Sunday, December 28, 2014

THE Mystery of The Field: How To Become A Trainer (Part 1)

*This is part one of a series*

I've written a lot about elements of becoming a new trainer.  I know there are a lot of you out there reading this blog who are probably like YES BUT I WANT MORE.

Oh, I'll give you more Mr. Cage.

Well, if you're relatively new to the Middle Flipper, you may not know that I've written a fair number of entries on this topic.  But because I am totally inept at the whole web design thing, plus I am a poor dolphin trainer who likes free things, I know it's not totally easy to navigate through Blogger to find some of those entries.  So first and foremost, here you go:

Swim test entries:  My Miami swim test here and my Sea World San Diego swim test here

How to destroy your chance at a job in step? Wonder why you're having trouble getting jobs and think maybe you have a toxic relationship with overshare on social media? You should read this blog: Check it out here

My failures as an aspiring trainer? Oh, I've got lots.  Here's just one entry about them.

The Middle Flipper Guide to Good Interning Part 1 and Part 2

But really, let's get down to it.  Some of you are just starting out: you're looking to get your first internship.  Others of you are just dying to get your first job (ohhhhh believe me, I've been there and remember that feeling VERY well).  And some of you are really ready to give up. 

Here's the thing; I can't possibly go through each of your individual situations and tell you exactly what you need to do in order to land a job in this field.  I wish I could, because you, dear readers, are awesome and I would love nothing more than to help you.   But I can't do that, even if I had all the time in the world and knew each of you very, very well.   What I can do for you all is be very honest, so that you don't reach the end of this blog with the wrong idea.  So why can't I help each and every one of you?  There are two reasons for that:

1) Not everyone's life path is destined for this job....and that's not my place to judge that (it's yours)

2) Most importantly, YOU are the only one who has the power to decide your fate in this field.  

Channel your inner Bruce

In fact, number 2 is what I want to focus on.  It is not a cop-out answer to the series of questions I've gotten from aspiring interns and trainers.  I'm being genuinely true with you all, because I've seen now hundreds of people try to make it in this field and almost every one of the successful ones shares a common trait:

They create their own luck.

There is not a single book, person, or blog who can outline for you how to become a marine mammal trainer.  There isn't.  But there are a few things that everyone can do that give themselves the best chance possible at getting their first job.  So let's take a look at those things.

1.  Do your own work


What does that mean, you ask?  Like d'uh, you are obviously going to be doing your own work at an internship right?

What I mean by that is to stop asking general questions about things regarding your career choices.  Here are some examples of questions that you should STOP asking on Facebook, IMATA, and in general to forum-like websites: 

* Can someone look at my cover letter/resume?
* How many internships should I do?
* How do I prepare for a swim test?
* Do I have enough experience for this job?

Okay, if you're totally freaking out right now because you've done that, it's okay! Don't worry, I made the same mistake...multiple times, mostly on IMATA forums.  And hey, I've got a job!  So again, chill and don't sweat it if you are someone who tends to do that.  The point is, stop now!  Why?

First of all, when we ask those general questions in a mostly anonymous setting, we are unintentionally making ourselves seem lazy.  The best way around this is to ask pointed and direct questions.  Here's an example:

General Question: Can you look at my resume?

Pointed Question: Can you take a look at my resume and let me know if my experience with manatees stands out?  I'm applying for a job working with manatees and I want to make sure that that part of my resume really grabs my prospective employer.

When we ask the general "hey, can you look at my cover letter" type of question to someone we don't (or barely) know, we are basically indicating that we wrote the thing, now someone else look at it.  You may be shaking your fist at your computer screen yelling, "But that's not why I'm doing that!!"  And I shake my fist back at you and say, "But it's coming off that way and that's all that matters!!"

Asking these broad, non-specific questions and favors does kind of give the wrong impression, but it also cripples you in another way.  By not asking for specific feedback, you won't get actually get any, but more on that later.

Don't be lazy.  It's only cute if you're cat.

Secondly, when we do our own work, that means we are putting ourselves at the mercy of someone we respect.  So instead of me going on and asking, "Hey is it okay that I once had melanoma? Can I still be a trainer?" (which...I actually did) and potentially making future employers go, "Uh....maybe this chick is a liability" or "Why is this girl sharing this very personal medical information on THE INTERNET?", I could've talked to my mentor at my internship and asked her.  

Why didn't I do that?  

Well, at the time, I thought I was canvasing a broader audience.  But how could that broad audience really help me, especially if they didn't know me?   Plus, I could get 10 responses, 8 of which said "you're screwed" and the other two may have said "oh, you're fine".  Where am I at then?  I don't really have an answer.  But had I asked my mentor, someone who saw me in action for 6 months, who has hired countless trainers and interns and knows many other trainers in the field, she may have said, "Don't sweat it.  Plenty of people deal with that.  But some advice? That was pretty stupid to put that on the IMATA forum."

It would've been harder to hear that advice from someone I respected and wanted to impressive, but it would've meant more...because she knows me, see what I'm getting at?

Ya feel me?

Do your own work also means search for your own networks.  Instead of asking a general audience about swim tests, ask the facility itself.   Again, when we just go, "Uh hey, can 'somebody' tell me something?" it makes us look like we aren't willing to find the answer on our own.  What does that say about our work ethic?  And in this competitive field where we as employers are LOOKING for hairs to split, I am way way way way way more impressed by someone who emails me directly and says, "What are the requirements for your swim test?" then I am seeing someone post on a forum "Hey anyone know what xyz's swim test is?"

This is especially true on IMATA's forum, which has tomes of information on swim tests.  I mean, there are seemingly endless threads on the topic.  Talk about a wealth of information!  Asking specifics about the test is one thing; but to ask just the general, "Hey, what's Sea World Orlando's swim test like?" makes it look like maybe you didn't feel like doing a forum search for an answer that's right there. 

Let me clarify something though, in case anyone is still freaking out.  It's different to ask a question that makes it clear that you've done a lot of research on your own.  Asking questions, especially on the IMATA forum or something like that, is a good idea.  It gets your name out there.  But make sure you're asking smart questions that show you in your best light.  

2. Make a personal connection

And if you make it with caffeinated beverages, that's even better.

This piggy-backs off of the last point.  Forums and Facebook groups are great resources for exposure to different people in the field.  It can really help you connect with someone or an experience that you wouldn't have known about before.  But it is a dangerous place if you just stop at the "Oh okay, there are a bunch of trainers reading these threads, so I'm going to see who can give me general career advice."

Making a personal connection with someone is critical.  The best place to do this as an aspiring trainer is at your internship (or internships).  That is why we say that internships are like a three/four month long interview; you are really laying groundwork not only in your OWN experience, but in your marine mammal network.  If you go through your internship without talking to someone who knows about hiring trainers...meaning the people who may intimidate you a little bit because they've got "senior" or "supervisor" or "curator" in their job have really missed a great opportunity.  

Making that connection gives you PRICELESS insight in your job performance and how you are perceived as a prospective employee.  Even if you make huge mistakes in your internship (to a degree, of course), if you are someone who has a great attitude, LEARNS from your mistakes, actively seeks out criticism for self-improvement, you are way ahead of the person who did well in their internship but only asks for general advice on Facebook.  Way ahead.

Ohhhh yeah.  Thumbs way up for you, Hasselhoff.

A person or a group of people who have seen you in action can really, really help you with resumes, especially at the entry-level job phase.  Why?  Because they know what you've done.  They know what your strengths are, combined with the fact they've probably seen a zillion resumes before yours. They can look at your CV and say, "It's too wordy, and you also totally left out that time you helped us with that rehab loggerhead after hours!"

IMATA does this awesome thing at their annual conference: a resume review.  The way it is formatted allows for an experienced member of this field to not just glance at your resume, but get to know YOU and your experience.  While it isn't necessarily as personal as asking your internship mentor or the senior trainer you worked most closely with, it's a pretty good second, because you've got 15 minutes to relay information that an IMATA member can help you tease out in your resume to really make it shine.

Here's a good example: I did the resume review this past IMATA conference.  I met a lot of really cool people doing that.  And I was baffled at how little people put on their resume; because they did a lot of really cool stuff!  One girl didn't highlight that she'd worked with sea lions free contact at one of her internships.  That is a huge, huge deal.  That would catch my eye immediately.  And when I told her that, she said, "Oh! I never thought of it as being that big of a deal!"  

Had she just posted her resume on a forum and said, "Hey, can someone look at this?" she may have gotten some pointers.  But no one would've known about the really rare and cool experience she had with sea lions at one of her internships.  So they wouldn't have told her, "Dude, you need to put that on there.  Get rid of the fish prep stuff; we know you do fish prep as a intern.  Put that you worked with sea lions free contact in a supervised setting!"  And wouldn't you know, that very fact got her an interview (and ultimately, a job).

Mmmhmmm that's right

The personal connection is key.  You are setting yourself up to potentially hear some things about yourself that aren't very flattering, too.  It is a worthy risk though; knowing your strengths and areas of improvement are the only way to DO THE WORK to improve yourself.  And guess what improving yourself does, especially if you work very very hard at it?  Yeah, it gets you a job.  But most critically, it makes you a better animal trainer.

So the next tip should come as no surprise....

3.  Seek out constructive feedback....and implement it

Well it shouldn't be like this, but...sometimes it is...and it can still be helpful.

I would write about this for ten million years if I could*.

I'm going to write this in bold and in giant letters because I really like font formatting but ALSO because I really, really, really believe this to be true:


Those reasons are plentiful, so I can't possibly list them all.  But what's the silver lining?


But he is damn close.

We all have things that we have struggled to improve (and...are still struggling to improve).   Here are some of my weaknesses:

1)  Asserting myself.  You can imagine how much I have had  to work on this
     to become a supervisor

2)  I talk way too much (um, can you tell by how wordy my blogs are??)

3)  I am really bad at keeping track of details about things like dates, times,    
     responding to emails, etc.  I think, "Oh yeah, I'll do that when I have more
     time" and then POOF the thought leaves my brain.

4)  I have a hard time telling someone when I am upset with them until I am
     really frustrated

Those aren't all of my weakness, but they are a few.  And guess what, I have to work on them all the time.  I've been called out on them, especially as an intern and new trainer.  I've gotten some really, really good feedback (and not always delivered in a kind way, but it was still accurate).  I have two choices to make when I face my weaknesses: get defeated by them, or power through the embarrassment and despair I feel when I am going through that and figure out how to make it better.

The best candidates for marine mammal trainers (and jobs everywhere, really!) are the ones who recognize their areas of improvement, SEEK OUT feedback about those things KNOWING FULL WELL that they may hear they did an awful job at them, and THEN power through and improve them.

Fist pump! Power through!

So many times I hear people get defensive about things that they can control.  Some people ask me why they can't get a job in the field, and I tell them that they aren't applying to enough jobs.  Part of trying to get your foot in a very competitive field is being willing to travel almost anywhere for that first job.  That's a fact; it's not a comment on if you are able to do it.  It's a fact that you have a much higher chance at getting your dream entry level job if you are willing to move out of state.  If you aren't, then you will have a harder time.  When I mention this to some people, they get defensive and give me all the very logical reasons why they can't do that.  And I understand those reasons, and sympathize with them....but it doesn't change the reality.  Some of those people become so upset that they give up, instead of getting their head in a different game (e.g. "Okay, maybe it'd take me 1 year to get a job if I could get up and move anywhere.  But I can't, so maybe I'm at a 5 year game plan.  Not ideal, but dag nabbit I'm going to work that much harder to get what I want.")

Others have had poor attitudes at internships, or had bland or difficult-to-read resumes, or said too many not-so-good/mature things on Facebook.  When I've pointed these things out, some people get defensive about that stuff.  Most of those people still do not have jobs.  The people who have said, " if I make this change and that change, do you think that puts me on the right track?", many of them have jobs or interviews right now.


It is really, really hard to lay yourself out to be criticized.  Part of my job is to provide feedback to my employees, but no matter how many times I give feedback and think to myself that all that matters is if the person takes it and makes a really valiant effort to implement it,  I still really really really dread asking for feedback from my boss.  Not because he's mean, or because he doesn't want to help me; he is great.  But because it is ALWAYS hard, no matter WHO you are or what level you're at, to hear your shortcomings.  But guess what?  It is WAY worse to ignore them.  And you can't afford to ignore them, especially if you're trying to get an entry-level job.

So, if you are someone who knows you're defensive (which is great, because you realize that about yourself!!), take a deep breath.  Remember, no one's perfect.  All you have to do is start listening and implementing from this moment forward.  You may hear some things that make you upset, or make you think things are unfair....but think of that information as empowerment.  You now clearly know what you have to do to give yourself the best chance (and you didn't have that information you had that much LESS of a chance).  It's a fantastic thing long term....which is well worth the few hours or days of feeling bummed out or embarrassed because of the mistakes you've made.

So that's enough for this part (like I said, I talk a lot!).  Next week we'll go over three more things you can do to help yourself get a job in this field. 

If you are at the end of this feeling disappointed or discouraged because you feel you haven't done any of the things I've mentioned, or you've made some of the mistakes I've used as examples, it's okay.  Maybe that's your constructive feedback for the day: you know now what not to do.  Move forward, knowing that EVERY trainer who has a job right now made a whole bunch of blunders trying to get hired.  They just did the work, made and utilized their personal connections to get some really insightful feedback on resumes, cover letters, work performance, and overall career advice to help them get over their personal hurdles.  You can do the same thing (but only you!).

Like I've always said, Full House has the best life advice.

See you awesome people next week!!

* But I can't, because I mean, I don't think I'll live that long.  At least not with the number of donuts I'm eating on a weekly basis.  Just a fact.

Sunday, December 21, 2014

Working With Baby Animals (a.k.a. The Best Thing Ever)

Baby animals.


OMG, right?  What's cuter than baby animals?

Even this guy doesn't know.


The end.

Thanks for reading!

Ha ha, just kidding, that's not the end.  But seriously, let's talk about young's   

Training baby animals is one of the coolest experiences a trainer can have, for a number of reasons.  And like most cool experiences, it comes with its fair share of frustrations and insecurities.  It's hard to separate the "cool" from the "unglamorous" aspects of working with very young animals, because I genuinely feel that they are not mutually exclusive.  I have worked with a few dolphin calves from the moment they gave a hoot that I existed, and I'm now working with three one-year old California sea lion pups.  Not only do I learn from my direct experiences, but I also have the honor of helping other trainers learn how to train and get to know brand new animals.  

So what are my favorite things about working with baby animals?  Here's a little list!

1) Babies are an unknown quantity

You don't know ME!

When they're born, they don't even know who they are.  Their own moms don't know who they are*.  And if you're any kind of decent trainer, you know that getting to know an animal as an individual is the first key to establishing a fantastic training program.  We say all the time to colleagues and laymen alike that Relationship Is King.  Some of us mean that sincerely; we don't just mean we have a rapport based solely on food.  We get to know what intrinsically motivates the animals.  We figure out what kind of temperament the animal has; are they quick to spook? Naturally curious? Completely laid back to the point where they could ignore mild-to-moderate nuclear warfare?**

But babies present us with a challenge in this relationship-department on two levels: a) we don't know anything about them, and b) they probably don't want what we're serving.  If you work with mammals, your baby animal friends are pretty happy drinking milkshakes all day instead of eating whatever slop you've got in a bucket.  So where do you start?

Of course, like any challenge, this presents some incredible opportunities for growth for us trainers.  If you get the opportunity to work directly with a young'un, you learn very quickly not only how to establish a meaningful relationship from nothing, but I think you also appreciate more what hard work and tremendous love and dedication it took to establish relationships with your older animals.  And for those of you who haven't had the chance yet to work with babies, I'm not saying your relationships aren't special, nor am I implying that you didn't have to put a lot of time and effort into building a meaningful bond with the animals for whom you care.  But it is a different type of experience working with a baby; they have no concept of us Weird Hairless Creatures giving them anything they want.

Um, okay, not this hairless creature.  Question: is there such a thing as a cute baby blobfish?

We got our three naturally-weaned sea lion pups from another facility.  They had some training before they came to us, but only a few months worth.  The trainers at the other facility did amazing things which gave us a head start; they already ate fish, they did well with following trainers, and they knew how to crate.  However, they didn't know targets, and they didn't know the fundamental behaviors we (both sea lion and human) need in order to safely interact in the type of habitat they are in.  

Answer: Yes.  Baby blobfish ARE cute.***

I remember when we first got them and did our first training sessions, I looked at their cute little faces and thought, "Who are you guys?"

Over the past few weeks, I've gotten to know them more on a temperament level (as they have with me).  Our littlest is the sassy, too-smart-for-her-own-good who is more motivated by learning four hundred different things at once than she is with the fish she eats.  When she eats, it's like she's swallowing it to get it out of the way.  Like, "Okay, I swallowed that thing, can we get back to the targeting now puh-lease?"

When will we get to the advanced lessons, like astrophysics?

Another is a mild-mannered, very tentative sea lion who has a serious stubborn streak I thought was only found in things such as: my dog.  My dog, the one who tries to eat poisonous toads despite how it makes his mouth foam and burn...over, and over, and over, and over, and over, and over.....  She is Gandhi-like in her stubbornness, though.  She went through a period of time that just the presence of a target pole rendered her unable to come within a 10 foot radius of her trainer.  It wasn't just being scared of it; it was a dramatic flop back into the water, and then several attempts to station with other trainers, completely ignoring or refusing to sit with her original trainer no matter what we did.

Just slap some flippers on her and you've got it.

Our bigger male, well he's just not too happy about his fun training session ending.  "Dude, NO" he seems to say when we try to leave.  He will sample just about any behavior if it superstitiously got us to come back in the habitat.  He'd be great at free-shaping, that's for sure.  And boy, does he test us.  "What if I do THIS?!" his eyes say as he sniffs our boots.  "Or THISSSSS?" as he crawls along the ground with one flipper up on a wall.

I wonder what they think of all of us, too.  Because it's a two-way street.  I bet each one has their own opinion of me.  Like would they describe me as the hulking yellow-hair who doesn't shut up and bares her teeth all the time?

You know, cuz I'm smiling.

Still, the sense of accomplishment you get after you figure out WHO the kid is is unlike anything else. It requires an open mind and compassionate mindset.

2) Babies are blank slates

LOOOKKK AT HIMMMM (or herrrrr....IDK does it matter?!)

Isn't that an understatement!

Like humans, many baby animals have extreme mental plasticity.  They learn skill sets at alarming rates, both in the natural world and in a training sense.  When it comes to many of the species we work with in marine mammal facilities, we are working with non-precocial kiddos.  They are not born knowing how to just be a dolphin or a sea lion.  They've got mad skillz to learn; hunting, avoiding predators, and (just as importantly) social skills.  Without all of those three skills, a marine mammal is in deep trouble.  

In the training world, once a baby shows interest in his/her trainer and has learned the basic building blocks of operant conditioning (like bridges, targets, etc), there is a major power curve in trained behaviors.  This is one of the main reasons I personally feel it is critical to try to engage a baby marine mammal as early as the mother will allow, because sometimes I feel we spend too much time and energy trying to get the kid to eat fish.  


One of our standard industry answers to the question, "When do you start training the babies?" is, "When they start eating fish."  Well, in my experience at least, most of the dolphin calves I've gotten to work with from a young age did not start showing an interest in fish, but showed an interest in other things like ice cubes, toys, and rub downs.  If you've got something they want, you can train them just the same.  The fish can come imagine if you can start your training with a calf at two months old instead of 8 months!  

I know every situation is different, but in general, I think it's a good idea to optimize the amount of time you get when their little brains are just big ol' sponges, ready to learn!  Hey, if they only want snacks, okay.  But it's worth trying other possible reinforcing things instead of just waiting for them to show interest in fish, right?

But even if your relationship with a calf or pup is solely food (as it is with our little sea lion pups right now!) for whatever reason, you know that those little guys are learning, learning, learning.  

What could POSSIBLY be bad about this?

Baaaaad habits!

Well, they learn everything.  Not just what you intended.  They are retaining so much, and observing so astutely all of your little quirks.  All your little mistakes.  Those big, adorable eyeballs? They see all of your flaws, and they will capitalize on it.  

In fact, training a baby is like playing an old school, side-scrolling video game.  You know, like Sonic or Contra.  You can be really, really good at it but the fact is, there are no save points.  When you mess up, you have to start the level all over again.  And that's what it's like training baby animals.  One little mistake can unfurl your entire training program. You might be the most seasoned Mario player in all the land, but one little mistake and BOOM you're back at the beginning.  As terrifying as this sounds, it's again important to remember that a) these babies are not software; they don't just learn in a steady upward trend and b) they will learn as much from their mess ups (and yours!) if you know how to rally.

Old school gamers rejoice: you probably can handle training baby animals.

I got so excited one time that this little dolphin calf was making such zealous progress in his lateral layouts that I was taking early approximations and getting really animated when I reinforced him with rubs and footballs.  I thought I was really on a roll with teaching this guy critical husbandry behaviors.  But what did he learn?  Oh, he learned that lateral layouts lasted 1.4 seconds, and you should come out of them at warp speed creating as much water disturbance as possible.  It took me twice as long to calm his crazy self down as it did to teach him the basic layout.  It made me realize how extremely careful I had to be with my criteria, bridge points, reinforcement and ENERGY with a little brain sponge as babies tend to be.   And hey, it made me be that much crisper (i.e. predictable and fair) with the other, older animals!

3) Babies test the limits

What if I do....THIS?

This is probably the biggest point of insecurity and woe of trainers everywhere.

Yes, babies are blank slates.  They learn fast...right or wrong things.  The really bright, really motivated and/or really sweet babies always give you time after time of warm fuzzy feelings.  You connect with them, you fly through behaviors, and you feel the connection.  You feel validation in your career path as a trainer, because you're training a BUTTLOAD**** of behaviors and you've got this little nugget who just so excited to see you and find out what today's lesson will be.

But then at some point, you are boring.  I mean, c'mon.  We are adults.  They are kids.  It doesn't matter that you come from an entirely different lineage than them.  You are still slow and stupid and boring and an adult.  Kids is kids.  You can't possibly keep every baby animal, especially of the marine mammal variety, interested in you every single moment of every single session.  And what does a curious, eager and sassy calf, pup or cub do?

I declare!

Mess with your a##.

This is probably the biggest pitfall of working with babies, especially if it's your first time.  Let me give you two real-life examples.

Our male sea lion pup really has a problem with his trainer ending the session.  We have a training plan in place for this, which occurred after we realized we had a serious blocking problem.  Okay, we thought.  This is the problem, we are trainers, we can handle this.  

There he is, far left.

So we implement the plan.  Within two days, we saw significant improvement in Big Guy's behavior (because you know, his sponge brain).  His primary trainers felt really good; you could see it in their faces and hear it in their voices as they recanted the sessions to other trainers.  Oh, isn't working with babies so much fun?

And then, the Big Guy decided the game of letting us leave needed some new rules.  He started testing us.  He'd jump out, he'd stand on the wall, he'd swim in the water with his left flipper in the air.  He'd bark.  He'd try to mouth our boots.  He'd go in the water headfirst.  He'd go in the water butt first.  And I could see his trainers' confidence wane.  What HAPPENED since the last two days, they thought?


Not that older animals don't test the ropes, but babies do this like it's their job.  I had to remind the trainers that while we must stick with predictable behavioral principles so our little troublemaker pup knows what to expect, we also have to remember that he is learning as much from his failures as he is from his successes in these "testing the waters" moments.  Any reaction he gets from his trainers with any of his random sampling is logged in his brain and will be used again later for better or for worse.  That's what kids do.

In fact, the other example I have of this was with one of the sweetest, smartest little dolphin calves I've ever known.  I mean, this guy is LITTLE.  He's just a short dude who is still healthy and happy, but as a calf he was a Tiny Tim.  He started showing interest in trainers at two months old.  His mom was pretty laid back, so he ended up learning full shallow-water interactive programs before he was one year old.  Like, he could do the entire 18 minute program.  He was a little genius (er, still is).  

The subject of our story.

You'll understand then, that he was basically everyone ever's favorite.  The maintenance staff loved him, guests loved him, and every trainer loved working with him (or couldn't wait until the day they'd be allowed to work with him).  He was very snuggly, interactive, and loved to play outside of session.  Did I mention he was little?  Like, so little he was even CUTER than the cutest dolphin calf you can imagine?  Perfect little dolphinchild.

And then, this precious cherub used his brains for evil.  Well, not really evil, but you know what I'm getting at.  He tested us.  How?

Well, when we were standing on this underwater ledge, he'd suddenly leave his trainer, sink to our feet, and then BOOM.  Hit our instep with his rostrum, KAPOW.   

Push puppets! I didn't know that's what these were called until five minutes ago.  Thanks, Google!

You know those weird push puppets? The jointed toys that are on top of a little box and when you squeeze the underside of the box, the entire toy collapses?

That is exactly what happened to us.  This little dude would bop us point blank on this pressure point and down we'd go, collapsing into the water.  Oh, think of how much fun this looked to a baby dolphin.  Over and over he'd do it.  We'd have perfectly good sessions, where we thought this dude was really having a great session, and we were doing a good job of keeping his focus...and then boop! You'd feel the hit and down we'd go!

Pretty much just like that.

Eventually, we worked through this and he stopped.  But even the Gold Star baby animal will go through a phase of testing his/her limits.  So don't let it get you down, or make you think you're a bad trainer.  Think of it as a milestone for both you and the calf or pup; and it's an opportunity for you to teach them something.  Not just that, it's something you should seriously consider writing down and logging how you navigated through it.  It'll probably make for a funny story, but it'll also remind you (and other staff members you work with down the road who work with babies for the first time) of a unique time that really boosted your trainer knowledge.

4) Sometimes, you get to see births


In the case of our pups, we didn't get a chance to see their birth or their life with their moms.  But the trainers at the facility they were born at sure did.  And with most of the dolphin calves I've worked with, I've personally seen their births.  I've only worked with babies who were born in human care, and I can tell you I'll never, ever get sick of seeing them born, or watching them hit developmental stages on their own and with their mothers.

It is an experience that, like so many we are privileged to have as marine mammal trainers, makes you grow as an animal caretaker.  No birth is the same, no baby is the same, and the process of being born and growing up from both the baby and the mother's perspective is one that all animal care professionals should be familiar with.  It is one of the most important events in an animal's life, and trainers should know what that natural process entails for better or for worse.  If you have the opportunity to witness it, don't miss it.

5) Babies is cute


This is never a bad thing.  Oh good lord, they make you melt.  And most babies, once you have their trust (and the trust of their mothers, if they are still with their moms) are usually at the most snuggly part of their lives.  Some of our otters are still pretty cuddly, but not like I'm told they were when they were kits when they first arrived at the place I'm working now (which was before I started working there).  I've had the same experience with dolphin calves; a few are just as into toys and rubs, but others grow to like other things (and no, not just fish).  They mature and change, just like any of us do.  So if you get the chance to work with babies, make sure you don't take it for granted.  Even if you've done it 45 times; it is a precious experience that should be cherished.

Don't take us for granted!

* Are you reeling from my "anthropomorphic" lingo?  Get over it. :D

** All of us could ignore severe nuclear warfare, because I suppose we'd all be um, no longer alive.

And they make adorable cupcake decorations.

And even adorable blobfish stuffed animals!!!!!  Want one? Go here!

**** I have yet to find any standard quantifiable measure of Buttload, but I think it's like 90 pounds.

Sunday, December 14, 2014

Let's Talk About Blood, Baby!

I want to talk about blood.

Yes, yes they can.

Yeah, that red stuff.  Think it's boring? Or scary?  That's such a shame, since, you know, it keeps you alive and everything.  I love it.  It lets me do my favorite things such as: eating, writing this blog, saying obnoxious things, avoiding death, and eating.

Blood also brings many animal trainers together from many taxa.  It is one of the quirky (albeit important) goals many animal trainers and caretakers strive towards as they make their way up the career ladder.  So what's so great about blood?

I'd pretty much eat any muffin, except this one.  

Well, here's the thing.  Lots of people wonder how we take care of the animals in our care, especially these days when we're under a microscope.  Like, a giant microscope controlled by a mass of people with zero idea of animal biology or husbandry except for what they do with their dog at home and/or watch on Netflix and see on their Tumblr feed.  And still others are just curious: how the heck do you make sure a mature lion is feeling okay?  How often do dolphins get sick?  Do you take a frog to the vet the same way you do your cat or dog?

Most of the animals living in zoos and aquariums are masters of masking illness.  There are some zoos whose management and/or curatorial team feels strongly against training animals; they want exhibits that focus on only natural behavior elicited whenever the critters feel like it.  But most zoos and aquariums do see the value in training.  We can argue all day long why that is, but here's what I think:  In addition to the many advantages (especially from a medical standpoint) to training, it gives you a window in the mind of the individual animal.  Yeah, I know, some zoos focus on populations more than they do the individual.  But the massively beneficial thing to getting to know them on a personal level is you are often the first to detect something amiss. The slightest abnormality in behavior can alert a trainer to something that could've been potentially lethal or at the very least, very uncomfortable.  

This stuff tells you a LOT.  

However, despite knowing an animal's personality and cultivating a relationship with him or her, that will never ever take the place of hard, medical science.  When it comes to understanding what's going on under the skin of our critters, there is one master medical sample that can tell us what's up.  


Those zoos and aquariums who do not "believe" in training?  Most of them are okay with conditioning medical behaviors, because it has such incredible advantages for the animals on both an individual and communal level.  And many facilities teach their own trainers to collect the sample.  Annnnd that is where I totally geek out.

"Wait," the naysayer says.  "Why wouldn't a vet be the one to always take the sample?  They're trained to do that.  You're just paid to scoop poop."

Yeah well, I can scoop poop AND take blood samples, thank you very much.

Ah, it's not that simple.  Yes, of course vets are trained in the art of venipuncture.  D'uh.  But in the vast majority of cases, they are not working with the animals on a daily basis.  Trainers work for weeks, months, or even years on a voluntary blood behavior with an animal.  The animal gets to trust and know the trainer and the process itself, including WHO is involved.  If you think animals aren't smart enough to figure out the difference between a trainer and a fake vet and when the actual blood sample will be taken because the vet has arrived, you're dreadfully mistaken.   

For example, one of our dolphins at the place I work at now definitely has a hefty price tag on her blood behavior.   For those of you who don't know, we obtain blood samples from their tail flukes because they are highly vascularized (for thermoregulation purposes*).  Here's a secret: despite what you may think, it is impossible, I repeat IMPOSSIBLE** to force a dolphin to hold for a blood sample if that dolphin does not want to do it.  Even when I worked with a rescue animal who had to be restrained for bloods, he kicked us all off of him and we were in a couple of feet of water with people covering him to try to hold him still. 

Every dolphin has one of these inside.

So when we go for a blood, we ask the dolphin for their flukes, place them in our laps, and then someone else sticks for the sample.  With our squeamish dolphin, we spend a lot of time building up this behavior.  We bring out whatever is her favorite thing at that time.  Sometimes it's fish, other times it's a favorite toy.  If she's learning a new behavior that she's really into, we'll use that to reward her for a job well done.  She'll get really comfortable with the entire hullabaloo until....

....the actual blood day.

Our management staff sticks for blood, which means me, our director, and our assistant supervisor.  Me and the assistant sup interact regularly with Miss Squeamish Dolphin and have a pretty good relationship with her.  We are actively involved with the training of the blood behavior in that we will go through all of the motions: bringing the blood kit down, swabbing with isopropyl alcohol, palpating for the vessel, and even placing a capped needle against her skin.  All of that is just fine.  

And then, she proves to us what incredible eyesight and/or psychic powers she possesses.  Every time were came down for the real thing, she'd tuck her head under the dock and start to pry her flukes away from us.  If we continue to pursue the behavior, she'll just kick out and swim away at 18 miles per hour; but we usually don't get to that point.  We are still trying to figure out what exactly she's cuing off of to know when a real blood is coming.  We have trained every tiny detail we can imagine, and she still knows what's up.  I think she's clearly psychic.

I googled "psychic dolphin" and now I can't unsee this.

So if an animal can detect as-of-yet imperceptible precursors to a legit blood draw, you understand then how easy it is for them to go, "Wait, what is Dr. Vet doing here? OH GOD IT IS BLOOD TIME."

Of course, our job as trainers is to make this behavior not scary; we don't want any of our animals to dread one of the most critical parts of their health care.  Some animals are naturally chill about it, others take a little coaxing, and others are like NO HELL NO for a long time until you figure out how to make it worth their while.  And I'm happy to say with our dolphin, she's made huge progress in her blood behavior and will give us blood more times that she won't allow us.

Anyways, if your zoo or aquarium does not have a vet who can be at every blood training approximation, it just makes sense to teach responsible trainers how to stick for blood.  The good news is it's not rocket science, although there are some very important things to learn.  Having a good teacher makes a big difference.  It was one of the highlights of my career to learn how to get a blood on a dolphin.  I'm currently learning how to get bloods on a seal, which is blowing my mind.

Not this Seal.

Bloods tell us almost everything.  They are precious resources for vets, vet techs, and curators in the zoological field.  In fact, the faster your animals know a voluntary blood behavior, the faster you can establish their baseline.  What is healthy for one animal is not necessarily healthy for another.  Age, genetics, and life history can drastically alter blood results (just like in humans).   Knowing what is normal for each animal can not only save a life if someone gets sick, it can in some cases catch a problem BEFORE that animal may even feel uncomfortable.  How cool is that?

And that's often the case with the animals we find in zoos or aquariums.  Take dolphins and sea lions, for instance.  These are animals who hide their illnesses very, very well.  Why? Well, think about it.  If they get a little superficial illness (like we ALL do once in a while....unless you're some kind of biological miracle), here's what could happen:

Dolphin: I'd like to make an announcement to the Gulf of Mexico.  I'm not feeling very well.  Just a little tummy ache, probably because I ate this weird fish.  But I'm just gonna take it easy today.  I'll probably feel better in a few days, but I'm going to swim real slow and just zone out for a while.


Boom, dolphin gets eaten.

So dolphins and sea lions hide their illnesses, even very serious ones like cancer, until they get better or until it is really, really advanced.  Sea lions in the wild can have cancer for years; it's only when they are predated upon or wash up on shore, drastically underweight and barely able to move, that they succumb to the symptoms of their metastasized nightmare.  

In aquariums, it isn't very common to have dolphins or sea lions get sick, but I mean it obviously happens.  Some people may criticize that, which is ridiculous because again, where in the world can anyone go and claim they've never been sick in their entire lives?  But anyway, there is no way we are going to just sit around and wait for someone to look a little sick before we get a blood sample.  No.  We want to know, on a regular basis, how everything is doing in that magical red (or blue, for you crustacean lovers) fluid.

Copper makes everything real pretty

Dolphin trainers get routine blood samples on every dolphin (every one to three months) at most facilities.   If the sea lions are trained for the behavior, the same goes for them. We will go for another sample if we have any suspicion that something's just a little off with any of our animals, but again that is not the time to get the first sample....because you've got nothing to compare it to except a hypothetical baseline.

Training an animal to allow a trainer or vet to take blood voluntarily is a critical component to having animals in human care.  I don't mean to offend anyone who disagrees with me and feels that any training in some way spoils an animal's will to be who he or she is naturally, but there are so many reasons why voluntary bloods make your animals' lives better.  The fact is, your animal is not in the wild.  And they are 100% reliant on you to care for them and provide them with the best quality of life. I appreciate different opinions, but you will never convince me than an animal prefers to be physically restrained or placed under general anesthesia just to get a routine blood sample.  If you can train it, you should at least work towards it.

I mean, come on.

Let's think about that for a second in terms of how a human would respond to that.  

Imagine yourself going into a doctor's office, just doing the normal behaviors a human does in a new environment.  You read all the brochures and pamphlets.  "Wow," you think.  "If I ever get bubonic plague, I'll have to ask about Plague-X."  Maybe you read a 5-year old magazine, look out the window, check Facebook on your phone.  


The door flies open! A team of doctors blasts in! Four burly men pin you to the exam table and grunt in your ear.  

"WHAT THE HECK IS GOING ON?" you yell.  You fight, you look around frantically trying to make sense of the situation.  But you don't understand anything anyone is saying.  Oh no! Everyone speaks only Russian! How did you miss this critical detail in your doctor search?  Now you really have no way to control this situation.

That's when you see another doctor with a giant needle in his hand.  You feel your arm forced away from your body and the doctor with the needle shoves it into a blood vessel.  It hurts, you're scared, you're trying to comprehend what's going on.  And then, as quickly as it begun, it's over.  And then you pay for the experience and make an appointment to do it again next year.

Well, except sometimes.

Now, imagine a different scenario:

You sit in a doctor's office, knowing full well that you'll probably have to get a blood sample.  But that's okay, you've been in here before.  You know the drill.  Not only that, the last time you were here, your doctor gave you $4,000 and a diamond necklace for being such a good patient.

"Good morning," the doctor says as she enters the room.  "Ready for your blood sample?"

"Why yes, yes I am!" you reply, giddy with excitement.

"Great! Today, I have two first class tickets to Fiji and a $1,000 gift certificate to Amazon for anyone who sits calmly for their blood draw."

"Take as much as you need," you say, as you stick both arms out.

Medical professionals in my life, take note: I'll willingly do anything for a date with Charlie Hunnam.  Just saying.

Which scenario would you prefer?   So why wouldn't we choose the same for the animals in our care?

Let's not forget that a stressed blood sample is not necessarily an accurate blood sample, too.  An animal who is calm and sees a blood behavior as a fun game is going to give you a much more accurate understanding of what's going on in their body than an animal who is stressed out and just trying to figure out why you're stabbing them with needles.

So I take learning to draw blood very, very seriously.  Yeah, it's a cool skill to cultivate.  But most importantly it is the quickest way to understanding your animal family's health status; and the quickest way to making them feel better when they fall ill.  It can be simple, quick, and fun....if you're a willing and respectful trainer, that is.  

Three cheers for blood!


* p.s. I saw on the Interwebz today someone claim that dolphins do not "need" their dorsal fins if they are in human care.  Um, what?  They use that to keep themselves from over-heating, not just for stabilization.  C'mon, check your facts buddy.

** Im. Possible.