particular story.  We all know an animal who has a stronger relationship with someone that isn't us, right?  Or an animal who knows how  to yank our chains and have a good time at our expense.  That's part of the fun.  It's also an important element to any animal training program, so we can all cultivate strong relationships with our animals.

In most cases, when an animal chooses to leave a trainer in a scenario likely related to differentiation issues, there isn't much to write home about.  It goes something like this:

Cat: Hey Sally the seal! Good to see you! Let's get started with-
Sally: No, thanks.  Bounces off

Or maybe something like this:

Cat: Hey Penny the penguin! Target!
Penny: How about I take 67 seconds to target?  Or what if I spin? How about a nice spin?

So you go back to the drawing board and really try to build up your relationship and all is well and good in the training world.

But when Patty had a problem with her trainer, oh, you knew it.  You couldn't be in the same habitat without knowing when Patty was making her Selection (or ha ha, Rejection).  Like a Grecian goddess descending from Lofty Heavenly Heights with Ire and Conviction, Patty dramatically left her trainer and barreled her way in the shortest distance between two points: her current trainer and the Chosen One.  If you were in her way, too bad.  She had an agenda that could not be stopped by the biomass of a human being.

An actual photo of Patty searching for a preferred trainer.  

The first time I saw this, I don't remember who her actual trainer was.  I just remember being in the habitat, with three other trainers interacting with sea lions, and hearing, "Heads up! Patty's coming!"

I look over at her, and here she comes, waddling at 98 miles per hour towards Favorite Trainer Number One (herein referred to as "FT1"), who happened to be working with our oldest male sea lion, Kyle.  When Patty arrived, despite the best efforts of all other trainers involved, the feisty lady parked herself at FT1 and gazed upon her with wide eyes.  "Bark. Honk," she said.   Nothing could break her concentration, so we had to end the session and try again.

So when I started getting to know Patty, we all assumed that she'd have a rough time getting adjusted to the new blond in town.  But surprisingly, we got along right off the bat.  I don't know what I did or didn't do that got me in Patty's good graces, but I relished it.  She never chose me as Favorite Trainer per se, but she never left me.  We had a jolly old time.  We ran around, we played games, I marveled at her incredible resolve as a cancer survivor at such an old age, and I giggled at every definitive bark and honk she shared with me.  I was in pure animal trainer bliss.

We were so happy together in those days!

And then.

Something happened.  What it was, I still don't know.  It remains as mysterious as the third gunman on the grassy knoll, Atlantis, or why Lindsay Lohan is still a thing.  No one may ever know.  But something happened and I went from being Patty's friend to NOT FRIENDDDDD.

Patty would've blocked me on FB for sure.

At first, this differentiation was business as usual.  While I felt a little bit sad that our special relationship was no longer valid in the world of Princess Picky, I knew that this was part of her thing and in a weird way felt honored to experience it first hand.  We went through the normal motions of working through a major differentiation problem.  You know, pairing successful trainers with me, reinforcing Patty for interacting with me for brief periods of time by letting her go to Favorite Trainers.   But nothing worked.  And what was normal at first quickly turned into a Mystery Of Great Proportions Laced With Great Insecurity About How I Smelled.


Look, it's okay if an animal isn't the biggest fan of me.  I mean, I'd love to have the best relationship ever with every animal ever.  While I will strive to figure out how to make every animal's life special and good and wonderful, I also know they are individuals and have a right to be like, "Eh Cat, you're okay but you're not my favorite."  I mean, we don't all get along the same way with every human, right?  The animal can have a choice, and in the vast majority of cases (errrr, okay, in every case in my experience EXCEPT what I'm about to tell you), you can put the time, effort, and respect into each relationship and at least get a GOOD rapport, even if it's not one that has the greatest connection ever.

So if an animal goes through a period of time where they just aren't that into me, I don't let it destroy me.  I let it motivate me, so I can figure out what I can do to build trust and respect from that animal.

Patty showed me that there was a limit to that perspective.

After all, Patty's perspective was the only one.

Not only would she not eat from me or emit behaviors with me, she wouldn't go anywhere near me.

"No duh, Cat.  If she didn't eat from you, why would she go anywhere near you?"

Good question, dear reader.  Let me clarify.

If I were in the habitat with another sea lion, and happened to wind up near Patty, she would leave her trainer to get away from me.  

Any attempts to get me to feed her a half of a capelin while standing next to another trainer proved impossible for a good long time.  The second I'd get close to Patty, especially if I was upwind of her, she'd break focus with her Favorite Trainer, open her little nostrils, sniff the air, turn her head towards me and do one or more of the following things:

1) Spit her fish
2) Chuff
3) Sneeze/snort/projectile launch sea lion boogers and that molasses-like substance that coat their teeth and gums
4) Dramatically throw herself off of her seat and plunge into the water, never to return

Here is Patty, after letting herself into her favorite hallway, refusing to do anything for anybody.  

One day, I decided to do some enrichment with another group of sea lions.  To do this, I had to be in a hallway that joins all of our sea lion habitats together, allowing us to easily move animals around. I leaned against the wall of the hallway which led into the habitat I wanted to put enrichment in, and I remained there for several minutes playing with and observing the sea lions.

An hour or so later, I went to Patty's habitat with several other trainers to do a session.  One of Patty's Favorite Trainers (not FT1, but FT2) started off on a great start.  She decided to work on Patty's gating, and asked her into the hallway I just talked about.  I watched as Patty energetically and vocally followed FT2 into said hallway.  FT2 was giving rapid fire SDs, bridging every behavior because Patty was doing so great.

I got into my session with the sea lion I had, until I heard Patty Snort and Chuff.

"Heads up, Patty's coming back in!"

I look up and see Her Royal Highness's hallmark power-waddle into her main habitat and slosh dramatically into the water, leaving a perplexed FT2 in her wake.

"I don't know what happened," FT2 said.  "She got to this one part of the hallway, sniffed it, then left me!"

This can't be happening, I thought.  "Where did she sniff?"

FT2 described to me the exact location where I had leaned for a few minutes just an hour ago.  And suddenly, any self-confidence I had disappeared.  I must smell really, really bad.  I looked down at the sea lion I was interacting with, a very old but sweet sea lion.  I wanted to ask her:

Me: Star, do I smell that bad?
Star: Oh honey, it's not bad.  It's special!

Star, foreground, looked and acted like a Sweet Old Lady and helped me get through the dark Patty Rejection Times.

Think my remote smell is bad?  There were also several occasions over several months where Patty would stop eating from FT1 if I passed by her and the wind blew the right way. Like, she'd have a fish in her mouth, smell me, and immediately eject the fish like it tasted like poison, or worse, a mushroom.

....this is eerily close to what Patty looked like around me.

The trainers all opined at length about what could be the cause of Patty's distaste in my very existence in her world.  She was having more minor incidents with other trainers, but nothing to the extent that I was experiencing.  In fact, as far as I'm aware, I hold the record for Worst Picky Patty moments.

We came up with lots of hypotheses, all of which were debunked (but for your entertainment):

1) Was I too loud?
2) Was I too quiet?
3) Was I too strict in my training?
4) Did I use different laundry detergent?
5) I'm a vegetarian; does that give me a weird hippy smell or something?

I felt like I was permanently in Patty's Burn Book, with no clue as to what put me there.  From August until the end of December, I had not a single successful incident of even being NEAR Patty without her announcing her great displeasure.  We charted it on an excel spreadsheet, I avoided going near her for a time and tried to slowly approximate myself back into her sphere of influence.  Alas, nothing worked.

Oh look! Cat's on every page!

And then, almost as quickly as it started, the differentiation stopped.  She started interacting with me as if nothing had ever happened.  I actually felt like crying from happiness when I had a successful session with her, starting with 0.0004 seconds of interaction with a Favorite Trainer and quickly progressing to full sessions with her.  She was bright-eyed, she was attentive, she talked my ear off.

Then, on Christmas Day in 2013 at the very last session, the assistant supervisor and I noticed Patty having difficulty breathing.  Over the next few days her condition deteriorated quickly, which as you can imagine meant that she'd only give her Favorite Trainers the time of day. But only that lasted for a couple of days, and soon she stopped eating from anyone.

We had to get her medications that could alleviate the reason why she had breathing difficulty.  While we couldn't know for sure what exactly was going on, we knew that she had fluid in her lungs.  The medication would reduce or eliminate the fluid and make her feel like her old self again, but we knew this was likely a condition related to her very old age.  We had to find a way to get Patty to eat the meds.

Alas, even FT1 was unsuccessful.  Patty, being the sassy CEO of sea lions that she was, did not hide her irritation with us entering her castle.   It got to the point where we had a hard time cleaning her habitat because she blocked us or tried to chase us out.  I'm sure this had something to do with the fact that she felt like crappola, too.  But we knew this was a very serious issue.

Patty with FT1

Who, oh who could feed Patty and bring her back to her old self?

One of her former trainers, now the director of our Life Support Systems, used to be one of her primary trainers.  He above all others was Supreme Favorite Trainer (SFT).  So we asked him, can you try to get Patty to eat?  Patty hadn't seen SFT in at least two years, so we weren't sure how this was going to go.  But we had to do something.

I don't know how all of you guys out there imagine perfect meetings of lost lovers occurring, like if you hear violins or something or picture some Ryan Gosling movie scene.  But whatever you imagine, that's what happened when Patty saw SFT.  The years of absence meant absolutely nothing, because she lit up when she heard his voice.  She leaned into him when he reached out to give her shoulder rubs.  She started talking again, something we hadn't heard in a several days.  And she ate.  After two days of nothing eating anything, she ate like it was no big deal.

And it feels so good.

So SFT got her the meds consistently each session, and we saw Patty's quality of life exponentially improve.  Knowing that SFT had other things to do than be at the beck and call of the animal training department (oh you know, like Life Support stuff, or taking a day off), and that Patty would only benefit from at least getting some of her old FTs back on the roster, we started approximating her old cronies back into the mix.  It didn't go well.  Patty wanted nothing to do with anyone other than Supreme Favorite.

So what did we do?  Well, as I mentioned, Patty couldn't see very well.  But boy could she smell.  So her FTs wore SFT's jacket, entered the habitat quietly, and tried not to talk (or talk in a low voice like SFT's) which worked for a little bit.  We all felt like ninjas walking in there, gazing upon Patty as she sunned her beautiful blond fur waiting for her human servants to try their best to earn her favor.

Masters of Disguise we were not.

We even tried to have SFT talk to Patty on speaker on a cell phone while someone else tried to feed her (she saw right through that *%#@).    We eventually got some successes, but not without some clear signs from her that while okay, she'd eat from you, she'd REALLY rather eat from SFT.

Like this one time, FT2 went in (who had lots of success with Patty doing well for her since going on her new meds).  Her intention was to feed Patty, but let SFT give her tactile and hang out with her.  FT2 got off on the right foot, and nodded to me to let SFT into the habitat.  SFT came in, and Patty remained with FT2....until SFT spoke.  At this glorious manly sound, Patty stood up, shoved FT2 against the wall of the habitat so she could haul ass towards her True Pal.  She didn't hurt FT2 but for her feelings a little bit.


In the end, Patty started eating from most of us, even me off and on (for no rhyme or reason any of us could figure).

As I'm sure you guys have noticed, I've referred to Patty in the past tense.  At 32 years old, Patty passed away this spring.  Her cancer had come back and had metastasized; there was nothing anyone could've done.  It still makes me tear up just to write this, because despite whatever the heck I did that displeased Picky Patty, I miss her a lot.  I miss her Bark, bark, bark honk bark?  I miss how she used to lean forward on her lean with her giant eyes, and how she'd act so disgusted if she caught just the briefest sniff of me.  She knew what she wanted and went after it, not caring what our plans were.  I think about how much she lit up when she saw SFT, especially the first time they were reconnected, and being reminded of something we all know: the animals remember the relationships that mean the most to them.

The vets had never seen an animal survive metastatic cancer to the extent Patty had it.  She swam and sassed right up until the end, when I assume she decided it was time to shuffle the mortal coil and rule another, more ethereal realm.  A strong, confident, and intelligent woman who taught us all a lot of lessons and left us with lots to think about with her Middle Flipper events.  I'll never forget her.  And now neither will you. :)


* California sea lion pups are starving.  Hundreds of them strand every year.  Don't believe me?  Check out any pinniped rescue facility, including The Marine Mammal Center, Sea World, the Pacific Mammal Center, and countless others along the west coast of the U.S. and Canada.

Sunday, September 21, 2014

The Relationships We Cultivate

Relationship.  You know, the kind you build with animals. I've been thinking about this concept for a while now, and how trainers from different world views describe their rapports with the animals in their care.

I love this little guy!!

Similar to anthropomorphism, saying you have a good relationship with an animal can sometimes be taken as a No-No by a camp of trainers would call themselves behavioral purists.  I think this goes back to the concept that while we as trainers do use scientific principles to condition behavior, many of us go off the deep end once in a while and wind up with some really non-scientific beliefs.

I've addressed this issue of anthropomorphism animal emotion a number of times, and maybe you're sick of hearing me bring it up.  But it's a great example of what I'm talking about.   We seek to be clear and predictable in our training rules for the benefit of our animals so that they understand what the heck we're asking of them*.  This leads us to focus on the results of our training methods instead of making a wide range of potentially misleading assumptions about the goings-on in the animals' heads. We know the word "anthropomorphism" means "attributing human characteristics to an inanimate object or a non-human organism", so we urge one another to not anthropomorphize so that we can keep our training rules clear. And then...

This somehow leads us to assume that we as trainers never assume the mental state of our animals, which is of course ridiculous because we are always assuming we know what motivates the animals.  We use what feel like scientific terms to describe what's going on with our animals ("the animal appears sensitized to the sound stimulus emitted from the out-flow pipe") but what we're really saying is that we think the animal is scared of a sound based on our deep knowledge of their behavior and personality** ("individual history".)

This, combined with an outdated principle that humans are the only animals with emotions, creates a monster of misinformation despite best intentions.  It also clouds our vision as trainers.

I need this for me as a trainer like nine years ago when it came to terminology and the incorrect use of "anthropomorphism."  Also, is this badge a real thing?!

So how does this have anything to do with building relationships with our animals? 

First, ask yourself: what does it mean to have a great relationship with a non-human animal?  

Second, how do you build that relationship?

Here are my answers to those questions.

I think having a great relationship with an animal means that both he/she and I are attentive, focused, and (this is your warning, you non-anthropomorphizers! Get ready!) excited to interact with one another.  That doesn't mean that each interaction is action-packed and energetic.  It could be mellow and chill.  But more times than not, we have successful sessions that are fun and rewarding to both of us.  When that animal doesn't feel like participating in a behavior or session that is really important (like a husbandry behavior for a much-needed sample), or some crazy thing just happened like oh you know, a Ron Paul ReLOVEution blimp flies over the pool that is so scary it renders a dolphin completely unable to deal*** you are usually able to get that animal through the experience in a positive manner.  Trust is critical to a great relationship.  

I don't care what you say, you can't trust a raccoon.

And it's a two-way street, right?  It's not like the animals are little machines programmed to trust us if only we just remember to feed them and toss a ball around once in a while.  We give them input, they give us input.  If we do something that really isn't working for them, they'll let us know.  They're never like, "Oh, poor Cat.  She keeps throwing that football out for me but I HATE that dastardly toy. I just can't break her heart though, she loves it so.  So I'm going to pretend I love it and I'll play with it all day."



Blowhole sigh

A sign of a great relationship is that when one of you screws up, the other is okay with it up until a certain point.   One or even a handful of mistakes that you make as a trainer with a particular animal won't destroy a great relationship longterm; how many of you out there can think of an animal who's carried you through an interactive program where you keep screwing up because you've got a difficult guest?  You want to look at the animal and have an interaction like this:

You: Oh my god Mr. Seal, I'm SO SORRY I just totally focused on that guest for like three minutes while you just sat there so patiently.

Seal: Oh honey, it's okay.  I understand.  Usually you are so attentive, so I just figured I'd wait here.

What a nice seal.

That's not necessarily the case with an animal with whom you do not have a strong relationship, even if they are very well-conditioned.  Certainly, there are animals whose personalities and temperaments are just rock-solid: you could drop an atomic bomb next to their habitat and they'd be all like, "Oh, my, what a beautiful mushroom cloud!" no matter who you are. But there are plenty of other individuals who are not so laid-back and forgiving, so your screwy encounter may result in something like this:

You: Oh my god Mr. Seal.  I'm SO SORRY I just totally focused on that guest for like three--

Seal: PEACE! You suck!!!!


So onto the second question: how do we build a good relationship?

Other than TIME (can you tell that's important?), of course.

This is where the real juicy part of this blog lives, and in this juicy part exist Two Camps.  For the sake of argument, I'm going to grossly stereotype these camps and then we'll unpack this idea later.

Camp Numero Uno: The So-Called Behaviorists

How sciencey!

These are the trainers who pride themselves on crisp operant conditioning. They have strict criteria, they do not use anthropomorphic terms and so their sentences are exceedingly careful (and long!) when describing how an animal responds to certain stimuli.   They establish a relationship by using primary reinforcement, which they would describe as any unconditioned reinforcer and that limits it to about one thing: food.  After they consider themselves Significant to an animal by way of feeding them, they begin to systematically incorporate secondaries which they define as any conditioned reinforcer.

Relationships are a one-way transaction.  This Camp will often respond to questions by guests or other trainers about animal intelligence or emotion by stating that the animals respond to their trainers simply because they are conditioned to do so.

Camp Numero Dos: The So-Called Dolphin**** Huggers


These trainers describe their relationships with their animals using words like: trust, love, understanding.  Their criteria is only strict on paper; they want to make sure the animals end on a positive and know that each animal may have certain caveats in order to do their behaviors correctly.  They would rather the animal have a good time than to face failure (which isn't a word you'll hear flying around this camp).  Reinforcers are usually whatever the animal likes best, so a primary reinforcer would be defined as whatever the animal likes the best (perhaps reinforcers that did not have to be conditioned), and secondaries are ones that had to be conditioned.

Relationships are mutual.  This Camp will often respond to questions by guests or other trainers about animal intelligence or emotion by using flowery speech and talking about more ethereal, intangible facets of their bond.

Like srsly?

Is anyone just seething after they read those two descriptions and want to throw me a Middle Flipper?  I hope you are.  Why?  Because those are totally exaggerated representations of two very powerful ends of a spectrum.   Not to make anyone feel uncomfortable here, but lookit: we may not fully live in either of those Camps, but maybe we know which Camp we live closer to.  Does that mean it's WRONG to be in Camp One or Two?  Absolutely not.   But it means we probably related more to one of this descriptions, right?

And because we humans love love love to be in Camps (hey, we're social and cultural animals, so we're sort of hard-wired that way), it's easy for us to stand proudly in our own belief structure and criticize the Camp across the street.  I've done it, not that I'm happy or proud to admit that.   But I'm human, and have opinions.  And what I've learned is that really and truly, both Camps have great elements to establishing meaningful relationships with their animals.  And both have...well, faults.

We animal trainers don't have a devil and an angel on our shoulders.  We have Scientist and Animal Lover.

Poor Stock Photo guy!

I think the burgeoning scientist in us all occasionally comes out and whispers in our ear, "don't look too much like a dolphin hugger, it's not scientific."  And then the kind-hearted animal lover whispers in our other ear, "But does it have to be so cold and systematic? Those animals are unique individuals!"

And depending on who we surround ourselves with at work and in the industry as a whole, we listen to one of those voices more than the other.

But guess what?  Just because you're more of a Dolphin Hugger type doesn't mean that you don't adhere to strict behavioral principles.  And just because you're more of a Behaviorist type doesn't mean you don't fiercely love your animals.   How is that possible?  Because...

You can't have a great relationship with your animal without understanding him or her as an individual with emotions, needs, likes, dislikes, and a decent memory.  And you can't communicate clearly or establish solid foundations on which you'll build trust and respect without creating and maintaining solid, predictable behavioral goals.   You have to live in both Camps.


Here's an example of what I'm talking about:

Let's say there's this flighty dolphin named Flora. In my experience, having worked at places on both ends of the spectrum, animals with anxiety and extreme sensitization do better when rules are initially and clearly laid out for them.  Not because the trainer Must Have Compliance, but so the animal knows how to follow the rules and how to clearly break them.

In Flora's case, we focus on the basics: her heads-up stationing, her response time to SDs, and how she responds to things that scare the living *#&% out of her.  You know, like if we accidentally hit our elbow on one of the floating docks, she freaks out for the rest of the session.  Or one time we blew our whistle underwater and OH MY GOD THE WORLD ENDED.  Also, she is the world's finickiest eater, so just getting her to eat her fish is a behavior in and of itself.

We could reinforce Flora for just being with us, heads-up stationing be damned! We could give her lots of extra help with that, focus hands, extra hand targets, just so that she'll be successful.  

But in my experience, I've found that has the opposite effect.  Instead of showing compassion and understanding to the animal, you're not actually listening to what they're telling you.  At the very least, you've superstitiously conditioned poor attention while they wait for you to give them the signal to sit up.  All this time, communication is muddled.  Is Flora's stationing that way because it's superstitiously conditioned like that?  Is it because she is unmotivated?  Is she sexual? Sick?  Wow, those are a lot of factors to consider.  

So if we focus on the tight criteria of the heads-up stationing, what does Flora learn?  Yes, that to continue with her session, she must be clearly attentive. It looks nice.  We get crisp behavior. That's only part of it though, and maybe not even the most important part.  

It ALSO empowers her to say NO very clearly to us.  If she is unmotivated (a very, very important situation to appreciate quickly as a trainer), she knows how to tell you that.  Boom.  Her stationing goes down the toilet.  If she isn't feeling well, whoa, there goes her heads-up.  

What once was, "Ehhh...that's just Flora....I think...." is now, "Wow, this is significant.  She is usually very attentive, so I need to pay attention."  You've given Flora an easy way to communicate with you.  

Communication is key, after all.

On top of that, all the work we do with Flora's criteria and teaching her the predictable, fair, and consistent rules of the game?  It takes any guesswork away from Flora where it's not needed.  Now she can focus that big dolphin brain of hers on fun problem-solving in training, or any games you create for her.   Suddenly, when she sees you coming to her habitat, she is eager to see what you bring next.  She has no reason to be anxious or flighty around you, because she knows what to expect from you.  She knows she only has to focus on the fun part of a training session, show, or interactive program.  And she knows you'll listen to her when she says no.

Do we just stick with the black-and-white of training?  Of course not.  Why?  Because primary reinforcement, as we marine mammal trainers define it, isn't actually the most motivating thing to Flora.  We can sling fish at her face all day and find out that had we just used that favorite toy (which, by the way, was never conditioned...she just played with it on her own), her learning and retention rate would shoot through the roof.  Once she knows us and our rules, she trusts us to use tactile as reinforcement, because she is a very tactile-motivated animal (another reinforcer that was never conditioned using food).  We take the time to observe her outside of session in addition to remembering what reinforcers resulted in better attention and learning rates.  We get to know Flora, instead of pigeon-holing her.  We use our Camp Two skills, combine them with Camp One, and get a powerful, lasting relationship that benefits both parties.

Let's all meet in the middle, because you just can't have a great training program without Fundamentals and Relationship.  They must exist together.  If you haven't tried it and think your program is great now, just think about how much more amazing it will be if you'd just take a few notes from the opposite Camp than the one you associate with more.   We can all be sharp behaviorists who dolphin hug, and not worry about scrutiny from anyone else.  The animals will thank you for it.

* i.e. How they can control us like little puppets, because that's what they do

** Don't like the word "personality" when describing animals?  Even ethologists use this term.  A quick google search of "animal personality studies" will give you a good long list of peer-reviewed research publications in very well-respected journals. 

*** True story

**** Not actually limited to dolphins, obvi!

Sunday, September 14, 2014

What's So Special About IMATA and AZA Conferences?!

Is there like, something special going on today in the zoo and aquarium world or something?

Oh, yeah! IMATA!

The professional organization of fish chuckers everywhere!

This year's IMATA is really special, because it's paired with AZA's annual conference.  That. Is. Awesome.

So what on earth could the Middle Flipper possibly write about when it comes to a double conference?  Well, as I was thinking about what to write a few days ago, I started remembering all of the questions I've gotten about attending a conference (or if you can't attend one...or if you SHOULD attend one...) over the past several years.  I've gotten a lot of the same questions and comments and figured hey, maybe a few other people out there would be interested to know an answer.

An answer.  This blog is, after all, my opinion.  So take whatever you'd like from this, and know it's all coming from a good place!

Okay, here we go: the FAQ* for IMATA Conferences.

1.  "Should I go to a conference?"

Look, even she knows the right answer!

This is a commonly asked question from aspiring trainers, or trainers who are still trying to land a full-time position.

While I obviously can't comment on your personal situation, all I can say is if you can manage to go to a  conference, you should.

Some of the reasons go without saying: you're surrounded by people who can help you get your foot in the door.  You never know what Big Name you'll run into at lunch time or at the pool, whose sagely advice may help you get a job (maybe even with him or her).  You learn about what this field is like through the presentations, which gives you a great glimpse into what each facility does.  That information is not only great to have for your own knowledge and growth, but it's a great way to make yourself stand out in an interview if you remember their IMATA poster presentation six months later.

But another invaluable reason to go to a conference? And now this spills into trainers of all levels, but it's a Shot In The Arm.  Oh, not literally.  No, that would be awful.  "Hey welcome to IMATA! Have an IM injection on us!"

No, thanks.

Look, I remember very clearly when I was trying to get a job how frustrated and discouraged I got.  Not just because of the rejections, but because of the unsupportive people in my life telling me I should just get a Real Job.  When I went to my first conference in 2005, I was surrounded by people who loved animals, who went through the same job hunt process, who'd persevered and landed their dream jobs.  Even though I knew about two other people, and yes, was intimidated by that fact, it was still incredible to be immersed in a culture I'd loved since I was a kid.  It was enough to bolster my drive and keep me focused.

Many trainers of all levels have this same experience of being inspired and their batteries charged.  But more on that later.

2.  "Aren't all the presentations the same?"

No nuh-uh!

Here's the thing about presentations: you can learn something from each one.  Now someone who's been in the field for 20 years and is actively involved in IMATA may not go to each presentation, and that's not out of disrespect to the presenters.  It's that they've got other priorities at these conferences, and they've seen a majillion presentations.  They may choose to go to the ones that are unique in their OWN experience, or are relevant to their facility goals.

But if you're not a director or curator of a facility and you already have the "ugh, presentations" bug, let's find a way to motivate you.

All presentations are not the same.  The topics they cover may be the same from year to year, but unless a facility does the exact same presentation they did in a previous conference, there are always valuable differences and therefore lessons to learn.

You might have worked with dolphins for eight years in an interactive setting and think, "What could I possibly learn from a formal on dolphin interactions?"  Let me tell you, by having that attitude you risk shutting yourself to acquiring information (even if it's a little nugget!) that could help your own job and the program over all.  I mean, for argument's sake let's say you listen to the presentation on Dolphin Interactive Programs and you literally hear nothing you've never heard before.  What does that mean?  Was it a waste of time?  No.  Look at all you can take away from a situation like that:

1) Your training style is similar to that of another facility's.  That means should you run into problems, you know you can probably reach out to this place and have a meaningful conversation that may provide solutions since you guys are on the same page.

2) This facility may be a place you'd like to work someday down the road, if you like how they train and want to stick with similar methodologies as the one you're at currently.  Or, if you're looking for a change eventually, maybe that facility isn't a place you apply.  And that's one less option to unfocus you.

3) One day, you may want to do a presentation.  What did you learn about the public speaking and audio-visual aspects of creating a formal presentation?

Those are some big things to take away from a presentation we've decided is something you already know.   And like I said, there are very, very few of those that you'll encounter if you really listen.  And that brings me to my next point...


You can do it!

I know this day in age we have these awesome Smart Phones and Tablets.  We can use those to save trees and take notes down, or record the presentations.  Maybe we swap a text message with someone we know at the conference to say something like, "What do you think about doing this at our place?" I know that nowadays, a public speaker looking into the audience and seeing their heads buried in their phones and iPads doesn't mean active listening isn't happening.

But with that all said, I do know (because a handful of people have bragged to me about this) that some people show up to presentations and not listen.  They play games on their phones, check their Facebook status...or worse....send messages to judge other people's presentations.

Don't let this freak you out if you're presenting or plan on doing so at some point.  If someone makes fun of you, don't take it personally; just don't do it yourself.  If you're compelled to make fun of someone or a topic, remind yourself that you're the one sitting in the chair listening.  You didn't spend hours and hours and hours putting together a presentation.  You didn't spend the time freaking out about speaking in front of hundreds of people.  If you think you can do better, good for you.  Then show us.  Or don't.  But don't make fun of other people, no matter what your level.

"Whoops," you might think.  "I've made fun of people before."

There, there.

Well, hey, this week is the perfect time to take a fresh start.  Don't focus on the past, just tell yourself that this year, you'll actively listen to the presentations you choose to attend.  And if one isn't in your taste, you'll keep that to yourself because it does nothing but show tremendous disrespect to another human being.  And especially if you're not someone who's a Big Name in the field, you don't want to risk coming off like an A-hole because that could affect your future job prospects.

3.  "I'm scared to introduce myself to people."


Welcome to the club!  We are 7 billion members and going strong.

Seriously, even if you love meeting new people, it's not necessarily an easy thing to do especially in a competitive career setting.  Know that being scared is part of the growth process, and that many many many of us had to deal with this.  Truth be told, while I'm definitely better at it now than I was, I still get nervous thinking about meeting people who inspire me.

Everyone has their own method of figuring out how to be their genuine but professional selves when networking at an IMATA conference.  But all I can tell you is to not let that insecurity or nervousness cripple you, no matter how hard it is.  You just have to take a deep breath and go for it.  Pick a socially appropriate time (and that window may be seconds long if you're going for a Big Name) and DO IT.  Doooo itttttt.  The fear won't go away if you sit there and think about it forever.  Just use good common sense.

Common sense does not equal common core.

Now, I do realize that it's a little more nerve-wracking when you're trying to network with someone High Up.  You almost feel like you're meeting a celebrity, and you want to make the best impression. First, these people are just human beings like you.  They worked hard to get to where they are, and they probably started off in a similar situation as you.   So it's not that you have to treat them differently than another person you respect, but at an IMATA conference they are really slammed with stuff, including doing their own networking.   So how do you try to get face time with those people?

There are better times than others to meet new people.  Here are some examples of good moments to approach your Marine Mammal Hero:

1) At the Icebreaker event when they are not actively engaged in conversation
2) Any down time, especially after presentation blocks.  It's a good time to introduce yourself, chat for a few seconds, then get back to your spot for the next round of talks.
3) Any mixers, meals, after-hours gatherings (like at the hotel bar or pool), or site visits.  But again, use your social sense on when to introduce yourself to someone new, especially if you're trying to work for that person one day.

Here are some examples of not-so-good times to approach someone:

1) Right after their presentation (I've made this mistake!!!) when they are bombarded by people and questions

2) Almost any time they are actively engaged in conversation with someone else, unless you're leaving the conference that minute and it's the last time you'll have to meet them.  If that's the case, prepare what you're going to say, keep it simple: "Hey I'm so sorry to interrupt, but I had to introduce myself before I left today.  My name is Blah Blah Blahberstein and I really liked your talk on Blahblahblahing in the workplace.  Anyways, I'll let you be but it was very nice to meet you."


"Hi! My name is Yada Yaderson.  I think you're great.  Um, sorry, I'm so nervous!! I don't know what to say.  What are you eating there?  Is that lunch?  Wow, that looks really good.  I love lunch.  I try to eat it as often as I can.  So how did you get your start in the field?"

He's cuter when he's awkward.

3) Finding out where their hotel room is and trying to meet them that way (unless you were invited there).

These things are not to make you feel like your time isn't valuable, or that you shouldn't feel welcomed to introduce yourself to someone you feel is important.  You just want to make sure you come off as being the socially intelligent, professional, and sincere person you are.

4.  "What's the best way to stand out at the job fair?"


Be yourself, with a professional twinge.  And focus on yourself.  It's not about competing with the other people via throwing-under-the-bus or measuring experience up against each other.  Yes, duh, it's competitive.  But I'd never consider hiring someone who makes a point of showing how they're better than another candidate.  Never.  Why would I want someone on my team who focuses on their own growth via the destruction of another?

But the person who is themselves, who lets their experience and personality do the work, that's the type of person who stands out.

And take some advice from the "meet new people" section above this one.  It's nerve-wracking to walk from table to table introducing yourself to the management/senior team of each facility.   But just do it.  If you have a tendency to ramble on (like yours truly, good god), keep it brief.  If you are someone who is terminally shy, make it a point to make eye contact and say a few sentences.

No matter what your situation is, do not interrogate anyone.  I've seen this happen before a few times, and it's an unfortunate obstacle the people have added to their journey of becoming a full time trainer.  Like if they weren't hired for a position at a facility, they approach that table and start to ask, "What did I do wrong?  Can you look at my resume again?  What do I have to do????"

That looks desperate.  And that's not really you, that's just your (understandable) insecurity.  What's a better way of dealing with a situation like that?

"Hi, I'm Such and Suchmenton.  I'd like to submit my resume for review again.  I like the work your facility does (mentioning an example here wouldn't be a bad idea).  It's really nice to meet you guys in person.  Have a great night!"

That doesn't guarantee you'll get a job.  But acting the OTHER way guarantees you WON'T get a job.  Be confident, be yourself, and again remember, insecurity is not a personality trait.  It's a gremlin who takes over your personality and makes you do weird things.

5.  "What's the best way to stand out at the conference?"


Take all the stuff of #3 and #4 and smash it together.  What's the theme?  No matter what your experience level....


Those are traits everyone respects.  You don't have to grovel at the feet of the Big Names, you don't have to make fun of people's presentations, you don't have to make sure everyone knows your experience level and how great you are.  Share information, which means you're getting some back from other people.  Learn from each person at the conference.  Just because I'm a supervisor doesn't mean I'm not going to talk to apprentice trainers about their experience at a facility I've never visited. Because what the heck do I know about their job?  Other than the basics, not a whole lot.

Enjoy yourself, and have a good time.  The only other thing I'll mention here is what you do at a conference can stay with you for a while.  That can be really good or really uh, bad.  If you enjoy imbibing in adult beverages, go for it!  Just know your limit, especially if you are representing your facility there.  

And remember, introduce yourself to people you don't know!

6.  "What should I wear?"

Probably not this.

For the Job Fair, dress like you would for an interview.  Smart casual/business casual...these terms are as unfamiliar to me as Bulgarian, but wear something that suits your personality and is appropriate for a job interview.  That doesn't mean wear your nicest clothes per se; the job you're interviewing for involves about zero (0) nice items of clothing because you will get fish blood and sea lion poop all over it.

Avoid this too.

I've heard some people tell others, "WEAR HEELS!"  "WEAR BLACK SLACKS!" Uh, wear something YOU would wear to an interview.  If you love heels, then wear them.  If you're like me and think heels were sent here from a masochistic demon sent solely to make you fall over and/or look like a newborn giraffe, don't wear heels because you'll look ridiculous ( me).

7.  "I just want to hang out with my friends."

I love that wetsuit, where did you get it?

Great, hang out with your friends.  Especially if they're from other facilities.  It's a great way to catch up with people you haven't seen in a while.  But don't stop there.

Meet. New. People.  Make new friends.  It's FUN to make new friends (even if the initial process is frightening), and it's SMART to network in this career.  Why?  Because opening your circle of colleagues allows exponential opportunities for information exchange.  That information helps your animals, it helps your career growth and potentially your future.  It can also help someone indirectly; if you have a great seasonal trainer but no full time jobs, you can help that person out by making a few phone calls and drumming up a job opportunity they were unaware of (and maybe giving them a good friendly reference).  

You will waste your conference if you don't meet some new people.  Don't let that happen to you.

8.  "I don't care about the AZA stuff.  I'm just there for IMATA." (or vice versa)


Oh man, this really gets under my skin.  The separation between zookeepers and marine mammal trainers is closing, but it's still a chasm.  There is no need for this crowbar separation; we are all animal keepers.  Some of us train, some of us don't, but we all fiercely love the animals and the job we do.

Okay, okay, I know I'm getting all flowery and Let's-All-Huggish. I admit it, I would love to see zero difference between "zoo keeping" and "marine mammal training" between all facilities.  I think it can happen, but I also know it's not going to occur at this conference.

But what I will say is that you, as an individual, can make that chasm disappear in your own mind.  If you think marine mammal training is all you care about, or that you really think you'll never want to work with any other taxa than hoofstock,  you're shutting yourself off to some amazing opportunities for growth (and therefore better animal care).

By the way IMATA people, on top of the awesome stuff IMATA has planned for the conference, have you SEEN the AZA schedule yet?  There are so many awesome things they're doing, including leadership seminars, so much conservation stuff, PR/Marketing.....don't let this opportunity pass you by because you're being, well, a marine mammal snob.   Don't be part of the stereotype.

That's an order!

And if you're an AZA person, check out some of the stuff IMATA has to offer.  The presentations are interesting, even if you think you hate training.  Just check it out, if only to solidify your opinion, because you never know what you'll take away from it.

So when you're meeting new people, don't just stick in your own clan.  Branch out.  Lots of zookeepers know about training and do ground-breaking things.  Lots of marine mammal trainers are open-minded and excited to learn about new species.  Just put the stereotypes down for five days (and have a beer or two, if you really need some help with that) and start talking to each other!

Enjoy yourselves this week!

*  FACs? You know, for comments? What about FMC, for frequently mentioned comments?  Or SIHA (stuff I hear a lot).  Oh wow, acronym creation is fun.  ACIF! OMG INAL (I need a life).  ICS!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!**  Totally OOC!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

** I can't stop.