Sunday, November 30, 2014

The Only Thing That Disgusts Animal Trainers

Animal trainers and caretakers are a weird sort, aren't we?   Like, think about it.  We have some really weird habits that make perfect sense to us, but cause outsiders to scratch their heads.  For example, we wash our hands BEFORE (and after) we use the restroom.  Because let's face it, you've got some unholy stuff on your hands and that needs to be taken care of before you answer nature's call.

Before and after bathroom activities

We also eat like it's our last day on Earth.  Seriously.  Is this a trait we have that, in some weird genotypic way, makes us destined for a life catering to the needs of animals?  Or is it something we just develop, because we are on our feet eight to ten hours a day (or more!) and are super active/worrying all the time?


Side note: If you need your refrigerator or pantry cleaned out, bring all contents to your local zoo or aquarium and place in a communal animal care staff area.  Poof! GONE.  Milk a little sour? We won't notice.*

But one of the weirdest things about animal care professionals is that while we are totally comfortable with basically any bodily function or fluid an animal can produce, there is one really seemingly stupid thing that totally grosses us out.  What is it? Let's explore this further.

Is it poop?  

No. We spend an impressive amount of time talking about poop.  I always chuckle when my non-animal care friends talk about how when they became parents, they became obsessed with their child's crap.   It's always shared in a jovial-slash-grossed out way that's like, "Ha ha, I never knew I'd be so into what my kid's poop looks like! You know?? Isn't that so weird?"

And the animal trainers are like, "I can tell you what the last 98 bowel movements of our cockatoos looked like in vivid detail with a giant smile on my face, as I recall how beautifully separated the urates, feces, and urine were."


Up until a few years ago, most of my animal training experience was with dolphins.  While there isn't a lot of poop-scooping  happening with those guys, we have the exclusive pleasure of being in the water while the dolphins do their number 2.  It dissipates quickly, and the water movement in the habitats pulls it away just as fast, but that doesn't mean that sometimes a little dolphin turdlet doesn't dingleberry itself to your wetsuit.  Or, ha ha, in my case one time, to my whistle.  The part I blow on.  And I didn't realize it until I blew into it.  Oh god that was one of the worst things ever.

But now I work with the poop masters of the marine animal world: sea lions and otters.  Oh, let's not forget about the penguins.  If poo was gold, I could easily own property on every planet in our galaxy and supply each place with gold-plated toilet paper.

In every room.  Even if it's not a bathroom.

Animal trainers rarely get disgusted by poop, even if it's on them.  The only time I've seen people freak out is if the poo gets in their mouth (understandable) or if a passing bird craps on their head or face.  But usually, we laugh after the initial disgust.  Otherwise, poop is a very normal thing.  In fact, it becomes kind of fun to clean up.  You feel so accomplished when the habitat is all spic and span; there are times I'm disappointed when the sea lions haven't made a poop mural on the floor because I just like cleaning a good mess.

Oh yeah, good morning Cat!

How about...blood?  Nope!

We're also pretty unfazed by the sight of blood.  Many of us train our animals for voluntary husbandry behaviors.  That includes taking voluntary blood samples.  And sometimes, you get a little blood on you.  It happens.  Usually it's after the sample is collected and you're putting it into a vacutainer or onto a slide.  We are well-versed in the risks of zoonotic disease transfer (and in some species, this risk is virtually zero) and know how to handle this and take it seriously.  But I haven't seen anyone pass out or vom at the sight of a little blood.

We're happy to get a few of these!

Oh! Oh! I know! We're all disgusted by stomach juice! 

Nah, that ain't no thing.  Dolphin trainers have another fun experience dealing with an animal who cannot breathe through their mouth and therefore have no gag reflex; we can get gastric samples without causing any discomfort to the dolphin.  Gastric samples can tell you a lot about their G.I. and overall health; it is a critical tool for preventative medicine in cetaceans.  As long as the dolphins are trained for the behavior, it is one of the simplest husbandry behaviors a dolphin can learn; they swallow fish much larger in circumference than the tubes we use to collect the samples.  

But uh, sometimes it's not so comfortable for the trainers.  Sometimes, the dolphins volunteer their own sample....up and out of the tube.  Like, into your face.  Steaming hot gastric juice in your face may sound disgusting, and oh, it is.  But usually we just laugh this out.  Once, I saw it go into someone's mouth, and no one really laughed then.  In fact, I think that individual deserves a moment of silence.


But other than getting it directly into your mouth, dolphin trainers deal with gastric fluid like it's water.  The mucousy saliva that dolphins have is often another fun souvenir of the gastric sample behavior, which gets on your hands and clothes and remains there until some heavy-duty washing occurs.  And still, the trainers deal with it unaffected.

Are animal caretakers horrified of worms?  Noooope.

How about people who work with animals in rescues and shelters?  If you think BMs by themselves are fair game for normal conversation, let's talk about what happens when they come with worms.  Most of those rescue animals have intestinal parasites who wink and wave at you from the copious amounts of poop you find in their enclosures.  When I volunteered at a dog shelter, I quickly acclimated to the sight of wriggling worms in dogs' poop when they came in.   The types of critters marine animal rescuers see on sea turtles, dolphins, whales, pinnipeds and sea birds would leave most people traumatized for decades, but the dedicated caretakers deal with it like it's just another day in the office.

Happy worms!

Okay, so animal trainers aren't freaked out by blood, poop, gastric fluid, or worms.  What else are they not scared of?

Need I mention what we tend to feed most of our animals?  If your animals are herbivorous, maybe your food isn't as gross as others, but you guys definitely win in the poop category.  But animals who eat animals...oh god.  Yeah, marine mammal trainers have to handle hundreds to thousands of pounds of fish a day.  It's totally normal for me to find a fish eyeball, long separated from its unfortunate owner, stuck to my arm.  Sometimes, fat from really oily fish congeals and stubbornly sticks to your skin, your hair, your soul.  Nothing except a butane torch can get that stuff off.  But hey, it's part of the job.

Some of you deal with huge amounts of raw meat, including organs.  I helped one of my friends prep food for big cats.  I think I handled about five horse livers that day.   Still another one of my coworkers spends his time skinning dead rats for his caimans.  People who work with rehab marine mammals have to disable live fish in order to ensure their patients can feed themselves after long bouts of being hand fed for medical reasons.  It's not that this doesn't make any of us feel sad or grossed out initially, but we still do it without a second thought because it is for a greater good for another animal.

The fact is, there is virtually nothing that grosses an animal caretaker out.  

Except one thing.

What on earth could possibly skeeve out a zookeeper?  They are hip-deep in crappola, get body fluids on them all day, have a daily macabre food prep experience, and smell the worst all the time.  But something that brings most animal care professionals right to their news.



Actual hair in our work shower.

Human hair.


Human hair in big, wet clumps.  In a drain.  In a shower.  On the floor.  Oh GOD I'm dry-heaving just thinking about it.


Especially in the marine mammal field, where we are wet much of the day, our hair falls out.  It falls out onto the floor where it remains and collects.  It collects and collects in our bathrooms and locker rooms because no one wants to pick it up.  The thought of touching wet, human hair makes us all want to jump off a cliff.

I watched someone take 6 metric tons of paper towels, wrap them protectively around their hand in a giant mitten, and attempt to pick up a medium-sized human hair clump.  They refused to look at it.  They closed their mouth and held their breath, and tried to get all the hair in their thick and totally non-dexterous paper towel contraption.  It took about nineteen times longer than had they just grabbed with with their hand, but none of us judged her.  It was DISGUSTING.  BLAHHHHH


I heard a story one time of a group of extremely competitive interns at a facility who promoted cutthroat competitiveness that involved a human hair ball.  Whichever intern chose to clean up the slimy hair from the drain WITH THEIR BARE HANDS was the "best."  Oh my god.  I'd never do that to any of my interns.

Why is human hair, which really has no disease or anything that can hurt us, so horrific to us?  The thing is I HAVE NO IDEA.  I've cleaned up sea lion hair and otter fur clumps with no issue.  Whatever, who cares.  But three strands of wet human hair and....I am in the fetal position.

There's got to be an evolutionary and psychological explanation for this.  It is not just animal trainers who think wet human hair is awful.  Some of the most disturbing scary movies use wet hair to freak us out.  

Case in point: The Ring.  Samara, that hair has to go.

So there you have it: the animal trainer kryptonite.  Just set giant clumps of human hair in a shower drain and you'll have them all at your mercy.   

Now cleanse your retinas with this adorable sea lion poop picture and experience sweet visual and mental relief.

Look what I made for you!

* Until a little later

Sunday, November 23, 2014

A Big Thanks From Us To You

We dids it.

We the otters who Cat knows taked over the Middle Flipper.  We are so clevers.  We has fingers that can type on the computer box.  We can google image search.  We has hands that can open doors.  See, we don't always destroys stuff. 

Here I is.  Pippin. That's me.

Don't be mad at us.  Because we dids it for good reasons.  Such as the american human thing on Thursday called THANKSGIVING. 

We founds this in google "thanksgiving" but we don't get it.  Why does the dog have otter handses.  

We knows about the Thanksgiving.  Everybody says what they are thankful for which is really neat.  The problem is the humans always tell themselves and us about what they are thankful for.  We try to tell them back but they never understand us.  So we has a plan.

We sneaked out every night and did some trips around the country.  The humans they leave our place at 4:47.   Me (Pippin), I stands on Luna's back and gets the doors open.  Emerald whines "what if they finds out" but she comes along with us anyways.  She likes the car rides.  We takes the night guy's motorcycle and go to different places at night.  Even the airport.  You think it's impossible?  That is okay.  If you are too silly to believe us then that's probably why we never gets catched!

Understimates us? that's your mistake. Not ours.

What did we do on our adventures?  We were like news reporters.  We went to different zoos and different aquariums.  We asked the animals WHAT ARE YOU GRATEFUL FOR.

Some of the animals were skeptical.  Mostly the dolphins.  They are kind of snobby.  They did not believe we otters could deliver their message.  They said YOU CANNOT SPEAK TO THE HUMANS.



And that took up a lot of time to explains it but they understood eventually.   

Dolphins think they knows everything.

So after lots of months we now have the top five things the animals are thankful for.  You guys works hard all day.  You deserves it.

Number One

omg we are gonna find that fluffy thing and shreds it!!!!!!!!!!!!!!


We did not know what MAID SERVICE was but luckily the dolphins explained it.  

We are grateful for our clean homes. You do it every day.  You never forget about us.  Every day, you make sure we have a clean home.  Thank yous.

Number Two

Beholds.  Tilapia.


We eats a lot of it.  You always gives us the best quality food.  We see you come in real early.  Even before the sun comes up.  You go into the kitchen and a few hours later, out comes all our food.  You smell like our food.  Every day, you do this.  Every day, you make sure we get the best.  We knows it.

Number Three



When we do not feel good.  When we have a baby.  You are there.  You look tired sometimes.  Some of us, we like to take naps.  The sea lions and otters do not understand how humans can go so many hours without sleeping.  How do you do it?  But we see you help us.  Even when it is dark.  Even when it is cold.  Even when you cannot sleep.  We know you care about making us feel better.  Even when it is not us who is sick or had the baby.  We see you care for one of our own and know it is because you love us all.

Number Four

Here you go.


We loves the toys.  And the funny things you do.  The smells you put in our house.  The food in the ice.  The food that is still alive.  The food that is in the ball with holes.  You make the day funner with the toys and silly stuff.   We like the soft places you make for some of us to sleep.  We like the neat things at the windows to watch.  

Number Five

That's a nice penguin.


When it is cold outside or it is raining, you humans are still doing all the things for us.  You have no blubber.  You do not have a thick fur coat.  You have weird skins you take on and off.  They look wrong for keeping you warm.  But you still play with us, clean our house, teach us things, and make sure we are happy and healthy. 
In some places the animals live inside.  They thank you humans for still taking care of them when there is real bad weather outsides.  When it is not okay for other humans to be going to places.  You come in and spend the night, just to make sure we get what we need.  
And also, we are not always wanting to play.  No matter what we do, you still love us.  We could be real difficult.  We could do no shows.  No interactions.  We will not go where you want us to go.  We will hide toys and never bring them back.  Stuff like that.  But you still love us.  You never get mad.  

All of the dolphins, seals, sea lions, walruses, otters, birds, elephants, snakes, fishes, apes n monkeys, hoofstooks, big cats, wolfs, dogs, horses, invertebrateses, amphibianses, oh all the animals, those are the things they are thankful for.  They say THANK YOU all the time but you do not understands it when they says it.  Now you know.

As for us otters, me Emerald and Luna, we have our own list.  Here we go

1.  Thank you for cleaning our house even though you never puts the towels where we
     wants them

2.  Thank you for feeding us every day but please no thank you on the cat food can we
      just have tilapia instead

3.  Thank you for giving us things to dismantle, it is fun to destroy destroy destroy

4.  Thank you for the rocks and things that we can carry around.  They fit perfectly into
     the drain

5.  Thank you for the tummy rubs, well from me and Emerald.  Luna says thank you for    
     not touching her.  She thinks tummy rubs are creepy.

It taked me five days to write this.  Because I have to touch each key one at a time with my tiny hands.  But you are worths it.  We knows you are thankful for us.  Now you knows we are thankful for you.

happy thanksgiving

pippin and all the otters, on behalf of all the animals you knows and loves

Sunday, November 16, 2014

Some Animals Have Picky Eating Habits...and These Guys Are No Exception

There is this hilarious thing floating around the Internetz about toddlers' weird eating habits.  If you haven't seen it, you can check it out here.  But basically, it is photo after photo of grumpy-looking young'uns and a brief, quippy description of their quirky nourishment conundrums.

I don't blame you, kid.

I laughed at it not only because it was funny, but because I feel like I deal with that on a daily basis with the animals under my care.  Any of us in the zoological field can relate to this, I think.   What's kind of bizarre about the fact that many animals are as picky of eaters as human toddlers is that one of the criticisms of zoos and aquariums (especially those of us who train our animals) is that the animals are coerced to do things solely because of food.   That is, the animal does something he/she wouldn't normally want to do because he or she is so hungry, they'll do anything to get fed.

I know a few animals who will do just about anything for snacks.  But they are not as common as the animals who are either more interested in the other stuff of training/animal care (like relationship, toys, tactile, etc), or the ones who are just downright weird in their eating habits.  In some cases, it ain't easy to feed a picky animal. 

Animals are just as varied in their personalities and eating habits as are humans; some of it is innate, and some of it is learned (from their conspecifics or humans caring for them).   Whether picky, normal, or downright bizarre in their chosen fare, animals are nary the same in their dietary choices.

But enough of the serious stuff, let's get to the funnies.  Here are some examples of odd eaters I have had the pleasure of knowing.

Picky eaters are one of life's little joys when you care for someone else, human or non-human.  I think it's a fun way to peer into the animal's personality or history, or at the very least it's a good way to get to know him or her as you work through it.  Some pickiness is quirky, while others require immediate attention.  But to feed an animal is not as simple as placing a bowl, or dangling a fish right in front of a hungry face.  In many cases, it requires a lot of knowledge and patience to adequately serve our animal friends.

What say you, good readers! Do you have any funny weirdo-animal eating anecdotes?  Share!

Sunday, November 9, 2014

Funny Things Guests Say: When The Questions Make No Sense

It's time for another round of Funny Things Guest Say!

Today's theme? Ridiculous Stuff That Forces Me Into Reflexive Laughing Because What Else Can I Do!


I sincerely hope I have more of these particular types of blogs with this specific theme, because they seriously make me laugh more than just about anything else.  It's the spontaneous insanity/hilarity that deftly surpasses any conscious part of my brain that would allow me to pause, think about a thoughtful response, and reply.  Instead, these comments and questions go directly to that place I'm pretty sure is sitting in my diaphragm* that forces me to just laugh and laugh and laugh.

There are four such examples of this as of late that I am eager to share with all of you.  But first, let me explain how our dolphin shows/habitat work.

Our dolphin habitat is 14 feet deep and is one large, main pool.  Guests can peer into the dolphin habitat through underwater viewing windows on one of two floors whenever they'd like, but they can only be upstairs to view the dolphins at the surface for limited amounts of time, usually around the time of our dolphin shows (we have two or three a day, depending on the season).  We have a small stadium seating area, but guests are also able to stand along a railing around most of the dolphin habitat.  Trainers stand on floating docks or on underwater platforms in the water, so basically guests are looking down at the dolphins and people involved with the show.  

And yes, the trainers are dressed as pirates because it was the best holiday ever.

Because we prefer a more educational presentation-style of shows, we do some audience participation segments.  One of which involves asking guests to list the five characteristics of a mammal.  Hence, the stage is set for two of the most bizarre things I've heard.

One of our very skilled narrators, who is the type of person who can keep her cool in things such as nuclear warfare and/or bees, tried to illustrate the fact that dolphins nurse their young.  She asked the audience, "What do dolphin moms feed their babies?"

"MAMMARY GLANDS!" a man yelled out at the top of his lungs.

"WHAT?" the narrator said, reflexively.  Into the mic.  She recovered her composure a few seconds later.  

Our boss happened to be in the show and shot her a glance that was not, oh you know, the type of look you want from your boss.  But who could blame her?  When I heard the guy yell this out, the first image that popped into my mind was a kindly, matronly dolphin mother in an apron, curlers in her hair (uh, they're mammals so...) serving her young calf a bowl of mammary glands.  Mmm mmm mmm.

Or how about a nice mammary gland plush from

One of the hardest mammalian characteristics to get our audience members to answer has to do with the fact that dolphins have hair for a brief period in their lives.  Sometimes, they figure it out.  But other times, we really have to prompt them.  Usually it's the last characteristic they guess, and I mean, let's not blame them for not immediately thinking about furry dolphins.  

So one of our go-to prompts is something like, "Okay, here's a hint, what do most of us have on our head?"

"HAIR!" they reply in unison, and the show continues.

One day, we had a particularly zealous crowd (the best!) and they were really getting into this mammal guessing game.  But unsurprisingly, they omitted the Hairy Dolphin Fact.  And so, the next hilarious guest event occurred:

Narrator: Here's a hint! What do most of us have on our head?
Little kid guest:  BRAAAAINNSSSSSS!!!!

There's a zombie who knows what he likes

I laughed so hard I thought I was going to blow a kidney or something.  The image that instantly popped into my brain was the look of human beings if our brains sat gelatinously atop our noggins, jiggling and sparkling in the sun.  Yes, little kid guest, brains on our head.  

The dolphins-have-hair thing messes people up more than you'd think (unless of course, you're a dolphin trainer and then you are probably vigorously nodding your head in agreement).  A few years ago, I had two weird/funny comments about dolphins having hair:

1) Did we shave the dolphins?
2) Since dolphins have just really sparse moustaches, wouldn't we say they're more like a juvenile Mexican boy?**

Exactly my sentiments, Mr. Baggins.

A few months ago, just after a dolphin show ended (but the trainers were still in the water playing with the dolphins), I happened to overhear a bizarre exchanged between a very concerned young guest and his mother.  This little boy was probably about 4 years old and he had been watching me at our A-B spotter station interacting off and on with some of the dolphins.  I just so happened to be standing near to where he was, so I could hear his conversation very well.

"Look at that dolphin swimming by!" the boy said.  His tone was deeply disturbed, as if something horrible had just happened.

"Oh yes," the mother said.

"HIS EYES! HIS EYES!! HE HAS NO EYES!!!!" the boy screamed.

Maybe this Other Mother took them and replaced them with buttons

"What?!" the mother replied.  "Yes he does!"

"NO HIS EYES FELL OUT!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! WHAT HAPPENED TO HIS EYES???????"

"Oh honey," she said.  "His eyes are just really dark.  But he still has his eyes."

"Oh, okay! That's a relief."


But the weirdest, most baffling exchange I've had with a guest occurred about five or so months ago after our dolphin show and play session had ended.  I saw one of our seasonal staff members speaking with a red-haired fellow with large coke-bottle glasses.  He was talking at an alarmingly fast rate in a heavy southern accent, and by the look on the staff member's face I knew she needed some back up. 

When I arrived within clear earshot of our red-headed friend, the first thing I heard was, " these bottleneck dolphins?'

"No," the seasonal trainer replied.  "They are actually called bottlenose dolphins!" 

The man paused, as if thoughtfully inputting this information into his mental rolodex.  And at this point, there was no judgment from either of us, because it's not like everyone knows every single animal species name ever.  I mean, if I'm being honest, sometimes I forget that one of my goldfish's name is Pennyback.  I always call him Halfback.  Like even now, I totally wrote Halfback instead of Pennyback.  It's just, something my little brain does.

Homer and I have a lot in common

Anyhoo, the man continued looking at the dolphins but just had this look on his face that made it clear he was cooking up another question.  Sure enough, he turned to face both of us.

"Lemme ask you a question," his accent was pretty difficult to understand, thick thick Southern. "Is them dolphins I see out there, is them actually porpoises cuz I'm on a glass-bottom boat at midnight?"

I think I did that thing where I start blinking about 985 times per second, as if that will somehow help me decipher exactly what that question is supposed to mean.  I briefly entertained the idea that this man was a really high-level spy sent from the CIA to deliver a coded message, which was totally lost on me because I am really, really bad that that kind of thing.   

And that's when the seasonal left me to my own devices.

So here I am, standing in front of this guy who is looking at me for an answer to this inquiry that seems to mean a great deal to him, but makes me feel like I'm either blowing a top-secret government mission or I'm just letting this guy down by not responding to his question.  I dealt with it like I do with all of my Christmas lights that I never really put away correctly at the end of the season and they all wind up in a giant ball, so I just start slowly unraveling small bits of strands at a time.


"Do you live around here?" I asked.


"Okay, well I don't think you'd see porpoises around here.  You probably are seeing bottlenose dolphins, and they'll be just as active at midnight as they are in the middle of the day.  That's pretty cool you have a glass-bottom boat."

And the guy just stares at me, his mouth wide open.  He didn't respond.  He just stared and breathed.  And I stared and breathed right back, wondering how to politely end this uncomfortable conversation when all of a sudden....


A small, female version of my glass-bottom boat friend appears.  

"This is my daughter," he said.

"I HAVE A QUESTION!" she yelled.  She yelled so loud.  And she had the same stare, the same giant glasses with the super thick lenses and the same super thick accent and she was like six.

I had no idea what I was in for.

"Yes?" I asked.


"That's great! Did you study the bottlenose dolphin?"


Man, I was really striking out with this family. 

"Yes?" I asked once again.


"Ohhh no," I said sympathetically.  I started to explain that the dolphins she was looking at, who happened to be our three males, were not born in the ocean.  They were born at other aquariums.  And I was about to talk about our mother and daughter pair who were in another habitat when all of a sudden, she cut me off mid-sentence and yelled at the loudest volume a human being could possibly hope to achieve without the help of drugs and/or imminent danger of bodily harm:


The words, the volume, something about the timing? I don't know.  But this sudden expulsion of words completely short-circuited my filter and logical thought process and all I could say was, "What?"





She was on her tip toes to yell this last part, emphasizing its clear importance.  And then she ran away.  Her father stared at me for a few more seconds, and then followed after her.

I stumbled down the stairs, unsure of how to respond but I'm pretty sure I was laughing without any reason why.  I think I actually scanned my surroundings to look for candid camera evidence, to no avail.  I have no clue to this day what the heck that was all about.  In fact, the Secret Message From Government Spies seems to be the only logical explanation.  So Uncle Sam, if you're reading this, I'm sorry I let you down, but WTF were you trying to say?

Please accept this adorable apologetic kitten 

Fielding questions, no matter how odd or confusing, is one of the most favorite parts of the job for me.   I mean, that's how we connect with people and hopefully inspire them to care about our environment and the organisms with which we share it.  But I'm not gonna lie, I also really like the weird questions, the funny responses, and the times were I literally have no idea what to do and go all Awkward Turtle.  If I had a glass of champagne (which, I don't, because I'm a poor dolphin trainer), I'd raise my glass to questions of all kinds, because at least they show people care enough to be curious.   Keep 'em comin', general public!

* For anatomical reference, this place is directly next to your dessert stomach, the supernatural organ that appears suddenly to allow you to eat copious amounts of dessert despite being really full from your meal.  It's like, medical fact.

** No, I'm not making this up.