Sunday, October 26, 2014

My Bad Day Adventure: On Lessons and Kit Kats

I had one of those Bad Days a few days ago.

But not as bad as this rabbit's day.

You know the kind.  The kind where you are like all happy in sleep and wake up feeling refreshed and BOOM.  There it is, the Bad Day.  Just standing by the side of your bed, smiling eagerly at you because it is ready to PLAY and you don't have a choice but to engage.

The Bad Day is from a family of Harbingers of Crap (herein referred to as HOC).  You may recognize other powerful HOC members as Death, Disease, Serious Dishonesty, and my personal favorite, Food Poisoning (he's like a cousin twice removed or something).

Or red-headed step child.

The thing that all of these HOC members do really well is just come out of effing nowhere and blindside you with their Crap.  Yes, we've all had bad days.  Like the ones where you get in a little trouble at work, or you have a fight with a friend or significant other, or your ninja-like amazon parrot mangles the poor little toe of your sweet, angelic cockatiel (this happens to everyone, right?) when you leave the room for 8.7 seconds.

We've also all been sick with a cold, flu, allergies.  We've been lied to before. Those things are no fun, and I'm not trivializing them, but they are not members of HOC.   HOC Disease sees you walking your dog on a sunny afternoon, sneaks up behind you and shoves you as hard as it can, yelling "HA HA NOW YOU HAVE CANCER" as it runs ahead of you.  It may or may not come back to kick your dog.  

HOC Serious Dishonesty may find you at home, reading your favorite book.  It knocks on your door politely, so you are not alarmed when you get up from your comfortable couch to see who is visiting. As you open the door, Dishonesty reaches out to gingerly grab both of your hands, looks you straight in the eye and says, "Your best friend just told the universe that Secret You Never Wanted Anyone To Know.  Kisses!" and leaves, skipping down your driveway.


Now that we are all on the same page, I'd like to go back to the Bad Day.  Bad Day HOC members often initially alert you to your misfortune in the body of someone you recognize.  For example, in my recent case, Bad Day was dressed very convincingly as my husband, Russ.

I was having this really weird dream where a bunch of doctors kept trying to give me the flu shot, even though I really didn't want it, and I was in a deep philosophical debate with my dream doctors about why this was.  It was a good dream though, because I was WINNING, which is my favorite. 

That's right.

But Bad Day woke me up, really nicely.  

"Hey," fake Russ said.  "What time do you work?"

I immediately knew this wasn't my real spouse, because I'd told him already I was off today.  That should've been my first indication.

"I'm off today," I said carefully.

"Oh, okay.  Well, I think your car battery is dying.  I tried to move your car to get mine out to go to work, but your car won't start.  Don't worry, I can still get my truck out.  Do you want to come to work with me and then drive the truck for the day?'

I declined, mostly because when there's a problem like that, I'd like to solve the problem versus just working my way around it, but also because I really wanted to get back to sleep to continue winning my slumbering debate.  Alas, it was not to be.  Russ left me in my bed to ponder the pros and cons of being productive and/or hibernating for the day.

A tantalizing notion, sir Wiggum.

I had this brief moment where I thought Russ was probably totally incorrect about the status of my vehicle.  Yeah, he fixes cars, trucks and boats and is mechanically inclined and has been since he was a zygote.  But I mean, my car is a Prius.  You know, a HYBRID.  It's fancy, it's 12 years old, and it's a little moody.  What would Fix-It-Russ know about a hybrid electric car?  Probably nothing.

So I walk out to my car, keys and phone in hand, thinking I could fix just about anything the Prius throws at me.  I get in, and try to start the car.  The only indications this attempt occurred were two little lit-up symbols that came on the dashboard, and the swearing in my head.  The symbols were normally; they always are there when I first turn on the car.  But the whole power down thing? Not good.

I tried three more times, because you know, that's what any experienced auto mechanic would do.  Each time, the car got weaker and weaker, like a little whimpering kitten who just wants to stay asleep but keeps getting waked up.  Mmerrrrrrr.  mmmerrrr.  merrrrrrr.


I looked in the trunk of the car, since that's where the auxiliary battery is, to see if the battery connections "were good."  I say that as if I knew what I was looking for.  I tried to look really confident when I did this Battery Check step, in case any of my Very Mechanically Inclined neighbors were watching me in my Halloween pajamas through their windows.

"Yep," I said to myself as I ripped the battery compartment cover off incorrectly.  "I can safely determine that this battery is NOT on fire."

Satisfied with my professional assessment, I closed the trunk and went back into my house.  I made a few calls, one of which being to roadside service.  An automated system saved my life and hooked me up with a towing company.  All I'd need to do is tow my sad car to the mechanic, have the problem fixed, and all would be well.

At this point, I'm pretty sure Bad Day was sitting in my living room, eating candy.  He was invisible at this point, but I could sense an evil presence.  Something just didn't feel right. I bet he watched my every move, chuckled at each cheerful response I gave to the towing company when they called me, tried to convince my dog to poop on the carpet (but that dog listens to no one).  Bad Day relished the fact that I had no idea my bad day was a Bad Day.

Jeez Skeletor, you ripped.

I decided to perform some basic personal hygiene to prepare for the arrival of the tow truck.  I started doing some errands around the house, and thought about what I'd do for the rest of the day.  The doorbell ring pierced my deep thoughts and sent me into a frenzy.  Tow Truck Guy was here.  I tore around the house, grabbing my phone and purse, throwing the dog into the kennel, making sure everything was set for me to leave.   

When I opened the door, a very nice elderly gentleman by the name of Art greeted me.  He gave me one simple instruction: to hand over my car keys.

I went to the table by the front door where my keys were.  Or, normally are.  Oh god.  Where are they.

Art was talking happily about his dog, and the two cockatiels he used to have, and oh he misplaces things all the time.  At this point, I was cheerfully reacting to his anecdotes while I searched through my Mary Poppins purse to find my keys.  But they weren't there.  Now, the friendly chatter from my new friend became increasingly distracting as I traveled into different rooms of my house, hoping to find my keys tossed carelessly onto a pile of clothes or on a night stand.  But Art kept talking, which at this point I know was a direct result of Bad Day infiltrating his body in a demonic-possession like manner, the sole purpose of which to not allow my brain to think clearly.

I retraced my steps.  Over and over and over.  No keys, no where.  My birds were now screaming, because the fun fun game of Look At Mom Run Around A Lot had begun and was extremely entertaining.  My dog cried from his crate, because His Life Is Over when he's in there and humans are still in the house.  TWEET TWEET HELLOOOOOO WHINE WHINE WHINE THIS ONE TIME I THOUGHT I LOST MY GLASSES BUT THEY WERE ON MY HEAD

I googled "Oh for the love of god", and this is what I got.  I'm satisfied.

It was getting to be too much, and I was ready to claw my own eyes out.

Then, Bad Day forced my friend Art to say, "Did you lock your keys in the car?"

My heart sank.  Could I have seriously done that?  No, I reasoned with myself.  Because this wasn't a Bad Day.  That kind of thing would only happen on a Bad Day.

Art and I did a thorough search through the car windows and could not find the keys.  Now, I knew alien abduction was the likeliest option.  

At this point, I started to feel tremendous Shame.  This poor tow truck guy was just hanging out in my yard while I ran around looking for keys that were probably resting comfortable in some alien orifice on its way back to Planet Actinzar as an artifact that would remain the pinnacle souvenir of deep space exploration for those particular alien lifeforms and I'd never even be credited, which is just really unfair.

Yeah well, they stole my keys.  Maybe we should form a support group, little pixel man.

I kept apologizing to Art, saying I felt bad I was wasting his time and that I was so disorganized.  Luckily, Bad Day had left Art's body so I got nothing but kind and understanding words.  

"Well if they ain't in the house and they ain't in the car, where could they be?" Art said.

Bad Day whispered softly into my ear, almost imperceptibly, "....the trunkkkkkk...."

I HAD been in the trunk.  I put my phone down there.  But I'd grabbed that.  There's no way my keys were locked in the trunk, but maybe they were.  The self doubt that only happens when you're in that horrific limbo between acceptance and denial of your day being a Bad One completely took over my body.  I stood motionless in my driveway as the internal struggle raged within, while Art looked on.  I finally looked at him and said, "I don't know what to do."

He didn't have the ability to unlock my car, so he said he'd go back until I could find me keys, then just call him back again.  I agreed to this, and walked back into my house.

When I called to get a locksmith, the man helping me (from India) kept helpfully telling me to have a better day, which was impossible because I was having a Bad Day and that just got me more upset.  The conversation was cyclical, because I'm sure no one has ever called this particular operator with the problem I had.

Operator: So you locked your keys in your car?

Me: Maybe. I  don't know for sure.

Operator: If you have not locked the keys in the car, what kind of assistance do you require?

Me: I think I locked my keys in the trunk, but I need someone to open the car so I can check.

Operator: Can you see the keys?

Me: ...No, I have no idea where they are, I think I locked them in the trunk.

Operator: Excuse me ma'am, they are in your trunk?

Me: Yes.  Well, I hope they are.  Because if they aren't, they are probably in outer space.

Operator: What is the zip code for this Outer Space?

I'm not sure, but I think this Killer Klown knows.

Eventually we got it worked out and he sent a locksmith to my house.  While I waited for his arrival, I realized something.  I mean, it can't be surprising to any of you reading this that I may or may not have locked my keys in the car before.  Like, more than once.  More than five times.  

I'm pretty familiar with the drill.  The guy comes, wiggles this thingy into the window, flips the lock, and


The alarm goes off and the car suddenly relocks itself and the headlights flash and the car is like GET THE EFF AWAY FROM ME YOU INTRUDER BEEP BEEP BEEP BEEP BEEP BEEP

Andy gets it.

The alarm is so loud and it is so stressful, and if you don't time everything just right you can get locked out of the car again, and then the locksmith has to do the same thing over again only this time with a wailing car alarm making him want to murder someone.

I imagined a scenario in which the locksmith got to my house.  He unlocked my car, the alarm went off sending my neighboring into a feverish rage while I opened the trunk and still could not find my keys.  What did that mean?  

Oh, Bad Day was right there to paint the picture for me.  I scour the vehicle for my keys, the BEEP BEEP BEEP BEEP grating on me, my heart pounding as I search in desperation for the only item that can get my car fixed, and I never find them.  And the car alarm sings its song, loudly and proudly, lights flashing and neighbors staring in judgment at me.  And I simply crumple to in the front yard directly into a massive fire ant mound, all the while my Halloween decorations as they look unsympathetically onto my misfortune and Bad Day laughing heartily at his handiwork.

By the time the locksmith arrived, I was wrought with stress.  I even spelled out the aforementioned scenario, warning the guy that I may just swear a lot and then become an inert heap of blond hair.  


"Well," he said.  "Then I really hope your keys are in here somewhere."

He got to work on prying my door open enough to slip the unlocky thingy in.  I braced myself.  He braced himself.  

"Okay, ready for this?" he said as he slowly moved the thingy towards the lock.  

Every part of my body winced, my hand on the door handle so I could pull the door open before the car relocked itself.  


He unlocked the car as I ripped open the door and....

beeeeeeeeep.  beebeebeep  beep.  beep beeeeep.

                   WATCH THIS VIDEO! It is so worth it to wait for the commercial to play through.  ADORABLEEEE

The most pitiful sound squeezed itself out of the car.  What tiny remaining power there was in the battery made its way to the front of the car to defend it from me and the locksmith.  It could barely make a sound.  In a way, it was kind of cute. I could've listened to it happily for a while.  There were no lights, no attempt to relock itself.  I sauntered over to the trunk release lever, popped it, and found my keys sprawled out across the random crap I haven't Done Anything With since 2008 in my trunk.  Out of sheer compassion, I put the alarm out of its misery.  

"There, there," I said to the car.  "You tried your best."

In my mind's eye, I could see Bad Day, sitting sourly on my front stoop.  His mechanical knowledge of my car was just as bad as mine, for we both forgot that a dying battery means a dying alarm.  The most embarrassing and potentially worst part of the process was turned into a jolly funny time.   And I realized that Bad Day can often be tempered if you just laugh in his face.

Or you could try that.

Because you know what? When I stood outside waiting for the dude to unlock my car, I fully appreciated how gorgeous the weather was.  It was a perfect fall Florida day, and the leaves are changing color and it's just nice.  I wouldn't have been outside as much as I was had this whole debacle not occurred.  So I stood there and for a brief moment, really enjoyed the opportunity this stressful scenario gave me.  And then the Bad Day got a little better.

In fact, this realization took such hold of my attitude that a few hours later when I found out I'd be selling my left arm to repair the car, I was fine with it.  Because I was sitting on the couch watching Paranorman and eating Kit Kats, which of course is completely incompatible with Bad Day activities. 

I realize that some Bad Days are just like really, really bad.  Bad Day could've totally upped the ante on me, like that time when he made my dog eat a raisin left in my house probably since 1994 and he pooed straight blood in Biblical proportions and of course this was on a Sunday so we had to take him to the emergency vet where we paid lots of money also in Biblical proportions....gasp!  But ultimately, I think it's always your point of view that can make or break Bad Day's power.

So what about you out there, dear readers?  Tell me of your Bad Day sagas!  

*hearty laugh*

p.s. IT'S LIKE I TEMPTED FATE.  I think Bad Day was hiding under my bed or something, because after I wrote this blog and put all the pictures in and made it all polished and ready to go, I saved it.  Then I went back to work on another blog and...

dun dun DUNNNNN

This blog DIDN'T SAVE! Two hours worth of work down the internet drain!! Ohhhh you Bad Day, how you've tried to spoil my night! But behold, I still have Kit Kats left, so I am impervious to your spiteful ways!

Sunday, October 19, 2014

"Swimming" With Dolphins: A Middle Flipper Perspective

Let's see a raise of hands out there for how many of you have wondered what it's like to actually swim with dolphins?  How about those of you out there who have/do swim with dolphins regularly; do you get this questions a lot?

Fact: We are not swimming.  We are floating.

I think everyone who's seen a dolphin has wondered at some point what the experience of hanging out with them in their element is like.  Let's save the "what is it exactly about dolphins that make humans heart them so much*" for another blog post, but there is this unexplained and occasionally weird obsession many people in many cultures have with cetaceans and the desire to be near them.

Some of us watch dolphin shows and presentations, and see trainers and dolphins doing waterwork, flying through the air or tearing through the water.  It's an impressive sight (....unless you're watching me do it).  It captures our imagination, especially if we haven’t had the experience of being in the water like that with a dolphin.  Why? Because I mean LOOK at this:


And this:

Zoom zoom zoom

Talk about swimming with dolphins! That’s 18mph of pure fun** for both taxa involved.

So we’ve got trainers being hurled out and about by dolphins in a coordinated display of relationship, physical fitness, and good training (on both parties’ ends).   This is probably the epitome of the experience, right?

Well, let’s really look at this idea of what I mean by “swimming with dolphins.”

Waterwork is 90% the dolphin’s energy.  Yes, it takes the trainer a lot of physical conditioning depending on the actual behavior in order to do the behavior well and safely.  I’m not in any way saying that the trainer does nothing.  But when it comes to actually swimming with the animals, waterwork is not an accurate illustrative example of what it’s like to be in the water with these powerful animals.  We as trainers swim out to the area we need to be in for the waterwork behavior, and then the dolphin does all the muscle work (i.e. swimming and jumping).


What I mean by swimming with dolphins is, you’re in the water, swimming around like the little weird water apes we are, and the dolphins are right next to you.  There is very little towing or pushing involved, just you hanging out beside a dolphin under your own steam.  What is THAT like?

First of all, a quick shout out to National Geographic, Animal Planet, and Dolphin Documentary Filmmakers Everywhere:  thanks for NOTHING.  "Thanks"  for using high-speed film and SLOWING IT DOWN.  Like, I grew up thinking that dolphin jumps had a distinctly slow arch that took minutes to complete.  You know the footage I’m talking about, right?  You see a dolphin or two sailing into the air, water beading off of their gorgeous sleek bodies, arching across the horizon.  This processes takes a long enough time to get up to go to the kitchen, make Baked Alaska, and return just in time to see the dolphins perfectly re-enter the glittering Caribbean Sea water that all bottlenose dolphins seem to live in in Documentary World.

Slow motion tells us lies, like that water makes a great hat.

Until I saw a dolphin in real life, I thought they were slowly powerful, like an Olympic athlete doing his thing on some rings, or a yogi moving through a vinyasa.  Intense muscular action contained in a fluid, rhythmic and slow method.  Yeah, I heard/read that orcas could swim over 30mph.  But that meant absolutely nothing to me as a kid; I had no basis of comparison.   Understanding speed for me as a kid was broken down into categories:

1. The speed at which I ran*** the mile, which took me 9 days to complete on average
     making my mean pace something like 0.000001 mph

2. How fast the car moved, which was carefully measured by Tree Blurriness Factor (but
     was mostly ignored due to Coloring Books)

3. How fast time went (slowly), especially in school (god awful)


So a mathematic/physics prodigy I was not.  Thirty miles per hour meant nothing other than that it probably looked really slow, because all the orca documentaries I’d seen had extremely slowed-down footage.  

Long story short, I had absolutely zero concept of how fast dolphins moved in real life.

The first time I saw a dolphin, I was 9 years old.  I went to the Shedd Aquarium with my school and saw the adorable Pacific white-sided dolphins.  If you know anything about that species, you are probably thinking to yourself, “Uh, well, Cat found out real quick how fast dolphins are.”

Yeah, Shedd!

Yeah, those guys are quick.  I was amazed at how high they could jump, how smart they seemed to be, how beautiful they were (and still are).  But more impressively, I couldn’t believe how fast it took them to come BACK from some of their impressive aerial behaviors to their trainers.  It was lightning fast.  And after the show, the dolphins zoomed around at a cruising speed of Faster Than National Geographic Documentary miles per hour.

You’d think that with this newfound knowledge of cetacean velocity, I’d therefore have some idea of what it’d be like to swim with them.  I’m happy to report that no, I remained clueless on this front, like so many others.  Why? Because I’d still never been up close and personal with a dolphin.  Also, I think humans have a really bizarre tendency to think they are way better at something than they really are.  

Maybe other animals have this problem, too.  Like please someone tell me if they work with a panda who is just convinced they are great at Impressionism, or a sea lion who believes they’d be good at spelunking (I may or may not know such a sea lion).

When I was a kid, I used to imagine that I’d be the best bass player around, in our own galaxy and perhaps neighboring ones.  I’d listen to music for hours and pretend I was the one shredding the bass line, winning every Battle of the Bands event ever.  I dreamed about it, how I’d just pick up a guitar and just know automatically how to play everything.  This extended to instruments I’d never even held before, like the bass clarinet or the saxophone.  I don’t even know which end of those things to blow into, but in my mind I thought if I ever picked one up, I could totally figure it out.  Of course, in reality I had to practice really hard to play bass at even a womp womp level.   And it was always a great disappointment when I realized my deficiency.

Please enjoy this picture of me

Humans collectively do this with their abilities because we like to imagine and dream, which is awesome.  It’s just a good thing to realize our tendency to exaggerate so we’re not totally blown away when we find out how out of touch with our actual abilities we are.  And most things we can practice and cultivate, and become extremely proficient or even GENUIS at.  But there are some things that no matter how hard we try, we will always be Womp Womp.

I think swimming is one of those things.

One does have to wonder

Seriously, no matter how comfortable you are in the water, or how long you can hold your breath, or how many gold medals you’ve won in swim competitions, you’ll always SUCK compared to a dolphin.  Sorry, it’s true.  But that’s not something you realize until you’re in the water with one and they’re like, “HEY LOOK WHAT I CAN DO!”

I think people imagine themselves getting into the water with a dolphin, swimming alongside of them at an easy pace, checking out the native fish and invertebrate life (“Hey dolphin! look at this cool sea star I found!”) and communing with Mother Nature.  There may be some interspecies communication happening about Mysteries of The Universe like the Purpose of Life, Does God Exist, and Why Can’t The Cubs Win The Pennant?  Bystanders green with envy will watch from the shore as the two of you glide beautiful alongside one another through the perfectly clear and calm water, sparkling in the warm sun.  

Next frame: swimmer by herself with not a damn dolphin in sight.

Of course, we’re leaving out some of the important details of this swim, like: choppy water, low visibility, jellyfish, the fact that you’ll need to come up to take a breath more often and way less gracefully than a dolphin, and oh, that no dolphin gives a #*%@ if you find a sea star.

Now okay, I’ll admit there is a difference between swimming with a dolphin in human care and one who is not.  Also, in the U.S. and Canada it’s illegal to harass wild dolphins which includes pursing them and jumping in with them and swimming.  So I’m talking about that you’re like just la la la hanging out in the ocean and BOOM there are dolphins (doesn’t happen that often, but it does happen).

There is no swimming WITH dolphins.  Here’s a quick synopsis of the experience from a human perspective:

Human: paddle paddle paddle, choke on seawater and sputter around for a while, clean out the fogged up mask, paddle paddle paddle, stop to choke some more


Here is a majestic picture of me swimming with dolphins

Dolphins in human care have learned that we are hopelessly craptastic in the water, and usually act accordingly.  Usually.  The first time I ever got in the water with dolphins was at a natural lagoon facility in Honduras during a marine biology excursion, and oh my god.

I seriously had dreamed about this trip for months, and specifically about the experience of getting in the water with dolphins.  The illusory scenario I wrote a few paragraphs up? That was basically what I thought would happen.  That I’d somehow call to me all the dolphins and they’d swim along side of me at like 3mph, and we’d play with seashells and stuff.  And all the other students would be sooooo jealous.

In reality, I got in the water and was ignored by all the dolphins for about 20 minutes.  I had snorkel gear on, including really good dive fins, so I swam faster than I normally could, and I was still ridiculously slow compared to the ten other dolphins flying around.  They. Were. So. Fast.  Graceful, yes.  But oh my god.  I was so sad that they weren’t interested in me, either.  So I decided to just watch them interact with each other, realizing fully and completely that I really had had no clue what these animals were like until I’d seen them in person like this, in this context.  

Sarah's impression of me the first time I swam with dolphins.  Derpa derp

This still happens with me, even as a relatively experienced trainer.   Just a few days ago, I got in the water to swim with one of our female dolphins, Lily (the one who brings us gifts all the time).  She seems to find trainers swimming with her reinforcing.  But sometimes she gets really hyper and excited, not to the point where she’s like that around humans, but if you’ve got a mask on and can see what she’s doing, you can really appreciate how fast she can really swim.  I was playing with a football with her, and she was going crazy with it.  There is something to be said about watching a dolphin swim at top speed towards a favorite toy, leap out of the water, and then race back to you…all while you’re in there, being a slow as Cat Rust In Math Class human.

Sometimes I think the dolphins feel bad for us.  There have been multiple instances with several different dolphins I’ve known who have been swimming next to me really slowly (because they’ve grown up with humans and know how awful we are in the water, and have learned to swim next to us) and suddenly, they jut out a pectoral flipper and hook my arm and speed up.  It took me a few times to figure out WTF was going on, but when I grabbed on to the offered flipper, they tow me around at a speed kinda sorta approaching what their normal cruising speed is.  And these were dolphins (mostly younger ones) who had not learned any kind of towing/pushing behavior for waterwork. 

It’s like they were like, “okay, I know I’m supposed to swim next to you, but good lord grab on.”

I love this experience, but I’m always a little embarrassed.  Maybe someday, we’ll be able to communicate more complicated ideas to dolphins and I can be like, “Look, I wish I could swim that fast, but I CAN’T AND IT’S NOT MY FAULT WAHHHHHH!”

Human! Why you blow all your air out!

I feel that dolphins must talk to each other after park hours about how awful we are at swimming:

Dolphin 1: Oh my god, did you see my session with Cat today?
Dolphin 2: She tries so hard, doesn’t she?
Dolphin 1: Yeah, she does.  Normally I’m inspired by her tireless effort but today I wanted to rip my nonexistent hair out.  And they way she lifts her entire head out of the water and gulps air like a dying fish
Dolphin 2: Just try to remember the things she does well, like fall down.

The one time I’ve seen dolphins swimming around me in the wild, it really made me appreciate the relationship I have with the dolphins I’ve known in human care.  Really.  I mean, I’ve swam with calves who are like “YAYAYAYAY” or “OMG WHAT ARE YOU DOING IN THIS WATER OF MINE” and are swimming in all directions, seemingly at once (it’s scientific fact that baby dolphins have mastered quantum physics principles such as being in two places at one time).  I’ve also seen dolphins take off after something more interesting, leaving me on the swirly, white-water sidelines like the kid who’s always picked last for kickball.


But it was different seeing wild dolphins swim around me.  They act like they have no clue how fragile we humans really are compared to them.  And the area I was in has a horribly long history of feeding wild dolphins, so the animals aren’t just coming over to have a metaphysical encounter.  

I was in the water way in front of and to the side of a pretty big pod of bottlenose dolphins.  And they found me.  Normally they swim by, tens of yards away.  Too for to see underwater, but you can see them at the surface for a hot second.  But this time, they all came at me from behind.  I was just swimming along at the surface, choking every so often because there was a pretty good chop on the water.  And I am really, really comfortable in the water; I’m a strong swimmer.  Still, that’s just for a human.  So when these dolphins came up underneath me at an ungodly speed, I was scared.  One of the dolphins was about eight inches underneath me, looking up at me.  They circled around me, echolocating and making a buzzing sound that doesn’t always precede a friendly handshake.  I was actually scared.  I had no way to get away, I had no way to even ask them to let me leave, like I can with the dolphins with whom I work.  I just basically had to sit there and hope they didn’t try to mess with me.  Luckily, they left as quickly as they’d snuck up on me.

Cool picture, scary when it happened

So swimming with dolphins is more like floating with dolphins.  And unless you have some super secret X-Men talent that allows you to reach speeds even CLOSE to that of a normal dolphin, it will always be this weird, kicky floaty encounter.  But that’s okay, because it’s not our element.  It’s theirs.  We can and should appreciate the inherent power these animals have.  And enjoy every accidental water-inhaling minute we have with the dolphins we know and love in the facilities we work in all over this globe.  Because even though it ain’t glamorous, we can answer the question, “What’s it like to swim with dolphins?”


* Seriously! Dolphins are awesome! Like so many other species of animals.  But there is just something about those guys

** Terror, for poor ol’ me

*** Ha ha ha, just kidding.  Walked.

Sunday, October 12, 2014

The Wild: Mother Nature or Cold-Hearted Meaniepants?

** Disclaimer: There is one photo below of poaching that is disturbing.  I'll give fair warning in advance, but didn't want anyone to be caught off guard**

With the debate surrounding animals in human care, there's one particular point that both sides of the argument continue to use against one another.  I'm not sure why I felt that this week's blog would attempt to tackle this issue, but it's something I hear (from both sides) a lot.  I figured I'd try to give another perspective.

Perspective from all angles (even chonrichthyian) is important! 

It all comes back to WHY we debate the necessity and value of animals in human care.  We all say it's because we love the animals and want to fight for them, and I think most people genuinely care.  I know I sound like a broken record, but I think we collectively focus too much on defending our point of view in a way that at least appears as though we just want to be right.  When we focus on putting ourselves firmly onto a "side", we tend to start making statements that are defamatory, sweeping, and ultimately ineffective in sharing information and trying to find common ground to actually conserve the species we love so much.

So what's the topic I've cryptically alluded to? 

"The Wild."  

Silver Springs!

We talk about The Wild a lot in the zoo/no-zoo debate.   Depending on what side of the argument you're on, you probably have a different perspective on what The Wild is actually like. And herein lies the problem.

Let's first look at the dichotomy of The Wild as seen through two very (grossly) generalized lenses.

Anti-Zoo Wild

Tra la la la!

The Wild is a place where animals are free.  They can be with others of their kind, hunt, play, roam, migrate, and be themselves.  Mother Nature is a nurturing force who cares for her Creation.  She is separated from Evil Human Beings who take, kill, and exploit.

Animals in The Wild have nothing to worry about, other than reproducing, expressing their animalness, and providing food for themselves (and maybe their young, if they raise their offspring).  Birds can fly thousands of miles, dolphins can dive to hundreds of feet, elephants have expansive territories to stretch their huge limbs alongside their family members.  They can be the animals they naturally are and choose to do whatever they want.  They are fulfilled and happy about everything all the time.  The Wild is always better.

Pro-Zoo Wild

I wanna be....where the crude oil is.

The Wild is an evil, dark place with things such as Pollution, Hunting/Poaching, and Death.  Animals die long before their prime, because nature is a Cold-Hearted Beeyotch who kills dolphin babies before they are a year old, causes owlets to viciously toss their weaker sibling out of the nest to his/her untimely death, forces an old pelican to die slowly of starvation as his blindness takes away his ability to hunt.  Animals are hit by cars, eviscerated by boats, poisoned by toxins.  Evil Human Beings and Nature combined create an awful existence for animals that they must be saved from.  

Two very different and extreme viewpoints that are more illustrative than an attempt to rile any of you guys up.  But let's face it, each one of us falls closer to one of those perspectives than the other, right?*

But we all know that neither perspective is closer to reality than the other.  Making either claim is not only inaccurate, but totally takes away from the point we are all trying to make about getting people who don't CARE about animals, who don't CARE about the environment, to care.

Anti-Zoo people tend to align themselves with the notion that there is no way an animal can be happy and healthy if he or she is not in The Wild.  The dangers of this belief have actually put animals directly in harm's way.   I use African elephants as an example a lot, because they are in serious danger of extinction in our lifetime (don't believe me? Check out this campaign: 96 Elephants).  The Wild is NOT a place where African elephants can be elephants.  Thanks to habitat loss, agricultural development, and the insanely high rate of poaching ivory, an African elephant's Wild involves protected, human-managed areas in order to save them from poaching or death from local farmers who are sick of their land and property being trampled.  And guess what?  Elephants are still dying ( 96 African Forest elephants die EACH DAY) on these protected lands because it is impossible  to police and monitor every square inch of their habitats to prevent poaching from happening.

The Hawaiian crow is now extinct in the wild and only exists in zoos.

** Disturbing photo below**

But the terrifying thing is that some zoos have been attacked by well-meaning Anti-Zoo folk for having elephants at their facility; the push being to "release" the animals back to The Wild.  What are we releasing them back into?

We release them to this.  I'm sorry to post something so sad, but it's the reality and we can help stop it!

The other idea of releasing some kinds of animals back into The Wild, according to the general Anti-Zoo movement, is that we are freeing these guys from a prison.  That once they get back to the wild, that's the equivalent of letting a human out of prison back to his or her daily life.

This issue is way more complicated than simply saying, "It must be done" or "It can't be done."  But if we have this idea that The Wild is a Disney theme park, then no wonder it seems like the best possible thing for every animal is for him or her to be "out there" versus "in here."  But we forget sometimes, the complexity of the animal species in question.  A bottlenose dolphin who was born in human care has a very, very low probability of understanding how to survive or (more importantly) thrive out in The Wild.  


Beyond learning how to hunt, they are socially complex animals.  There is a lot more to thriving in an environment than just knowing how to feed yourself, although that task is one that even wild dolphins have failed to do well in rescue and rehabilitation situations (to the point where National Marine Fisheries Service declared them unreleasable).   Dolphins are cultural animals.  That is, how they are raised is their reality, not based solely in an instinctive drive like say, a barnacle.   

If you took me out of my house, with my store-bought food, controlled environment, and safe social network (I haven't had to stab anyone in the face for a donut in like, months) and plopped me, with my human brain and my smart phone, into the middle of Yellowstone National Forest and said, "Hey! You're in the wild, just like your ancestors.  Other humans have figured out how to survive and thrive out here, so you ought to, too!  Be free!"  I'd probably die.  I have no training in how to live to 80 years old in the middle of the woods.  Do other people?  Yes, they do.  Because they've spent years (or were raised) learning how to live that lifestyle.  I might be able to learn that, if I had enough money, time, or interest.  So I don't really even have the "choice" to learn how to live that lifestyle.  But I'm still happy with my current living situation, as "unnatural" as that is for me as a human.

But I mean, this guy clearly figured it out.

The fact is, no dolphin of any species born in human care has been successfully integrated into The Wild.  Dolphins who weren't born in a zoo or aquarium but have been there for decades have not been successfully reintroduced.   It's still difficult to do so with a dolphin who's been in human care for a few years, but that's the only circumstance (other than rescue/rehab) when a dolphin has been reintroduced to the wild.  Dolphins are cultural animals and are not simply just "happy" in The Wild, no matter what we as humans assume.

But let's look at the other side of the coin, because people on the other side of this issue are just as guilty as making outrageous claims.

The Wild is not a bad, evil, horrible place.  To paint a picture of The Wild as so awful and then to directly contrast it with why a zoological environment is the Best Place For An Animal To Be is misleading and unfair.  Of course, I support the field; I've dedicated my life to it.  But that doesn't mean that I think that all animals would just be better off in a zoo or aquarium.  

Why do some of us animal caretakers tend to contrast our facility with The Wild in such a stark way?  It comes from a good place (just as the naysayers of our profession have good-hearted intentions, too).  It's undeniable that many people DO actually think that The Wild is equivalent with a benevolent Mother Nature.   That is scientifically incorrect, so we try to simplify this idea by bringing up some of the really, really bad things about The Wild.   We talk about disease, predation, and pollution.  Of course, animals in human care do not deal with these issues to any extent comparable to some of their wild counterparts.  They have access to veterinary medicine to treat and/or cure illnesses or conditions that disable or kill animals in The Wild.  

So what's wrong with making this simplistic contrast if it's just to provide another perspective to a concerned laymen?

It's taken to an extreme, sometimes.  And that extreme often completely ignores the idea of conservation, which is the point of having zoos and aquariums in the first place.

Extremes are only okay in close-ups.

Some of us explain that the reason why dolphins live longer in human care is because they are not subjected to lethal illnesses that bottlenose dolphin populations are experiencing along the east coast of the United States.  That they get fed on a consistent basis, and have no worries about predation, nor human harassment.  They get high quality veterinary care and food, and never-ending love and attention from their trainers.  All of those things are factually true.

But then we may continue on to say something like, "And they experience no pollution here.  Out in The Wild, the oceans are polluted with agricultural run-off, diesel fuel, crude oil, and garbage.  There are antibiotic-resistant bacterial infections popping up in common bottlenose dolphins.  Their life expectancy is 12.7 years old because of these things."

And we keep going, listing the reasons why The Wild isn't a great place, and why it's actually a terrible place that no animal could possibly thrive in as compared to a zoo or aquarium.  Then, that's where the diatribe ends.  Instead of using that as a springboard for HOW we can improve the environment, our oceans, whatever, we just stop the explanation there.  That sends the wrong message.  It implies that animals are better off in zoos and aquariums, and not The Wild.  It puts us firmly on the extreme end of a continuum.  

Furthermore, some of us are a little dodgy on some facts about The Wild.  For example, some populations of bottlenose dolphins have similar average life expectancies as those in human care.  Yes, more bottlenose dolphins reach their 40s and 50s in human care for the reasons I mentioned in an earlier paragraph.  But that doesn't mean that they can't live that long in The Wild.  However, there are bottlenose dolphins whose average life expectancy is under 13 years old, because they live in an extremely polluted environment in the Gulf of Mexico off the coast of Texas.  It's different depending on what population you're looking at.

Again, perspective makes the difference.

We could share with our guests the reasons why more dolphins tend to live longer in human care without making The Wild seem like the worst place ever.  We could learn about some of the environmental issues in our own backyard, learn how to make an impact, and share that with our guests.  If we know something about the Dead Zone in the Gulf of Mexico, we could say, "Yes, that area is awful and the animals in that area really need our help.  Here's what you can do at home, or at the beach, or on vacation."

That sends the message I know we as animal caretakers want to convey: The animals in zoos and aquariums are ambassadors, and are thriving in our care.  Let's all work together to better the lives of animals in The Wild through conscientious conservation efforts.  

So what is the reality?  The Wild is altogether wonderful and horrible.  It isn't governed by a mindful presence, but a series of processes that human beings have labeled such as: selection pressure, change in allelic frequency over time, infanticide, altruism.  It has no conscious.  The organisms that live in it are not 100% at the mercy of an uncontrollable system, but they are also not frolicking about singing tralalala every day.  There is a struggle, sometimes a natural one and other times, one that is totally our fault.  A polar bear struggling to feed her cub because she is a poor hunter is a natural struggle (that could result in the death of both her and her progeny).  A polar bear struggling to feed her cub because of serious ice melting and there is limited access to seals is a problem we as human beings have created.  There is a serious difference.

Leave me my ice and snow, please!

But there are populations of animals who are thriving and doing just fine.  Florida's manatee population has increased, and while they still have problems with human boaters, we as humans made a conscious and collective effort to make serious lifestyle changes in order to save the species.  So did we win that war? Can we relax and just forget about the manatees?  


Because guess what?  There's a push now from land-owners along the Crystal River spring system to take the manatee off the endangered species list so they can drive their boats really really fast on the river.  So we are still trying to win that battle (because some people really don't care about animals like we all do, no matter what side we're on).  The manatee Wild is a better place than it's been in a long time, but that could change if we don't stay on top of the situation.

So instead of us fighting each other about how "good" or "bad" The Wild is, let's re-prioritize our efforts to focus both the laymen and our own attention on conservation issues that make a positive impact on wild populations of (insert your favorite organism) wherever they may live.  It's not a battle to be won for the sake of defensiveness; it's a battle to be won for the sake of our planet and its inhabitants.  Which battle do you want to fight for?

* If not, good for you! You're further ahead than us.  Seriously.