Sunday, February 15, 2015

New School Versus Old School; We're Not That Different (Special Guest Writer Russ Chiodo)


Today's Middle Flipper is written by Russ Chiodo, a former marine mammal trainer-turned writer.  Russ has worked with a variety of marine mammals at Sea World Orlando, Sea World San Diego, Dolphin Research Center, and Marineland of Florida.  Recently, he co-authored a book on the history of one of the U.S.'s oldest facilities, the Gulfarium (check out the book here!).  After countless hours of interviewing former trainers and benefactors of Gulfarium, Russ developed a new appreciation for something all of us current trainers and keepers could always stand to acknowledge: the hard work, passion, and dedication of the so-called "old-school" keepers.   Enjoy!

The author

Animal care and training gets better every day. We build on experience, gain new insights through research, and grow as a community by sharing our successes and concerns through professional organizations such as IMATA. 

It goes without saying that abuse and profiteering to the detriment of an animal’s health and well-being will never be tolerated by the organized professionals of today’s zoological field--although it sure feels nice when we hear that core value declared publicly by a voice of our profession. High five, IMATA!

Although techniques, nutrition, veterinary care, animal enrichment, and public outreach have all improved and grown rapidly as a result of education and professionalization, one thing in the field has not changed, and that’s the absolute passion felt at the individual level by keepers and trainers. 
As an eager young trainer learning the many critical practices of top-notch animal care, it's easy to get caught up in a collective scoffing at the "old ways." One inch of ice over every bucket of fish and not a scale to be found in a freshly cleaned fish house--even an intern knows that's the best way to maintain dolphin health. Old photos reveal trainers carrying buckets in the hot sun with fish tails sticking right out the top. To the new trainer who just had the 40 years of distilled marine mammal science deposited into his brain, it would be easy to assume a trainer letting fish warm in the Florida sun couldn't possibly prioritize the level of animal care that today's keepers and trainers exhibit on a daily basis.

In researching a book covering the 60-year history of one of the original marine mammal facilities, Florida’s Gulfarium, I had the amazing opportunity to speak with former trainers who were working with dolphins and every other species of marine life brought into the park before Flipper debuted and the Marine Mammal Protection Act became law. High five, Nixon!

Admittedly, there are people who become stuck in their ways and refuse to learn and grow, but those people represent a very small fraction of the animal care population.  In fact, what I learned in my book research is that I was naive to think that trainers of yore didn't provide the best care possible for the animals under their watchful eye.

One of the most sincere things ever told to me was when Martha Bradford, a former Gulfarium trainer, said, “We didn’t know everything that’s known today, but we cared so much for those animals.” She and her husband Ron Bradford, also a former Gulfarium trainer, had just recalled the time Gulfarium trainers were recruited by a federal agent to rescue a group of abandoned and neglected dolphins from a storage warehouse in Mississippi in the early 1970s. 

The rescue was part of an investigation just after the Marine Mammal Protection Act was passed. Before that legislation, just about anybody could own dolphins and keep them in completely unregulated conditions. So while respected marine mammal facilities like Marineland and Theater of the Sea, to name only two, were building the foundation for today's respectable marine mammal field, some unscrupulous profiteers took advantage of dolphin popularity pre-1972 and put them in traveling road shows and circus-style events while failing to provide adequate water quality, nutrition and veterinary care. In fact, to this day some animals who were rescued from this life still live at facilities around the U.S.

By the time the Gulfarium staff arrived at the warehouse with the agent to try and save that unfortunate group of animals, most of the dolphins were already dead. The remaining animals only made it a few days. The Bradfords didn’t have to say it, it was written across their distressed faces as they recalled the experience--they wish to this day that they could have done more for those unfortunate dolphins. But by giving the animals the best shot they could, and then gathering data from those animals and the many others who stranded or passed from causes unknown at the time, life for dolphins at marine mammal facilities could improve.

Ron Bradford

This had great implications for the rescue, rehabilitation, and release of sick and injured dolphins as well.  For example, without the knowledge of how sensitive dolphins are to certain bacterial growth on fish (and equally importantly: how to keep fish in a way that prevents this bacteria), we would not have the resources to feed stranded, releasable animals.  

Today the benefits of simply hydrating a dolphin are widely known, and many facilities train a voluntary hydration behavior. Blood samples can be taken at regular intervals voluntarily to establish baselines, and even catch ailments early and monitor treatment progress.  Bottlenose dolphins consistently reach and surpass their average life expectancy in accredited zoos and aquariums, and so we are now facing a number of geriatric animals with typical geriatric problems.  A very old dolphin may develop, like so many humans, age-related digestive problems that slow down digestion of bony fish.  One solution to this is to filet their fish so that their stomachs don't have to work as hard to digest bones.  This simple treatment that provides comfort to an aging body may also assist stranded animals whose GI tracts are severely compromised due to injury or illness; an example of how what we learn with our animals in human care directly benefits their wild counterparts.

All of these things were learned because people on the front lines of the profession constantly sought a better standard of care for the animals they love. 

Could today’s knowledge of marine mammal medicine have successfully given those neglected and abused dolphins mourned by the Bradfords a second chance at life? Perhaps, but my research of that event leads me to believe those animals were already beyond even the most modern treatment practices.

But without their persistence to work through even the toughest days, the marine mammal field wouldn’t be where it is today. The records, papers, photos, and a constant willingness to apply newly gained knowledge to the next animal in peril made it possible for trainers and keepers to do their jobs today as well as they do. The new, modern trainers are merely standing on the shoulders of their "old school" counterparts. 

One can only imagine where that steady drive of passion will take the field from here. Breathtaking new exhibits, breakthroughs in veterinary science--perhaps an intern reading this blog will create a revolutionary and supremely enriching dolphin toy, the likes of which the world has never seen before!

1 comment:

  1. Love this. Thanks for taking the time to write and share.