Sunday, December 7, 2014

The Animal Groupie: Super Fan or Super Pain?

I got this awesome email the other day from a trainer who had a great idea on this week's blog topic.  She was interested in exploring the Groupie Factor.  More specifically, what IS a "Groupie", and what distinguishes them from a "Super Fan" (as she eloquently worded it)?  

Arguably the best Super Fan.

If you're scratching your head while reading this post, let me elaborate.

At some point, most people who love dolphins discover their local and/or favorite marine mammal facility.  They learn as much as they can about the dolphins living there.  Because of their love for all things dolphin, but they aren't able to actually work directly with them, they try to get involved in the animals' lives as much as they can.   There are entire internet forums dedicated to groups of dolphins, from genealogy to personality to "who has the best relationship".  Some people find fun, enriching things to do at underwater viewing windows.  Others form relationships with trainers or educators at the facility.

I did this to some extent, when I was in high school.  As you can all relate, I love animals.  The relationships I've forged with animals (humans included) are the most important thing to me.  And there is something really, really special about building trust between you and another being who cannot speak; it is a raw, social bond that requires a lot of time, mutual understanding, and unconditional love.  I think most aspiring marine mammal trainers (myself included) are really mesmerized and desperately want that same relationship with a dolphin.  You can't get this unless you become a trainer, so what to do until then?

The Red Hind: A grouper groupie.

The moment an aspiring trainer and/or dolphin lover realizes that this may be possible without getting the job, that's when things get interesting.  And hence, the inspiration for the trainer who wrote to me about the topic of this blog.  

Let's first talk about what it means to be labeled a Groupie in the trainer world.  My email pal had a couple of things to say about this:

"One dynamic I ran into was the Groupie vs Trainer struggle. Until I started working...first as an educator and now as a [trainer], I was never aware of the VENOM with which some staff members talked about the 'groupies'."  

"I was not aware that this was going on, and wasn’t aware of how notorious they could be amongst the zoo staff. From then on I was pretty terrified of being even remotely associated with these individuals them due to the aforementioned 'career suicide' factor. I just like taking photos, and I do it a lot, but I was and still am so afraid to be lumped in with that particular brand of enthusiast. Being called a Groupie at SeaWorld is like being called a Commie during the Cold War. It’s a black mark. " 

If any of you classify yourselves as Groupie (or are afraid you're classified as one), just take a deep breath.  And if you are a trainer who is squirming in your seat because you know what it is like to handle Groupies and some of the negative aspects they bring to the job, you go ahead and take a breath, too.  That's why this blog is here!

I wasn't aware, when I was playing with dolphins at the windows of the Brookfield Zoo or SeaWorld, that it wasn't a good thing to be identified as a Groupie.  I'd never even heard of that term.  I had friends who spent hours on Dolphin IDs, which made me think I was behind the eight ball of becoming a trainer.  Logically, it made sense to me that to really impress future employers, I should probably know their animals.  They'd probably be REALLY impressed if I knew even MORE than that, like their birthdays, their personalities...and maybe if I had a genuine relationship with one of the animals, they'd see the merit in hiring me.

Iiiii know every dolphin's birthday

Oh man, how wrong I was. 

But this isn't just an issue about Groupies.  There is another side to this story, and that's how trainers tend to deal with these people as a whole.  In general, and I'm not saying this to upset anyone, I'm just being honest, trainers are not very tolerant of people who try to know everything there is to know about the animals under their care.  Sometimes, totally normal guests get the brunt of trainer hyper-Groupie sensitization. 

"I’ve seen plenty of zoo staff members be flat-out MEAN to these 'super fans'. For every trainer, educator, or keeper who calmly explains to these people why their behavior is obnoxious or even harmful, there’s another who just unloads on a guest with little provocation. "

Okay, so what's going on here?  Why are Groupies driving trainers crazy, and why are trainers fed up with the Groupies?  

The first and main reason?  The extreme Groupies.  And here I will refer to the aforementioned quote where my email trainer friend used the term "super fan".  I love that.    Herein, "Super Fan" and "Groupie" are differentiated by several extremely critical characteristics.

Super Fan

Look at these happy fans! Go team!

* Love animals

* Have a genuine interest in animal training

* Want to forge relationships with the animals they are passionate about

* Mean well

* Acquire information for own personal knowledge

* Listen thoughtfully to the experts, even if they are hearing something they
   don't want to

* Respectful of trainers and other guests



* Love the idea of having a dolphin like them

* Acquire information to lord over other people to show their superiority

* Ask questions with the intention of showing off, or knowing they will publish it
   regardless of sensitivity

* May have good intentions, but do not think about placing others' needs before
   their own

* Take over underwater viewing windows without thought of other guests

* Refer to an animal as "their" animal, or "my baby" or some other possessive

Get the difference?  There are a lot.  And they are significant.

Super Fans are passionate people.  Sometimes, they make mistakes.  I am one of those people, I was corrected, and here I am with a successful marine mammal training career in a management position no doubt.  We are all misguided and benefit from some compassionate realignment, because those of us who are truly passionate would never do something to knowingly compromise an animal's well-being, no matter how indirectly.

We just want to help some animals

But here's the thing, I understand where the trainers are coming from.  Because the Groupie category has truly hyper-sensitized us.  

"The groupies, unlike regulars, take everything they do to an extreme. They make custom t-shirts with the name of their favorite animal on it, try WAY too hard to grovel to the animal trainers, bring duffel bags full of toys to the underwater viewing areas, ask trainers invasive and not-so-tactful questions about the animals (which they then race to be the first to post online), they know every animal’s family tree back to the 1970s, they attempt to elicit trained behaviors from the animals, refer to the various creatures as 'their baby', and they attend summer camp every year and make it their job to one-up the counselors. They have a lot of knowledge, and they like to make sure everyone within a 25 foot radius hears ALL about it. Trainers and keepers don’t trust them because they dig for information to share with their e-friends. Plenty of sensitive information has been spread around because these (generally young) people can’t respect things they’ve been told in confidence."

OMG OMG OMG [insert orca name here] LOVES ME

If you're not in this field, you may ask, "What's the big deal about sharing information with the world? What's so sensitive or secret that you can't share it with the public?  What do you have to hide?"

Well, speaking for the four facilities I've worked at, nothing.  But the reason to keep some things under wraps is not some clandestine, evil corporate conspiracy that all zookeepers maintain.  Sometimes, facilities keep pregnancies as proprietary.  Why?  Because some facilities get a lot of scrutiny if the birth is not successful.  No matter what the reason, even if it is 100% natural, we will get bombarded by email, Facebook, newspaper, and in-person comments about it.   Yes, we get sensitive people who express condolences for the mother, or curious well-meaning questions.  Those are always welcomed, even if the questions are tough ones.  But we also get a lot of really awful, awful statements made.   Last year, we were told by a woman that she hoped our dolphins all died, babies included, because they'd be happier dead than at our facility.  

Are you kidding me?!

The last thing an animal care staff needs to deal with is fielding absolutely uneducated and socially unintelligent comments while we try to focus on what's most important: the animals.  This goes for animal deaths, as well.   When an animal dies of complications related old age, we still get comments like, "Finally, this animal is free."  It shows no respect to the trainers or the animals who knew and loved the deceased.  

Other totally mundane details also get completely twisted around depending on who shares them.  Training methods, or what the animals are learning, or what husbandry samples we are getting....all of this information in the "wrong" hands can get spun into an impressive amount of tripe.  It's a bell that can't be unrung, in some cases.  

For example, I was visiting a dear friend of mine who works with elephants.  While I was waiting for her, I sat outside the elephant yard and watched the animals alongside a few other guests.  I watched three adult elephants and two calves explore their area; I had no idea what was going on, and didn't really know who was who, but it was fun to just watch them interact. 

Who doesn't love a baby elephant? The answer is no one.  Unless you're a jerk.

Then I heard a woman start to very confidently tell all of us standing around her what we were seeing.  She explained that the zoo had mixed the adult male in with the babies, and she didn't know why that was happening, because the male could easily kill the calves.  She said, "My close friend who works with these animals told me this introduction would be happening, but not like this.  Something must have happened.  I can't believe they are doing it like this."

She completely freaked out the rest of the guests, who now thought they were going to watch two baby elephants get murdered.  

When my friend arrived, I pulled her aside and told her what I'd overheard.  She handled the situation very professionally and politely, explaining to the guests the very thoughtful and careful process of introducing the animals.  I asked her in private where this woman had heard the information; let's just say she didn't have any friends in the zoo keeping department.  Who knows where she overheard this stuff.  What matters is how she handled it.

So, Super Fans and Groupies alike, do you see what you're up against here?  We are proud of our professions and our animals.  We do want to share information, and help those of you who want to dedicate your lives to the care and well-being of animals in human care AND in the wild.  But we are a little sensitive to those of you who try to Know It All.

"This perpetuates an awful us vs. them mentality. I’ve seen decent and perfectly-sane regulars stop coming to the parks or start avoiding exhibits they used to love because of these off-putting interactions. For example, I almost never visit the Dolphin Cove exhibit anymore because it became such a negative space. Literally being seen there more than once in a blue moon would earn you the fatal mark of the GROUPIE even if all you do is stand there and take photos."

"I have plenty of examples of being on the other side of this, like when two girls pretty much took over an entire panel of Shamu underwater viewing for “their” play session and became overly possessive when regular guests wanted to get a photo with the whales. It got to the point I had to step in, and they called me a bitch. Or when a CMA groupie tried to straight-up take the observation clip board out of my hands because she NEEDED to know how Winter was doing." 


Here are a few tips for any animal lovers who have identified with being a Super Fan or Groupie:

1) These animals are not yours.  They are not mine.  They are not the zookeepers or trainers'. They are their own.  They choose with whom they bond...and in many cases, that will be their caregivers.  Not because you suck, or we are better, but because we spend our lives with them.  Time and effort CULTIVATE relationship.  It's not something to covet; it's something to motivate you to find your own journey into the zookeeper realm.  And if you do form a bond with an animal outside of this context at a zoo or aquarium, remember that is a two-way street.  They are not YOUR baby.  Possessiveness is not a trait of a true animal trainer.

2) If you earn a trainer or keeper's trust, keep it.  There are reasons that all go back to the animals' well-being for why things are publicly announced or why they are not.  Sharing it with the internet not only puts a black mark on your name, but it hurts animals.  Stop. 

3) If you ever catch yourself taking over an underwater viewing area, or ANY animal viewing area for that matter, show some decency.  Let other guests be apart of the experience.  If a trainer, docent, educator, or keeper asks you to stop or to slow your roll, respect and abide them.  They are not there to ruin your day, they are advocating for the animals and the other guests who are there to learn about the animals the same way you are. 

4) You may know a lot, but you don't hold a candle to the keepers.  If you think you do, you're headed down the wrong path.  It's okay.  You aren't supposed to know as much, because you aren't doing the job 40 to 60 hours a week.  It'll be your turn though, if you keep the animals first, your ego second, and work really hard.

Leggo of it

So for those of you who play with dolphins at windows, or who can identify every giraffe at your local zoo, don't panic.  It's okay you're doing that, as long as you're respectful and not disruptive.  It's okay if you have trainer friends, if you respect that relationship.  I have several friends who are not trainers who I'd consider great Super Fans.  It is not career suicide to have passion and enjoy the time you spend with animals.

Lastly, I also have a message for us trainers.

We have to remember that FIRST and FOREMOST, it is rarely okay to be rude or mean to someone visiting our facilities.  They could be the most annoying Groupie you know...but guess what?  They are still human beings.  They do not deserve to be treated like garbage.  We can be stern, we can ask them to leave if they are causing serious disruption to our animals and guests...but that isn't to embarrass them.  It's to protect and advocate for our animals; the only reason we are doing the job we do.

You'll reach a lot more people that way.  And it's the right thing to do.

Second, remember that many of us were once Super Fans who wanted the same things: to work with animals every day.  If you weren't like that, at least try to see it from their perspective.  We'd rather have passionate, loving people in this job than people who want to clock in and clock out, right?  Passionate people are hard workers who shovel poop, sort fish, and narrate endless shows for the love of the animals.  

Third, a curious guest is not a detractor.  Your facility can choose its level of info-sharing.  I've worked at both very close-lipped and very open places and have seen the pros and cons to each.  I personally prefer a more transparent approach, but that's just my preference.  No matter how proprietary your job is, curious guests are curious guests.  Don't break the rules of your facility, but don't be rude.  Don't treat them like hostile people.  Again, they are human beings.  And most of the time, they are just interested.  Handling them like they are annoying the life out of you can turn them into a detractor.   

We are all Super Fans!



  1. I can definitely see the perspective here. I also know the perspective of someone grouping me into the "groupie" category. The result of it actually gave me a negative outlook and eventually turned me away from the field. I still have a love for animals of all sorts and respect for the people in those positions.

  2. I am totally in this category Of super fan But I know I don't know everything I do find My self calling some of the animals my baby though. I am passionate about them. I do get some trainers who are kind of rude though. it does discourage me. but its something I need to work on

  3. I've been aware I might be considered a groupie or a while and it’s a major stressor for me. I didn’t always wish to be a trainer and thus I did some pretty stupid stuff when I was an angry tween. I’ve had important people in aquariums/ marine parks tell me I appear familiar and that just kills me because the only reason I could have appeared familiar was if they remembered me, without any trace of subtly, shouting ‘target’ questions at them the year before. Really I’m just hoping they won’t remember me come time for an interview but if they do I just pray they will accept a good story of redemption.

  4. Really I just attend marine parks to learn and I hate there's this groupie connotation. I have more knowledge than the average guest, sure, but I'm not an absolutely crazy fan-girl. I'm polite and friendly. I just want to learn more. I want to take this knowledge and one day help the industry. Yet if I stay at an exhibit longer than a minute or use too many relevant terms in a question the trainer/ educator will almost immediately decide I am not to be trusted.

  5. This is an awesome article! I'm just curious - is it always bad for a person to have "a duffel bag full of toys"?

    1. I’d like to answer this one from my personal perspective. I'm zoological staff at SeaWorld. I don't work with the killer whales but I do work with other animals.

      This is long and I’ll probably have to make at least two replies so bear with me!

      The duffel bag o' toys itself is not evil, it's the negative previous experiences of the duffel bag and the people who bring them. These not-so-fun things are detailed in the above blog post very well. It's the behavior that goes along with it that sometimes makes us zoo staff cringe. If you are a regular/groupie/SuperFan or whatever you like to call yourself, and you ever feel sort of singled out for your behavior, think about the following...

      I've seen a lot of cute window interactions before, many of which are completely happy accidents involving people who have never been to SeaWorld. An animal shows interest in an article of clothing, a plush a kid got from the gift shop, a baby stroller, or an umbrella they’re carrying on a rainy day. This experience could be the highlight of their…everything! If the interaction is not disruptive, I always let them have their fun. All the same, I’ll have them tone it down if it get’s too wild just as I would with anyone else. I’m extra gentle with this type of guest because it’s highly likely they’ve NEVER seen this species in the flesh before and are soooooo excited they can’t even handle themselves.

      Now, YOU. (shhhhhdon’tbescared) If I've seen you around the park a bunch, talked with you, or even seen you with the summer camps, I have good reason to believe that you have a higher level of knowledge than the average one-trip-in-a-lifetime guest. I personally hold you to a higher standard because I’m aware you know better. (Responsibility is always SO FUN, eh?) When I see you with the duffel bag of toys, there is no mistaking your intentions. You’re here for a window session! This might be no problem, and more than likely you and the animal are having fun. BUT, BUT, BUT please, PLEASE, PUH-LEASE remember that window sessions are still SESSIONS.

      When I’m teaching a group of people, I will ask them a very important question. “When do we train the animals? When are they learning?” It might take a few responses, but someone always nails it. The answer is, **ALL THE TIME**. Like all other types of sessions, trainers plan play sessions (including window enrichment) into animals’ daily schedules. Many if not most facilities will record their observations after the play session as they would with a learning session or show. How long did they play? How did they respond to the various enrichment items offered? How many times did they break from the session? Every interaction teaches the animal something, no matter how subtle. Each and every animal, every day, and every session is different. I don’t expect you, the guest, to know how so-and-so is doing behaviorally today because you ain’t getting paid for that! So why is this important for you, friend, with the duffel bag of toys?

    2. Let’s imagine you go a-skippin’ down the path with your arsenal of goodies and immediately catch the attention of Squeakin with OMG HIS FAVORITE WINDOW TOY EVARRR YAAAAAYAAAAAAY! Awesome right? Well, what you may not have seen just before he rounded the coral wall corner was Squeakin beating the everlovin’ crap out of his pool-mate Doofy. Aggression between animals is a normal part of life, but not something we want to actively reinforce…which you unfortunately just did by flapping Squeakin’s HIGHLY REINFORCING favorite toy in front of the glass. You may have just taught him that wailing on Doofy is a great thing to do, and maybe do it again! (Training and behavior are very complicated so this is a very condensed example.) There could be a session going on upstairs that you didn’t know about, and you’re distracting the animals with all your bright n’ shiny stuff. Maybe a trainer is giving a non-response (LRS) to an animal who is ignoring, but they swam down and were reinforced anyway with your toy.

      Like I said, every facility, every day, every animal, every session is different. The best possible think you can do is ask for permission before heading down for your playtime, even if that means you might not get the answer you want. You may be able to identify the animals as well as some of the more obvious behavioral cues, but you are in no position to determine whether or not window play is appropriate for that animal at that point in time. You’re not paid to know that, so it never hurts to ask someone who is. When I see a KNOWLEDGABLE regular show up with their bag of toys and begins an obviously premeditated window session without permission, it leads me to believe that this person holds their personal gratification above the behavioral well-being of the animal. You know better, so I/we EXPECT better.

    3. Part of it is knowing when and where that interaction is okay, too. I've seen folks bust out toys during training sessions in an attempt to distract the animals -- and probably get some attention from the trainers. That is never a good idea, and any attention it gets you from the trainers will be negative.

      In general, showing up with an entire bag full of toys comes off a little obsessive. If you must, one or two might be okay. But I think observing and listening to the staff is a much better way to learn, and will get you the kind of attention you want.

  6. This totally hightened my fear of being marked "stalker". I admit I go to the zoo a few times a week, mostly to see the sea lions and maybe because the layout of the zoo and my usual routes I seem to run into one of the trainers more often than others. Tbh I almost wait for a chance to explain to him that I'm not following him around.

  7. I really appreciated this post. I have the good fortune of living in San Diego and have been visiting SeaWorld since I was very little. I have more knowledge than most because my mom was in the field and I have always been interested in marine mammals. I never even knew that there were fans like this. However, after going to a camp I discovered the online community of super fans. Since then I have been pretty worried about being labeled a groupie. This really helped clear things up for me and I will definitely try to be mindful of the things you mentioned.