Sunday, January 25, 2015

Funny Things Guests Say: The Ultra Know It All

We've all dealt with know-it-alls in our time, right?

If he knows it all, then why does he have to look it up in a book?

In fact, I will admit it here and now on this electronic format that I am a recovering Know-It-All.  Yes, it's true.  I could pen tomes of stories of me being a complete blabbermouth moron who talks a good game but is just full of hot air.  Several well-intended, figurative smack downs occurred at precise times of my know-it-all moments and helped me learn the power of active listening and why I should just stick to what I really know.

Maybe you, dear reader, have had a Know-It-All past, or even a moment.  I think many of us can relate to being really confident in our knowledge, share it equally confidently (maybe even judgmentally) and then BOOM find out we were WRONNNNGGGG-O.

I tell you all of this because I've written sarcastic, slightly snarky posts about some not-so-pleasant things guests have said or done in this job.  And there is a small minority of people who felt that it was unfair to call out that group of guests, because our job as animal caretakers is to educate the public.  While I whole-heartedly agree with this philosophy, that doesn't change the fact that sometimes, guests say some silly things and every once in a while, it's okay to make fun of those situations.....knowing full well that many of us are guilty of the same transgression.

Even you, little owl!

I adore talking to guests who come through our park.  I get such a thrill out of getting to know new people and finding out their stories, and working at a zoo or aquarium is one of the most perfect places to meet people from all walks of life.  I especially love chatting with fellow animal-lovers, and people who really know what they're talking about.  Zookeepers in general I think enjoy talking to veterinarians, other zookeepers, the well-read "laymen", researchers, doctors, and any sharp patron who shows an interest in the animals under your care.  I've learned a lot from the aforementioned groups of people, from ages Kid to Super Senior.  These guests are not classified as Know-It-Alls (herein referred to as KIAs).

Not this KIA

KIAs charge into your aquarium and demand your full attention for the verbal onslaught they feel they must bestow upon you and your team.  They state facts loudly and confidently that are not only completely incorrect, but have the insinuation that YOU really don't know what you're doing, and THEY are there to correct you.

Yes, we could confuse the park patron who asks you questions you know they already know the answers to.  But you would be incorrect to label them a KIA.  This type of guest is a Pseudo-KIA; on the surface they appear as such, but their intention is simply to share information benignly, albeit in a socially awkward fashion.

Are there any KIA keas?

The true KIA can be distinguished by the need to shrink your Psyche down to an infinitesimally small size while simultaneously inciting your Super Anger Defense (SAD) response.  The SAD response must of course be sturdily shoved under your Professionalism layer, since it's a big no-no to intellectually b**** slap any guest.

Here are some actual quotes from KIAs in my zoological career experience:

"How can you allow the dolphins to live in a pool where they can't sleep? There are no ledges for them to rest on.  It's cruel to force them to swim in a deep pool all day and all night.  They are MAMMALS for crying out loud!"

"There is no reason you should put your otters* in a heated habitat in the winter.  They are perfectly suited for cold weather."

"You dolphin trainers only tell us we can't feed dolphins off our boats because you want us to spend money feeding them here.  Why should I pay to feed them here when I can do it in the wild for free?"

"How can you sleep at night knowing these dolphins' family members were murdered in Japan?"

Whatchoo talkin about

KIAs are uncommon but memorable.  And in so many cases, the only thing you can do is politely, honestly, and sincerely answer their questions in hopes that maybe you will correct their misconceptions.  However, people who are at this stage of KIAness, where they will approach a complete stranger with completely incorrectly information, are not usually the most willingly open-minded people.   Most KIAs respond to any kind of gentle correction (even if it's not framed as a correction) with extremely rude defensiveness, and you spend the rest of your day thinking about three things:




Snacks: the secret weapon to dealing with jerks

It's like when you're driving and you see people do completely horrific thing.  Like semi trucks tailing you and honking at you in the left lane on the Interstate, or people who rudely cut you off, or run red lights.  But oh, your left blinker light goes out without you knowing and BOOM, you're pulled over and given a huge citation.  Where are the cops when the morons are out driving?  WHERE IS THE JUSTICE IN THE WORLD WHEN THE REALLY CRAZY PEOPLE ARE OUT?

How many of you animal trainers/caretakers have looked a KIA in the face and wondered if they'll ever get put in their place?

But oh, dear readers, have I a satisfying story for you.

Just as in those very rare moments when a police officer sees the jerk who just swerved in front of you and slammed on his break and NAILS HIM right in front of you, I too have a story of gratification.

A few weeks ago, a KIA visited our park.  I did not personally interact with him, but heard about him from one of my coworkers.  A middle-aged man with his family approached one of our trainers who was feeding our African penguins.  He began his KIA dialogue with a barrage of questions about The Substrate of our habitat.

KIA: What substrate do you use for the habitat?

Trainer: You mean the smooth rocks in the exhibit?

We used a macro-mineral texturally smooth substrate suitable.  It rocks. Ha ha.

The KIA further questions her on the appropriateness of the Rock Substrate for a penguin species.  And at that point, the Trainer knows she is not speaking with someone who knows anything about African penguins, since the species lives on the pebbly beaches of coastal South Africa.  And she explained as such, but not to the satisfaction of the KIA.  He continued to criticize the park (and this poor trainer, by proxy) for its use of incorrect flooring for animals who would not be "naturally" exposed to that kind of material.  I suppose that makes sense, since KIAs in zoos all know that penguins spend their lives hiding in glacier crevices from polar bears.

He then inquired about the large female loggerhead sea turtle who lives in the habitat next to our penguins.  Her name is Floater and she is aptly named.  Like so many rescued sea turtles in zoos and aquariums, a traumatic injury resulted in air trapped underneath her carapace.  This is almost always an irreversible situation, and she will never be able to regulate her buoyancy.  In Floater's case, her butt always floats.  Hence, her disability deemed her unreleasable (per a government agency).  We get a lot of questions about Floater, so the Trainer did not balk when she heard the KIA inquiry.

But what began as a simple question devolved into a line of questioning known well to all KIA kin, in which our dear guest confidently stated (with a slight inflection at the end of his sentence to imply a question when its intention was clearly declarative):

"Haven't you considered injecting this turtle with silicon so that her buoyancy may be returned to normal?"

The Trainer answered that of course! Eureka! Why hadn't we thought of that solution! It's so simple! It's so genius! We'll get to it straight away!

I have seen the light!

Ha, ha.  Just kidding.  She politely explained that she was not a part of the team who cared for Floater, that she would happily get one of her caretakers to further explain the situation.  Instead of being satisfied with this answer, the KIA's critical questions continued.  He scoffed, and asked who our vet was.  When the Trainer told him about our vet staff, led by one very influential Dr. Forrest Townsend, the KIA asked where he was based out of.

"Right here, actually," the Trainer replied.

"Oh," scoffed the KIA again.  "Well I've never heard of him."

Oh, you've gotten me again with your superior intelligence, sir KIA!

While it greatly pains all zookeepers to learn that their answers, opinions, vet staff, or training philosophy is not up to snuff with KIA guests, we somehow manage to overcome our tremendous depression and bottomless pit of insecurity to hold it together to get through to the next day of our miserable little lives.  Instead of trying to defend a pointless topic, the victimized Trainer redirected the conversation to alert the man that she enjoyed their little chat, but she had to continue on with her duties.  

"What else is there to see here?" he asked.  What ho, a question to which this KIA has no answer? Is it by some miracle?

"Our 12:30 sea lion show is the next full show.  That is at our sea lion stadium." 

The Trainer then went on her merry way and informed me that there was a potentially difficult guest in the park.  She told me some of the questions/statements he'd made, which better prepares me and the team how to handle the situation better.  It's pretty nice to know that hey, the old dude in the red shirt is asking really weird questions, so that it doesn't take you off guard.

At the 12:30 sea lion show, my role was that of an A-B spotter.  While I wasn't able to watch the crowd like a hawk, I could at times see some of the people sitting and watching our show.  There wasn't a very big crowd that day, but I also didn't want to pull my eyes off of the stage for very long being in the position I was in.  At the end of the show, I scanned the crowd again and could not find anyone matching the KIA's description.  Those of us involved in the show gossiped about it.  Did you see the guy?? No.  Maybe.  Maybe he left? Who knows.  Wait, what did he say about Floater again?

Gossip, the stuff of zookeepers and marine mammal trainers everywhere

And then, the Trainer who had the distinct pleasure of getting to know the KIA ran up to us, smiling and almost out of breath.  

"YOU GUYS!"  she said.

"What?? Where is the KIA??!" we wanted to know.

"I TOLD HIM THAT THE NEXT SEA LION SHOW WAS AT 12:30," she said, eager and beaming.



"That's what we thought!"


"Where?? Where???" we asked, desperately.

And she told us, the answer being as sweet as any donut I could imagine.  The KIA who had scrutinized our park, who had patronized our staff member, disapproved of our "unknown" veterinarian team, who represented all KIAs we'd ever encountered at any zoo who could spit in our face and insult us….because they knew everything ever, or at least more than any of us knew….

….was standing in front of our harbor seal habitat.  Waiting for the sea lion show.  Waiting. For. The. Sea. Lion. Show.  

At the harbor seal exhibit.

How many times do I have to tell you, I AM NOT A FREAKING SEA LION?!?!?!?!

If it were any other non-KIA guest, we wouldn't have laughed.  We wouldn't have felt vindicated and a little Mean Girlsish.  But I'd be lying if I said we didn't feel a slight twinge of happiness that this guy had made such an obvious mistake that no KIA would ever be caught dead making (or admitting to make).   The intense satisfaction of just the image in my head of this pompous windbag impatiently waiting for the sea lion show to start, watching our harbor seals cruise around was hard to describe.

Someone wound up going out there to talk to them in a friendly manner, ask if they got a chance to see the sea lion show (to which the man replied no, with a confused look on his face), and then told them that the next sea lion show was at 3:30, and gave them directions to the correct habitat.  Because the KIA made no mention of being clearly confused between what a seal and sea lion was, we did not choose to highlight this mistake.  Because really, no matter how obnoxious he was towards us, it really didn't give us any right to intentionally and mean-spiritedly humiliate him.

He and his family left long before the last show.  But his story remained.  So while I can get frustrated at his KIA disposition, it provided some comic relief.  More importantly, it stuck out enough in our minds in a way that only happens when an event is sporadic.  That is to say, KIAs are not very common.  The common guest denominator at zoos and aquariums are passionate people with a wide range of knowledge who come to see, learn, and care about the natural world.  So when a weirdo comes through, it's nice to take pause after a frustrating encounter and find the hilarity within it.  And appreciate that much more the vast majority of patrons with whom we really enjoy interacting.


* Of the Asian small-clawed variety, who are not adapted for our 15 degree winter nights

Sunday, January 18, 2015

The Middle Flipper Is….(Part 13)

...a dolphin who (continues to) use floating docks as his own personal banking system.

A few months ago, I wrote about Chopper.  You can read about him here, but in case you only have time to read this blog, here’s a quick recap:

Chopper; 3 years old; Atlantic bottle-nosed dolphin; hides toys under docks.

Here he is!

Normally, I like to write Middle Flipper events about completely different stories or individual animals.  You know, to keep the content fresh.  But due to recent events that have since transpired, I figured you’d all appreciate an update on little Chopper dearest.

Unsurprisingly, Chopper lost some interest in lodging his toys under the docks.  I say unsurprisingly because as trainers, we all know about desensitization.  At some point, putting EEDs* in hard-for-humans-to-reach-places was going to get kind of lame and boring.  And if you’re not an animal trainer, but an animal lover and/or parent, then you know how easily kids get over toys, games, or movies they once could barely exist without.  I mean, even in high school I watched Monsters Inc about eleven theaters.  And then when it came out on DVD I watched it every day for at least a month solid, mostly because my mental age has never progressed past 10 and also because Pixar is amazing.  Obviously, I habituated to Monsters Inc and eventually stopped watching it with such fervor.  

Annnnnd then this came out and I watched it about 7e45 times

And so young Master Chopper waned in his sneaky toy-hiding missions.  Until....

I don’t know how this happened.  I don’t know who started it.  All I know is that working with smart animals proves to me every day how unbelievably out of touch humans are with their place in the intellectual continuum in the Animal Kingdom, because Chopper and his pals found an even more fun game with our floating docks.  

To give you an idea of what our dock system is like, it looks like this:

Background: Floating docking system
Middleground: Obligatory embarrassing photo of coworker 

And under those floating docks are floats made of the same thick, sturdy plastic.  We put them there in order to provide more stability for us humans when we’re walking on them.  Stability is especially important for me, so I’ve been very happy with the extra help while I continue my never ending battle with the gravitational pull of planet Earth.

The floats aren’t very heavy, but because they are hollow/filled with air (um, d’uh, they’re floats) they wedge themselves firmly in place under the dock pieces.  And there they stay, until us humans decide we need to move them to a better location.

Well, one day, I’m sure at one of the dolphins’ Weekly Strategy Meetings for Human Management, someone had the bright idea to dislodge the floats and make them into fun, fun toys.  We humans came in one morning and saw like seven of these massive floats just bobbing freely along the surface of the water.  A couple of the dolphins were playing with them in that state, but the others were hard at work dismantling some more.

While this wasn’t necessarily a concern for the dolphins’ health (they are so strong that it was really no big deal for them to pop them out of place, and the floats are waaaaaay too big for someone to accidentally swallow them), it was sure annoying to go down onto our docks and feel tipsy.  

It was actually pretty cool to watch how these guys worked to get the floats out.  Each dolphin had his or her own methodology, ranging from Wow That’s Really Smart to I JUST BEAT IT UNTIL IT COMES LOOSE.  I mean, humans tend to work with that spectrum, too.  Yeah yeah, dolphins are smart.  But so are humans.  We say, “Humans are smart” collectively, but what does that actually mean?  It means that we aren’t a banana slug, but it also doesn’t specify how individuals are smart.  I am pretty good with language and conceptual skills, but I’m pretty sure any alien lifeform observing me complete a Sodoku puzzle would rate my intelligence somewhere between “amoeba” and “lima bean.”

(Hint: It's closer to Lima Bean)

As such, not every dolphin shares the same cognitive strengths as another.  Chopper is a young guy, so he lacks finesse in some of his tasks but for the most part he is a fast learner who problem solves pretty quickly.  His best pal Cosmo approaches problem-solving in a way appreciated by types of humans associated with activities such as: linebacker.  So yes, Cosmo can figure these issues out, but he tends to just throw his weight around until he gets what he wants when it comes to toys and other inanimate objects (side note: with animate beings he is a giant teddy bear).

Anyways, where was I?  So the dolphins discovered this tremendously fun game of deconstruction.  We tried several methods to get them to stop.  We put tons of floats in the water, hoping maybe they just really liked playing with them once they were free-floating and wouldn’t try to get anymore out once they had plenty to play with.  They did play with them a little bit, but the thrill of the active process of removal proved more reinforcing.  We tried reinforcing them outside of session when they weren’t messing around under the docks.  It didn’t work.  In fact, I remember one time I went down to the water’s edge and most of the dolphins came over for rubs outside of session.  It was going really well and I thought, “Hey, this is the ticket to extinguishing this frustrating behavior!”  And in the middle of me patting myself on my back, Chopper and Cosmo both started their Float Removal Routine.  I got up to leave, and they didn’t even notice.

Where you going? Haha just kidding,  I don't care!

We took as many floats out as we could and still be able to easily move around on the docks without lots of balance checks.  And then we started stuffing the impromptu dolphin toys in different ways that we thought would be impossible for a dolphin to dislodge.

That worked for a few days.  Once in a while, one of the dolphins would try to get a float out by him or herself to no avail.  They’d give up after a while, and we thought we had the problem solved.

Sigh.  The dolphins learned to work together, and so the floats started popping out again.  We went back to the drawing board, drew on any physics knowledge anyone on the staff had, and found a winning (well, at least as I write this) manner in which to place the objects that were impervious to even a four-dolphin cooperative removal effort.

But what did this to?  Oh, this made the Floating Dock Bank of Dolphindom return to the forefront of Chopper’s gigantic brain.  

“OH YEAH!” he seemed to think.  “I remember having fun with this months ago!!!!!!!!!!!!”

Someone smarter than me please make this meme with Chopper's face in it

We had a very, very cold wind come through a couple of weeks ago.  Eight degrees (definitely far too few degrees if you ask me, especially for FLORIDA for crying out loud) and gusts over 30mph.  When we came in the next day, we noticed some palm frond debris floating in the dolphin habitat.  Not only was it floating on the surface, it had collected in some places under the docks.  I spent a good amount of time fishing the stuff out from under there with any tool I could find, Chopper watching intently.  

That moment seemed to fully re-ignite Chopper’s zeal for hiding toys.  I mean, I can understand it.  First, it is a great fun to watch humans futz around to get the stuff out.  Second, most of the time humans don’t even REALIZE they toys are UNDER there, because as all dolphins know humans lack object permanence despite seeming like they have a high level of intelligence that approaches that of an octopus.

A few days ago, the dolphins had a great session and we decided to put a buttload of toys in for them.  They had these square mats they go crazy for, they had jolly balls and kongs and soccer/footballs.  Every dolphin was playing with everything, for two hours they played nonstop with these things.  And then the 2:00 show rolled around and we all went down onto the docks and collected our respective dolphin.  I took Chopper that show, and he brought over a mouthful of mats and balls.  I laughed, impressed with his Teacher’s Pet attitude.

Ohhhh oh oh oh!!! OHHHHH ME!!

So the show started, and I was having a great time trying to teach Chopper to throw toys into a one of our toy baskets.  He seems to get really jazzed with that behavior, so I was using it for reinforcement for some of his other more important things.

“Hey Cat,” one of our trainers said.  “Do you see the orange noodle anywhere?”

I looked around the habitat quickly and couldn’t see it.  

“Are you sure it was in here?” I asked.
“Yes, positive,” the trainer said.

The orange noodle is a huge, unswallowable noodle that’s made out of the same stuff lifeguard floats are made of, and they are a big hit with three of our dolphins.  They hadn’t seen it in a while, so I immediately knew where it was.

Under the docks.

It had to be.  It was a toy that when we first introduced it, some of the dolphins ripped out of our hands and refused to give it back.  Once we got through that issue, we had some really great training accomplished using just that particular noodle as reinforcement.  We hadn’t had it in rotation for a few weeks, so it made sense to me that someone may have wanted to save it for later.  I’d already experienced Chopper seeing us get ready to do a session and quickly hide all of his toys, so I knew that this was a likely possibility.

Fun for water-loving mammals of all species!

I gave Chopper the retrieval SD.  I pointed under the docks, but he instead went to one of the last toys out in visible range and brought it back to me.  I asked again, pointing under the dock.  He disappeared, and this is what I heard:

Rumble.  Rumble.  Squeaaaakkkkkkk.   BumpBUMP.  Squeaaaak. BUMP.

Chopper returned to me, his mouth closed and eyes wide, sans noodle.

Hmmm, I thought naively.  Maybe he is having trouble getting it out from under there.**  I asked him again.  He again promptly went back to the same location.  Again I heard and felt thudding in one location, and again he returned to me empty-handed.

We had to move on to other behaviors for the show, but now Chopper was on red-alert.  His beloved toy was in danger of being discovered.  All of a sudden, for no obvious reason, he’d leave station with me and disappear under the docks.  I’d hear the thudding again, and then he’d come back to me.  When I offered tactile reinforcement, he’d run his body along my hands like he usually does, except he’d again disappear under the docks.

We eventually asked Lily, our youngest female, to retrieve the noodle.  She quickly swam to where Chopper had been intently checking and brought back...

...a floating mat.

“Whhhaaaaaa??” I said. The other trainers knew we were short one mat and one noodle, but I’d only heard about the noodle.  So I asked Lily’s trainer to send her again to finish the job, but she refused to go under there.

The show ended, and one of the trainers ran downstairs to look up under the docks to see if I’d lost my mind.  Sure enough, the noodle was exactly where I thought it was; right where Chopper had essentially told me.  


So we did another training session (as we normally do; we usually have an in-water program right after our show, but we’ve been so slow we haven’t had it so we just do a long training session).  I took Chopper, stuffed toys under the docks, asked him to retrieve them (he did) and reinforced him for it.  But he still would. not. get. the. noodle.  

We eventually send good ol’ reliable Cosmo, who pulled the noodle out from under the docks in about 0.032 seconds.  Chopper watched him the entire time, from retrieval to bringing it back to his trainer.  A part of me felt bad for little Chop; his buddy had just betrayed his clever hiding spot.  I took the noodle from Cosmo’s trainer, wedged it under the docks again, and asked Chopper to get it.  He got it for me no problem, and I reinforced him for that.

I hate to say that Chopper “lied” to me about the noodle not being there...because that’s a pretty big stretch for me to assert.  And certainly I don’t think there was any malicious intent on the part of that cute little dolphin, but c’mon.  Certainly there was some mischief happening....and the best kind of mischief: the smart kind.   Was this situation akin to when a human child decides to hide something from his parents, thinking he is being so incredibly clandestine and clever while his parents are aware of every facet of his cunning plan?  It surely felt that way to me.  I can’t write a peer-reviewed paper on it, so this anecdote will have to suffice.  And I will continue to appreciate and find myself in awe of the decisions, no matter how familiar or foreign, the animals with whom I share my life make.  It is something none of us, animal trainer/keeper/caretaker should ever take for granted.  It is not something any of us should fear, or stuff under a facade of “professionalism.”  It is something to celebrate, debate, and share.  Don’t stuff it under a dock!


* Environmental Enrichment Devices, which I submit we should start calling all children toys because really, what is the difference between a baby dolphin/elephant/human (other than amount of poop produced per hour)?

**Yeah right, he can pull out a ten pound float wedged into place from under there but not a floaty, squishy noodle?  Oh, the lies we tell ourselves.

Sunday, January 11, 2015

THE Mystery of The Field: How To Become A Trainer (Part 3)

Welcome to the final installment of How To Become A Trainer, where we focus on the Dark Side of the process.  Just what should you do if you get turned down for jobs, or worse...never hear back from a prospective employer after you sent your application in?

If you missed Parts 1 and 2, don't you worry.  Part 1 is here, and Part 2 is here (I'd never leave you hangin'!)

So we've talked about the correct attitudes and methods of getting information about a job, resumes, and feedback on your work performance.  We've also gone over the application process of trying to get your foot in the door.

"Yeah, yeah, yeah," you may have said.  "I already KNOW all that of that stuff.  That stuff is EASY.  In fact, IMATA has an awesome resource for resume building and interview skills."


You know what? You're right!  IMATA does have some great resources:

Resume Tips
Interview Tips
Swim Test Tips

What you probably want to know is the Secret Formula on how to really get the edge over the other hundreds to thousands of other applicants vying for the same position.  Unfortunately, I have some bad news for you:

1) I am terrible at math, so you'll rarely find a formula on this blog*

2) There ain't no formula

My life in a meme

I like to consider myself a pretty positive person.  When I give advice, I'd rather focus more on what TO do, versus what NOT to do.  But with this particular topic, I've seen more mistakes that have really gotten people into trouble when they're trying to become a marine mammal trainer than I have very obviously WHOA THAT WAS BRILLIANT moments who have single-handedly secured someone a position.

Don't let that get you down, though.  The thing is, hard work, being a good person, learning from your mistakes quickly, and having a great attitude in a team-setting are all qualities that will be rewarded in the long run.  They just don't all add up to a quick journey down the Job Path, you know?  It'd be great if they did, but usually they don't.  Hey, I told you, don't be discouraged!! Be patient, if anything; if you're already good at learning from mistakes, you work hard, and can keep a generally positive attitude about things, you're bound to land a job.

Now it's time to get real, right?  Because most of you aspiring trainers reading this blog right now probably have had your fair share of rejection.  Many of you have sent out resumes and cover letters and never heard a single word back from the facility.  Others of you have gone through the interview process and found out you weren't selected.  Some of you have been at this for years and are ready to give up.  So let's talk about some tips on how to deal with rejection and Black Hole Job Applications.

1) It's Okay To Be Bummed....


If you're not super disappointed or sad about not hearing back from a job (or worse, getting a rejection letter or phone call), you're probably an android and maybe you'd be better off in other occupations such as working on a Star Wars vessel.  Otherwise, if you are convinced for the most part that you're a human, then d'uhhhhhhhhhhhhh you're gonna be down in the dumps.

So let yourself, for a definitive (very, very definitive) period of time wallow in your disappointment.  I'm talking like, a few hours.  Maybe a day.  Do something that makes you feel better, take care of yourself, pamper yourself.  Watch some Netflix, order a pizza, get a pedicure or something.  Vent to your family and friends via phone or in person (hint: NOT on Facebook, Tumblr, Twitter, or any other social media I'm currently completely unaware of because I'm turning 31 in like five days and am officially an adult who knows nothing cool anymore).

2) ...But Your Self-Worth and Future Are Not Determined By A Job Rejection

I googled "I'm pretty great" to boost your self confidence, and I found this image of plush fish suspended in midair.  You're welcome/I'm sorry?

Go ahead and read that again.  Seriously.  Er, the title of this section, not the weird caption to the bizarre photo.

For many of us, hearing we didn't get a job is something we'll experience multiple times.  Moreso than that, our resume will go into Black Holeville.  I applied multiple times to my "dream job" at the time, over and over and over, polishing the resume, the cover letter, trying to get feedback on how to best represent myself in a job application.....and never heard back from them.  Not once.  It made me sad and worried, but it happens.  It's out of your control at a certain point.  And it's not a signal that you totally suck, that your life is over, or that you're never going to work with the animals you've loved for so long.

Here is a quick list of reasons why you may not hear back from a job application:

* You aren't qualified, which does not mean you aren't awesome.  It just means you didn't have the experience they're looking for, specific to their program.  Or, whoops, you applied to the wrong job.

For a thousandddd yeaaaarrrrrsssssss

* You accidentally messed up the resume (once I sent a resume that was four years old to a job.  Four years old.  Like I'd love to have seen the look on the person's face who opened THAT file open.  "Uh, Cat Rust is an idiot.  DELETE."  And hey! Who could blame them?)

You said it, girl.

* Their posting was a formality; some zoos and aquariums post their jobs internally first so they can give their own employees a chance at the position.  It's better to hire someone you already know than a stranger off the street, no matter how awesome the stranger may seem. So maybe they already had someone in mind before they posted the external job link.

Okay seriously google image search? What does this have to do with the keyword "Formality"?!

* You were the awesome stranger (and someone awesome they knew personally got hired)

Okay, we do hire strangers because it's good to get fresh ideas.  But sometimes we go with the people we know.

* You were over-qualified (This may seem weird, but think about this logically from the zoo's perspective: it's risky to bring on someone who is over-qualified, because they may not be satisfied with their job responsibilities and may not want to stick around for very long as a result)

No one is over-qualified to be a chicken, that's what I've always said.

* The job position was eliminated (happens ALL the time, because of funding issues or other things that have nothing to do with you)

And so it goes

A lot of these reasons apply towards why you did not get the job even after you swim tested and/or interviewed, too.  Yes, you may not have been chosen because your interview skills were not as strong (or maybe they were downright mine in my first interview OMG).  Maybe you didn't get a great reference from your internship because you earned a not-so-great reputation.  But that's why it's important to get feedback from your bosses and mentors, so you KNOW what to work on and so you can improve in the areas you need to in order to give yourself the best chance.

If you know you have great references and feel like you're just ready to go to get a job, then it's more likely that, in addition to always improving interview, resume, and swim test skills, you're just dealing with some of the other aforementioned factors.  So keep trying.

3) Don't Go Viral With Your Disappointment

You'll be happier you did!

But for the love of Lord Neptune, DON'T TRASH TALK THE PLACES WHO DIDN'T INTERVIEW OR HIRE YOU.  I have seen people completely annihilate their chances at a getting a job, because they hopped on the good ol' Internet, signed into Facebook and said something like, "Ugh no matter WHAT I DO, NO ONE WILL HIRE ME."  Or, "Such-and-such a zoo just keeps stringing me along."  

When I see that I wince, because why would someone want to hire a person who cannot maturely handle disappointment that almost ALL of us face, or have had to face?  Why hire someone who seems like they just victimize themselves, complain, and/or vent to the world in a way that is totally not constructive?  I'd much rather hire someone who's been rejected, kept their *#%&* off Facebook (and maybe vented a whole lot to a trusted relative or friend on the phone or in person or whatever) and presents themselves as professional and focused on the next step.

If you post your negative feelings on Facebook, even if you think you're being cryptic about it, you have just made it significantly harder to get hired.  The sooner you realize that, the better.  If you realize you're guilty of that, the best thing to do is just move forward.  Hey, maybe every time you feel the impulse to vent on social media, you post a picture of an adorable baby walrus or something.  Or something delicious.  How about we make a thing where we just post pictures of waffles whenever we're sad? Waffles just like, make everything better.


4) Learn, Learn, Learn

I can't stop

Rejection from a dream job is a great time to learn. So after you've house that cheese pizza and posted a picture of a waffle on your Tumblr account, it's time to refocus.  It's time to learn.  

"Okay," you tell yourself.  "Where in this process did I fail?"

If it was the application stage, and you never heard back from the facility, glance over at your resume and cover letter again.  Have someone look at it, not as a general application, but specific to that job.  Go to someone you trust and say, "Hey, I applied for this primate trainer position.  Here's the job posting with the requirements.  Does my resume and cover letter adequately meet those qualifications while showing my best side?"  If you get some good feedback, then just chalk it up to one of the out-of-your-control reasons why you weren't selected for an interview.  But you'll feel better that you took charge of a disappointing situation and turned it into an opportunity to grow and learn.

If you messed up the swim test and didn't get an interview, you know what to do.  Get back to the gym, or pool.  Practice, practice, practice.  The better shape you're in, the easier the swim test practice will be.  And I'm not just talking about physical fitness, I'm talking about the mental fitness you get when you have a healthy lifestyle.  Especially if you bomb your first swim test, remember this: you now officially know what it's like to do the swim test, where before you were just guessing/putting together information from other people.  You have the advantage over other newbie swim-testers next time.  Don't let that knowledge go to waste!!! And for god's sake, reward yourself with a donut after a successful swim test training workout.

Or, um, waffles.

If you got deeeeenied after an interview, it's time to polish up the interview skills.  Some skills can always be improved, such as: drawing, shredding guitar, cooking, and Plants Versus Zombies.  Even if you are an AMAZING interviewee, you can always improve.  Communication is an art form that is honed with practice, but never fully mastered to the point where you can just forget about it.  It's perfectly okay to tactfully ask for feedback from the facility about your interview.  But here's another tip: don't make it their burden to placate you.  Show them you have no hard feelings towards them and that you are eager to learn for your own sake.  Here are two contrasting examples of this:

Not A Good Idea

Bad.  Baaaaaad.

"Why didn't I get the job? I'm just asking because I want to know for next time."

"What about my interview made you decide not to give me the job?"

Those styles of questions put the employer on the defensive and it makes you look like you're whining a little bit.  

A Much Better Idea

The BEST idea

"Thank you so much for taking the time to interview me. I learned a lot from the process and about your amazing facility and staff.  I appreciate you getting back to me about the status of my application.  I am interested in getting feedback on my interview, so that I can continue to hone these skills in order to break into this competitive industry.  Thank you so much in advance!"

This style of writing focuses the attention of the recipient on giving specific, constructive feedback, not giving REASONS why you didn't get the job.  You are showing you understand you didn't get the job, you harbor no ill will (even if you are majorly sad about it), and you are trying to glean opportunities for improvement.

Many facilities will respond favorably to a tasteful, professional request for feedback.  Some won't, so if that's the case with your situation, let it go.  It's a busy field, and sometimes it just doesn't work out that way.  Don't let it make you angry or resentful, because guess what? Those feelings don't help you at all, and you're way too resourceful to give up after only ONE avenue for improvement is shut down.  There are lots and lots of ways to keep improving your game.

5) Have A General Plan

If you pail a flan, then you...flan a pail.  Wait.  I'm no good at this.

It may take you a year or so to land your first paid trainer position.  Plan accordingly.  It's okay if you have to get a job to pay the bills that has nothing to do with animal training while you apply for your dream job.  No one in this field expects anyone at the entry level to do nine million internships.  If you do one internship, and take a job in a doctor's office (like I did!), no facility will look at your resume and go, "Ohhh...Cat hasn't worked in the field for a year.  She sucks, don't call her."

No, they'll understand that you can't work for free indefinitely until you land a job.  It's the fact that you have the internship experience and you kicked ass at it that really matters.  Plus, if you are doing a great job at your pay-the-bills gig, you'll have another great professional reference to send in.  

A piece of advice I got that really helped me was to create a PLAN: a time limit to my job application process.  I decided that I would apply for animal training jobs in the U.S. for one year.  If after one year I did not land anything, I'd apply for internships at facilities that have a higher rate of hiring interns.  Then I'd re-evaluate.  You may want to consider doing something similar, if that works for you.  Just give yourself time.  Sometimes, it's nice to have a general plan for how long you'll try, because it keeps you trying no matter how discouraged you are.

6) Honestly Re-evaluate Your Game Plan If You Keep Getting Rejected

It may very well seem this way.

For most people who are introspective, seek advice and implement it for positive change, and who work really, really hard and stick with it, they get jobs.  But we hear or read about people who just can't seem to get any luck finding a full time position.  So what happens if that's you?

It's time to re-evaluate.  Ask yourself, are you limiting yourself to one geographical area? Species? Basically, are you being too picky?  Have you complained publicly via the internet about your disappointment or frustration?  Do you get defensive when you are given feedback that is less than flattering?  Have you caused some serious drama or trouble at an internship?  I know I can't speak for EVERYONE'S situation, but in my experience....those are usually the reasons why people have a very, very difficult time even getting an interview.

This is why it's SO important to put your best foot forward at your internships and jobs, learn from the inevitable mistakes you make and show improvement, and be willing to hear the harsh truth about your areas of improvement.  Oh, and why it's critical not to use social media as a sounding board for negative, bitter feelings (have I made myself clear on that point yet?).  And if you think you've done some of the things I've just listed in the last paragraph,'ve got a long road ahead, but not an impossible one.

So there you have it, friends.  The conclusion of this massive post in all its three-part glory.  I hope it's helped some of you out.  And don't worry, there will still be blog entires in the future geared towards aspiring trainers and caretakers.  But let this be something to think about; and as always, if you have any questions don't hesitate to ask (me, or your mentors!)

Good luck out there!! 

* If you do, the math is probably totally wrong