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. 


  1. Thanks for including vet techs:)

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  3. Thanks Cat! I always learn something awesome from your articles! Happy Grasshopper! 🌻🌻