Sunday, April 26, 2015

Jobs We Need Immediately At Zoological Facilities: The Zouncer

My last blog (the one about guests who just let themselves into animal habitats in zoos and aquariums) brought up a concept in passing that caught some fire.  I was deeply pleased that my fellow colleagues in this field agree that Zouncers are a necessary addition to any zoological team.  

We're gonna need a bigger uniform shirt.

For those of you who haven't read the last blog, I submit that Zouncers (Zoo Bouncers for short) are necessary staff in order to prevent guests from entering employee areas and/or animal habitats.  We trainers/caretakers are often running around from animal group to animal group and are unable to stand guard for the length of a work day to ensure that no wayward customer decides to let themselves into an otter habitat, or dangle their progeny over a crocodile pit.


I've done you all a solid and written up a Zouncer job description.  This makes it easy for you to copy and paste directly to your curators, general managers, and/or board members.  And if any of you reading this carry one or more of the aforementioned titles, feel free to directly paste this description into AZA, IMATA, or any other place you'd post jobs for your zoo or aquarium.  

So without further ado:

Zouncer (Levels 1, 2, and 3)
Organization: Blahblahblah Zoo
Location: (Insert location here)
Job or Internship: Job 

Blahblahblah Zoo is currently seeking to hire a dynamic team of Zouncers at all levels.  The Zouncer position is primarily a daytime security position responsible for preventing park guests of lesser social intelligence from entering animal habitats.  The Zouncer assesses and mitigates any breach of security (perceived or real) with appropriate action, situation-dependent.   

Live for something, die for breaking into the polar bear habitat.

Zouncer I is an entry-level position responsible for overseeing the safety and well-being of all habitats with animals capable of chasing but not ultimately injuring guests, including but not limited to: ducks.  Zouncer I escorts unauthorized guests in employee areas via Wedgie Method (a proprietary method taught to Zouncers at Blahblahblah Zoo), and assures no feeder food from fish or turtle ponds is fed to the incorrect animals.   After a 90 day probationary period, Zouncers at this level may force-feed incorrectly-fed turtle pellets to any rule-breaking guests.   Requirements: 6 months of bouncer experience, must pass the PT test, and be proficient in football sacking.

Presenting, for the first time ever, MY fingers to YOUR beak!

Zouncer II positions maintain perimeter security of all class-2 animal habitats.   This position may require standing menacingly at habitats with low fences and/or gates that may be opened without unlocking a combination lock.  This position requires extreme brute strength for physically throwing guests into large piles of safe but mildly-irritating Time Out Sand that the Blahblahblah Zoo has placed strategically at each animal habitat.  Bicep measurements must be between Zac Efron When He's Really Ripped and Arnold Schwartzeneggar At The Height Of His Steroid Usage.   Women with massively powerful thighs will also be considered in lieu of bicep requirement.  Requirements:  one year at Zouncer I -or- three years as a bouncer, pass the PT test, and a cynical attitude that doesn't believe for a moment that a park guest "didn't see the DO NOT ENTER sign."

A Zouncer II would never allow this to occur

Zouncer III is responsible for preventing guests from entering and/or dangling other humans of any age into or over habitats of animals that any Sane Human Being wouldn't be caught dead trying to give a hug.  Zouncer IIIs are in charge of the security of all class-1 animal habitats.  This position is authorized to use a high-powered rifle delivering a powerful drug combination of truth serum and sedative to be used at the Zouncer III's discretion upon detainment.  This serum ensures the safety of both guest and animal, with the added benefit of forcing honesty from the trespasser for all litigation and media fallout.  Zouncer IIIs must be able to learn to use a jet pack within 90 days of employment.  Requirements: Five years as proven Zouncer II -or- 20 years as a Navy Seal, must pass PT test, and have a good yell-y voice with decibels approaching that of a jet engine. 

Breach of a secondary fence, approaching critical break-in point.  What does a Zouncer III do?

Option A or...

Option B.

The correct answer is: Any or all of the above.  Supernatural and/or brute force are appropriate responses for any Zouncer III.  Thanks for playing!

All positions require lengthy periods of time on feet,  a serious facial expression that cannot be broken (Blue Man group experience a plus), the ability to rip a shirt by just flexing pectoral muscles and/or pants seam-busting with flexion of abductors and quads, and a big giant heart for animals.  All Zouncers must pass a routine drug-screening test and criminal background check.  Must be able to lift 250lbs and feel comfortable in dark, very tight clothing that make muscle groups appear larger.  Crazy eyes welcome but not required.
The perfect Zouncer

This position requires a rigorous physical test (PT).
Compensation range: Commensurate with experience and level; commissioned based on how many guests do NOT enter your habitat and/or how many people maintenance staff must remove from the Time Out Sand at the end of the day.
Bad guests! Bad!!!

Send cover letter, resume, and high-definition video of candidate participating in physical activities such as: Scottish Highland Games.
Excuse me sir, can I interest you in a position at Blahblahblah Zoo?

So what do you think, dear readers?  Sound like something you could swing at your institution?  I sure know we could use one.  I mean, I kind of left it vague for all of us animal caregivers.  I think to have a Zouncer at a place like where I work, there'd definitely need to be some serious water skills needed.  
I also think we can use Zouncers as an educational element to our zoo.  Our education staffs, docents, volunteers, and of course we as keepers and trainers can serve to share information about the natural history, behavior, and conservation topics of the animals under our watch.  We know how valuable zoos are in conveying these things to the general public.  However, I think there is a need for a small group of laymen to really make them understand why they shouldn't oh, hug a panda.
Good point.

Think about this: Zouncers who not only just stand guard at habitats, but have interactive displays with which people can interact.  They can create and implement a board with small mouse traps glued to it and put it in front of say, a penguin exhibit.  The signage would say something like, "THIS IS WHAT IT FEELS LIKE TO BE BITTEN BY A PENGUIN!"  Zouncers should probably have some First Aid experience.  And a really good lawyer.  
Clearly, I'm at the beginning stages of fleshing out this idea.  But you get what I mean.  
What other jobs would be nice to have at zoos and aquariums?  Share your thoughts and let's see if we can collectively create the dream team at each of our facilities (please be sure to include hot men and women who wash our laundry and/or bring us snacks).

Sunday, April 19, 2015

Do Not Enter, Maybe: The Curious Tale of Guests Who Transcend Barriers

There are things in life that are unexplainable by science.  Many of life's mysteries cause us to pause and contemplate possible solutions.  Sometimes, we even question our own sanity.  Like one time, I swear to god I saw a ghost.  I was 10 years old and in my dad's study.  I heard papers rustling, and I looked over in the direction of the sound and THERE WAS A GHOST.  No, really.  I'm serious.  She was a young girl, transparentish.  She turned and walked away, disappearing before she got to the door.

At least *I* knew there was a ghost in the same room as me.

I remember sitting at my dad's IBM computer (I may or may not have been writing a killer script for SeaQuest DSV*), fingers frozen on the keys, staring at where the ghost had been and wondering what the heck happened.  Questions flooded my brain, such as:

1) Did I really just see what I thought I saw?
2) Am I crazy?
3) How would Jonathan Brandis react to this story when I told him on the first day of filming my brilliant script?

I feel bad for all of these people because they never got a chance to know the creative depths of my writing ability.

I ultimately never could explain what I saw, although I still think I actually saw a ghost.  But I think about that time a lot, and wonder about supernatural things and if science will ever find an explanation.  Plus, I never married Lucas Wolenczak.

We could've been great together.

But you get what I'm saying about these odd events in life that leave you perplexed and yearning for more information, right?

I think zookeepers experience this on a more regular basis than people in other possessions when it comes to a topic, and one topic only:

Guests who let themselves into animal habitats.

This class of events renders all of us with but one phrase used only to describe completely mind-blowing events that no human being with any advanced level of intellect could explain.  

"Um, what?"

Exactly my point.

Some of us have seen smaller versions of this enigma, that mostly just irritate us and occasionally allow a laugh later.  Others have seen the very serious side of guests taking a stroll into back areas and wind up getting really hurt.  

Just the other day, a man and woman were found in an employee-only area by one of our sea turtle habitats.  It was hard to tell if they were more interested in touching the turtle or enjoying a smoke break back there, but this is not the mystery at the crux of this discussion.  The fact is, when they were told by staff that a) they could not smoke and b) they could not be back there, they responded with something like this:

"Uh, we didn't realize we couldn't be back here."

That's because they didn't know they weren't supposed to be in there.

Wait, I've failed you, dear readers.  I need to back up and do some explaining.  You may be empathizing with these wayward sea turtle lovers, because how would you know what that particular habitat looks like?  Accept my apology and this description of the area in which we set our scene.

Picture if you will, a main viewing deck surrounded by a low fence.  The employee gate is well-hidden within this wooden fence, but can be sought out with a critical eye.  The latch of said gate is on the other side of the fence, requiring someone to reach over to gain entry.  Wait, there's more.  Within this latch is a lock.  The lock is, unsurprisingly, on the same side as the gate latch, which as you recall is on the non-public side.  

More guests with wanderlust should make this their mantra.

Let's recap.  In order to get behind to the employee area, one must know where the gate is, reach over, take off a lock, unlatch the gate, and ultimately walk through.  I'm not one who ought to judge others' world views, but I still have a hard time figuring out how this couple thought their retort of, "Wait we aren't allowed to be back here?" was an excuse any reasonable person would buy.

I've also found people in our penguin habitat, which has two barrier fences and gates and an "EMPLOYEES ONLY" sign, only to be told that it wasn't "clear" they weren't allowed in there with the penguins, but at least they got great Instagram shots on their iPhones.  

Why would you want to get close to Penguin anyway?

This situation makes me wonder exactly what life experience these guests have with typical barrier devices.  I shouldn't be harsh in assuming these individuals are either unable to comprehend basic rules or that they are so immature that they ignore rules in order to guarantee a up-close and personal interaction with an animal.

Are there moderately populated** towns and cities with opposite social mores when it comes to the concept of DO NOT ENTER?  

Or did I miss some change in our legislation system or social culture in which it is actually OKAY to go behind the scenes at various business and homes as long as I am confused about whether or not I should be there?  I think the only way to really understand this is to just do it myself.  I've spent the evening coming up with ways in which I can test this hypothesis.

1) The next time I'm in NYC at a Broadway play with some famous headliner, I'm going to just walk into their dressing room.  I am relatively confident that I can reason with the bodyguards:

Me: Oh, I'm sorry, I didn't realize I wasn't allowed back here. 
Me: Oh no, it wasn't made clear.  
Bodyguard: Oh, okay.  I'm very sorry.  Can I get you something to drink while you wait for Nathan Lane to return?

Have you been waiting for me long, Cat? Only all my life.

2) I'm going to read all the confidential files in a doctor's office.  I mean, their office doors are never locked.  They also don't have signs saying I CAN'T go back there.  I'll probably wait until no one is manning the reception area, just so that I can have some peace and quiet in order to read about someone's medical situation.  If they REALLY didn't want me in there, they'd make it impossible for me to be there.

It never said on the stroller NOT to power it with a Segue.

3) Finally, and this is what I'm most excited about, I think I'll just walk into someone's house completely unannounced.  Like maybe I'll walk through the door, or break a window to enter.  Especially if I need something, such as a bathroom, a glass or water, or just a friend to talk to.  All humans are friends, and will completely understand if I just let myself into their place I think.  As much as I try, I can't think of any cons to this plan.  If for some reason, they call the police and/or defend their property in whatever way they deem fit, I'll lean on my tried and true defense: Where was the sign that I shouldn't come on in?  Plus, they didn't lock their sliding glass window.  It's their fault!

Yeah but I didn't know I wasn't supposed to be here.

In all seriousness, why do guests do this?  Why do people jump into habitats with animals, or dangle their kids over them, or let themselves into back areas?  This is especially terrifying and baffling when you hear of people entering habitats of potentially dangerous animals.  It's one thing for someone to try to take a selfie with an African penguin and getting nipped, it's another thing to dangle your kid over a predator's exhibit.  Or climb over a barrier fence, down into a mote and up to another perimeter fence to pet a wolf and wonder why you got bit (blaming the zoo, of course, for not making it clear you can't be back there).  In some cases, animals pay the price with their life for guests who take liberties like this.  It is within the Top Five Worst Fears zookeepers have.

But clearly there are a class of humans who dangle each other in dangerous situations.

But I hate to end this entry on a sour note, because all problems have a solution.  So I've created a quick guide for any guests with a penchant for ignoring rules and common sense when entering a zoo or aquarium, for their safety and the well-being of our animals.  Feel free to share it.

Quick Gude For Entering Areas In The Zoo

1) If there is a gateway, fence, or any other physical barrier that is blocking me from the animals you want to see, DO NOT ENTER.

2)  If you must enter through a gate or door with equipment that includes (but is not limited to): latches, locks, carabiners, etc.  DO NOT ENTER

3) If you walk any further and find yourself face-to-face with an animal that is NOT in a free-flight aviary, DO NOT ENTER.  This is especially true if you've ignored the two helpful tips already given.

4) If you have to climb over, crawl under, and/or weave through any part of an animal exhibit, you do not belong there.  Even if the zoological establishment has the word "Adventure" in any part of their name.

5) If you have the urge to dangle yourself, another adult, or especially a child over a habitat to get a better look, please leave the zoo immediately and seek psychiatric attention.

Like, seriously woodchuck?

Of course, I know as well as all of you that people who ignore all rules and common sense are not necessarily unintelligent.  They simply become defensive when they are called out for doing what they know is already wrong.  So perhaps the mystery lies within why they think they are entitled to toss aside basic decency.  Alas, I fear I'll never know.  

In the meantime, we can all come up with some foolproof ways to keep guests out.  I'm talking about like redesigning habitats with impermeable boundaries such as: 

* Fence lines that are 1,000 feet high and require approval from the FAA

* Lava moats (alligator moats would never work as they may entice our break-and-enter guests to swim with them)

* Force fields (talk to your maintenance department about this)

* Giant muscular dudes to serve as Zoo Bouncers.  Zouncers.  

* Make each employee entrance look like an impossible Mario Bros. level.

This way to the sea turtle pool!

I'm still ironing out some of the kinks of this plan, but I think these ideas would at least discourage some of the guests I'm talking about.  However, I am open to further suggestion.  

What are some of the weird places you've found guests? 

* This script would make me famous and also guarantee marriage to Jonathan Brandis.

** They must have a decent amount of inhabitants in said towns due to the sheer number of people who gain unauthorized entry in, around, or tumbling down into animal habitats.

Sunday, April 12, 2015

Communication: Let's Talk About It! (Special Guest Author James Weinpress)

I love guest blogs.  Reading insight and personal experience from other people is so much fun and one of the best parts of being in this field.  

So why James as a guest author?  Well, let me tell you.  This guy clearly loves his job and does it well.  Not just because it's a cool job; you can tell he puts a lot into the animals for whom he cares.  Anytime I see a work-related post from James, it's something to showcase how awesome one of the animals is or one of the recent training successes he or she has had.  It seemed silly not to ask someone who has worked with so many different animals, who's been in the field a while, AND who clearly still is passionate about the work he does to write a Middle Flipper.  I'm honored to have him write something for all of you.

But don't let me convince you.  There is a lot of wisdom in the blog below (and a lot of great stories).  Enjoy!


Wow! An opportunity to be a guest author on the incredibly popular "Middle Flipper"! When Cat contacted me and asked if I wanted to contribute I immediately began brainstorming potential topics to discuss. We work in such a dynamic field, it felt impossible to pick just one! It could be an aspect of training a stubborn animal, or discussing the most effective animal presentation formats, or even the challenges of working on a team. That's when it hit me...communication! To be truly successful at our jobs we must be outstanding communicators! This is true from training a new behavior to creating a memorable experience for our guests. Luckily, getting an animal trainer to shut their mouth is more of a challenge than getting them to open up about their job.

During my time working in zoos and aquariums I have learned the importance of efficient and clear communication with animals AND humans and I know I am far from done improving at it. 

The ups and downs we experience as animal trainers are important to our own professional development, but also serve as a unique way to engage our visitors and leave them with a greater message than to simply, "be green".

So let’s jump on in!

Old George

I have been incredibly fortunate to work with a number of different species ranging from African elephants to bottlenose dolphins to domesticated geese (strangely one of my favorites) and have observed firsthand the success of positive reinforcement training incorporated into their care. When I was given the opportunity to work with a 36 year-old white rhino named George I set out to train him the "simple" behavior of targeting to a buoy. I could not have imagined the battle that lay ahead of me. This was an older animal with poor vision, who had never before gone through a formal training program. He was the exact opposite of the dolphins and sea lions I was accustomed to. George was slow... this was true from every movement he made down to the speed of training progression.  For three months I worked to condition him to a bridge, find food items that he found reinforcing, and convince him that a target pole was NOT a weapon of mass destruction. 

I remember it like it was yesterday...the sun was out, the guests were enjoying the animals, the poop had been scooped, and I had a good feeling about my session. I placed the target pole through the training fence and George slowly but surely brought his drooling square muzzle to the buoy. I was ecstatic! What do dolphin trainers do when their animal makes a major breakthrough? We cheer and jackpot them with all their food, right? 

This rhino didn't appreciate that. When I tossed George's bucket of apples, bananas, and carrots to him and stood to cheer for him his eyes became wider than I had ever seen and he took off running. Instead of making it the most reinforcing scenario possible, I had managed to scare the daylights out of him and set my progress back three more months. The lesson in all of this was I needed to know the animal that I was working with on a much deeper level; beyond applying the rules of operant conditioning. 

Thankfully, George did give me a second chance, and I learned that he appreciated slow, deliberate movements from his trainers with no sudden "surprises". George now works confidently with a number of different trainers and takes part in an educational guest encounter program where he targets like a CHAMP. 

The Many Faces of Hudson

Recently, harbor seals were the topic of the Middle Flipper. They are truly unique and challenging animals to work with. I often compare them to the character of Sheldon Cooper on the TV show "Big Bang Theory". They are incredibly intelligent but completely unaware of how to act in a social situation no matter how many times they take part in them. They can come off as cold and rude but at the end of the day, you still find yourself enjoying their company and keep coming back for more. 

Hudson was a young male harbor seal that I was tasked with as his primary trainer. It was my first time training with harbor seals and I had a difficult time interpreting those wide alert eyes as they scanned the exhibit, attempting to locate even the faintest noise that was surely a sign of a quickly approaching polar bear. Looking back at my time with him, I believe it took approximately one year to really get to know him and understand the many faces of Hudson. Hudson was (and still is) a very intelligent young animal who can learn a behavior relatively quickly; but like all gifted youngsters, he can lack motivation. Our training team soon had many different personifications for Hudson to help describe his behavior during any given session. Bear with me…these all make perfect sense in my head.

There was "Mudson" who lacked all motivation and either wanted to just sit on land (especially during molt) or stare at you from the waterfall. "Hudson-do-good" was a "Leave it to Beaver" style, innocent kid who tried his best even if he didn't succeed. "Bloodson" was a jumpy, grabby, skittish seal; and, most recently came "Studson," who was far more interested in the lovely female seals that he shares his pool with than his training session. 

Corny? Incredibly. But most importantly they were a way to take a lighthearted approach to working with a challenging animal, ensuring that frustration never got the best of us. It was important to look at all the factors that would play a role in his behavior during a session and how to best set him and his trainer up for success.

Sharing IS Caring! 

No matter what your title is; animal trainer, zoo keeper, vet tech, intern, etc., we are all communicators. To me that's our biggest role as animal care takers and educators. If a guest leaves a facility without greater knowledge of animal behavior or a better understanding of how to preserve the natural world, we have not done our job. Don't let the fact that it is our job make you forget to have fun with it though! I always enjoy speaking with guests about my successes and failures with training to help build that personal connection between them and the animals. Sharing the experiences described above and many others like it are great way to leave a lasting impression on someone who walks away knowing a little more about an individual seal or rhino, and in return feels a closer and more personal connection to an entire species. 

I'd like to give a big thank you to Cat for letting me post my ramblings and embarrassing stories. I love working in this field because it is made up of passionate individuals who never cease in their drive to share experiences and learn from one another. 

James "Jim" Weinpress graduated with a degree is psychology and has been working in the animal care field since 2008. James has worked with an array of animal species including bottlenose dolphins, sea lions, grizzly & polar bears, and African elephants. James is an active member of IMATA and AAZK and currently resides in Rochester, New York.

Sunday, April 5, 2015

The Wisdom and Good Fortune of Bonus Fish

In every job, there are little things that happen on occasion that just really make your day.  Those little things are specific to your world; outsiders just don't get it the way you do.  They may nod their head in a sort of, "Hmmm...that's...interesting...." way, but only you and your colleagues appreciate the full awesomeness of it.

In the marine mammal field, one of my favorite things in the whole world is


Everyone loves a bonus!

If you're a marine mammal trainer or any zookeeper who feeds fish to the animals under your care, you know what Bonus Fish are.  Maybe that's not what you call them, but you encounter them regularly. 

When I first started as an intern, I never encountered Bonus Fish.  This was likely because I didn't have the pleasure of thawing frozen flats on my own.  At that time, another department sorted through the boxes, piled the fish into giant stainless steel trays and left them to thaw overnight in our refrigerator.  By the time I got to fish prep the next morning, I had my pile o' capelin and herring to weigh out and that was that.

It wasn't until I landed my apprentice trainer job and met my future spouse (Russ) that I had my Allegory of the Cave* moment.  There we were in the fish house, sorting through hundreds of pounds of capelin and herring, trying to beat the clock.  At that time, we had a lot of dolphin mouths to feed and not a lot of time to prep the fish before the first sessions.  Concentration was paramount because despite the limited time, you could not allow any sub-par fish to slip past your watchful eye.   You had to make sure that the fish was superb quality, the amounts of fish were correct for each dolphin and each session, and that everything (floor to ceiling) was cleaned and disinfected.  It was a serious business and for a brand new trainer like me, who was convinced at any moment I'd probably get fired because seriously whose dream actually comes true, I was fully involved in the task at hand.  There was no fun to be had.

Uh, because I have to finish fish prep.

Russ on the other hand was a seasoned trainer who didn't feel the same pressure to Prove He Could Win Win Win and/or Be The Best Trainer Ever.  He had established himself.  He knew how to sort fish at lightning quick speed.  He also grew up on the beach in Florida and was an avid fisherman, so fish was his life.  The ease at which he completed a task that I struggled to keep up with made me uneasy.  I treated Fish Prep like we were performing triage on a critically wounded soldier and he treated it like a crawfish boil.


But, as the topic of this blog is so good at doing, there was something that could pierce my fervid focus.  And that something was a stickleback.


"Whoa!!!" Russ said in his surfer-dude way.  "Boooooonus fish!!!"

He picked up a tiny little fish roughly an inch long, richly counter-shaded with a black spike sticking up near the head.  He placed it on the top edge of the sink (the splash guard I guess?).

"WTF is a bonus fish??" I asked him, slightly irritated that he'd interrupted my flow of capelin-sorting.

"Dude!! It's a fish that is extra! A bonus fish!"

"You can't put that up there," I said.  "That's not where fish belongs."

"It's where Bonus Fish belong!" he countered.  "Plus, they're good luck."

By the end of the fish prep shift, Russ and I had found about ten stickleback Bonus Fish to decorate our sink with....and they were good luck.  I mean, we finished our fish prep early and for the first time in my employment I felt really happy and relaxed.  The Bonus Fish had really improved my mood.  Plus, they looked great on the sink.

Bonus Fish became something of an obsession for me from that day forward.  I told every intern and new trainer about it when training them in the fish kitchen.  I made sure to tell them that Bonus Fish were good luck, and soon enough I started hearing those people train other newbies on the same Bonus Fish principles.  You could hear squeals of delight coming from the Fish Kitchen door every time someone found a fish that wasn't supposed to be in the flats.  "Hey!" they'd say.  "Look at this guy!! He's good luck!"

Ponyo is arguably the best Bonus Fish find ever.

Finding Bonus Fish is like exactly what Charlie Bucket experienced looking for the Golden Ticket.  I mean aside from the fact that he won an amazing prize and got to hang out at Wonka's factory and wound up owning it.  But other than those things it's the exact same thing.  You KNOW there's something special hidden in some of the fish flats.  You don't know WHAT.  You don't know WHEN.  It's random luck and deeply satisfying when you find a little guy who doesn't belong.  And I don't care what anyone else says, those little things are good luck.

You start to learn what Bonus Fish are more common than others.  In capelin flats, sticklebacks, thread herring, and sand lance** are pretty normal to find.  That doesn't make them any less Bonus Fishy though; they have their rightly place on the sink to keep us company through the rest of food prep.

Sand lance, bringing good feelings to fish preppers everywhere!

Okay wait a second, I'll change something I just wrote.  Finding thread herring isn't really that awesome.  I'd actually like to contend that thread herring are Bogus Fish, not Bonus Fish.  Despite being very popular prey items for wild dolphins, their razor-sharp anal fins make for serious Fish Kitchen Hazards and most facilities don't even feed them to their dolphins.  They look pretty similar to the herring species we feed our animals, so to the untrained eye it's easy to let one get in a bucket.  I mean, those fish are called "Razorbellies" for a reason, and they'll cut you like a razor if you leave one in a bucket.  So no, thread herring.  You are not good luck.  You are not Bonus Fish.  You are dead to me!

The razor bellies seem to say.

But it's when you find the REALLY cool Bonus Fish that you just know your day is going to be super awesome.  The best finds I've seen?

1) The time that Russ and I found a flounder.  Like, a big flounder, probably four or five pounds the size of a dinner plate.  "This is good meat," Russ said.  He did not put the flounder in the usual Bonus Fish display area.  He promptly filleted it and ate it for dinner later that day.

No no, not that Flounder!  Cheer up!

2) I've found a couple of dogfish at two facilities I've worked at.  It's sad that this awesome predator was bycatch, but it was still a delightful Bonus Fish surprise.  Those guys are hard to display in the usual place, so when I find one I usually just lay them gently on a flat surface where I can see it to keep my spirits high.  Usually I'll look in their mouths at their teeth because well, I just like doing that!  Don't rain on my Bonus Fish parade, man!

This could be a slightly better find.

3) Baby cod.  Those guys are so cute with their giant mouths and big eyes.  I don't see them very often, so when I do it really makes my day.


4) Little baby squids.  Oh my god.  So cute.  And so easy to stick anywhere.

Yes, we're very excited about it.

5) Rock cod.  I've only found one of these things.  And technically, Russ found it (again, this dude apparently attracts Bonus Fish).  Over a year after he first taught me about the awesomeness of Bonus Fish, we had another fish prep shift together and he found a massive rock cod.  At first, we didn't know what it was.  We just knew we'd found the best Bonus Fish ever, and that maybe it was some kind of toad fish.  It was the size of a small dog and looked real crabby, but I suppose that had something to do with the fact that it had gotten unceremoniously killed and stuffed into a flat of capelin.  In fact, imagine that guy's last few moments.

No no, I said rock COD, not rock GOD.


His poor body was squished and flash frozen in a box that would wind up in a southern Florida deep freezer, patiently awaiting the day that two morons would do their normal fish prep shift and stumble upon the entombed animal.

Russ and I couldn't handle it.  We called everyone we could over to see it.  Our bosses let us preserve it in the freezer, Russ carefully laying it on a lid of an unused Igloo cooler and covered it to prevent freezer burn.  He took a zillion photos of it with his then-cool Motorola razor phone.  He sent them off to Florida Sportsman magazine for identification, since we could not figure out what it was.  

The rock cod was the talk of the department.  People traveled from all over the park to see the Best Bonus Fish Ever in his freezer mausoleum.  That guy was in there for a couple of days before we had to dispose of him, but the memory of him lasted a long time.  In fact, here it is being presented to you, dear reader.

The holy grail of Bonus Fish.

It's been almost nine years since my first Bonus Fish and I still think they are the most fun thing ever. Fish prep is clearly an important element to our job, but let's face it, it gets awfully tedious.  But at any given moment you can find something unique, something that gives you a little pick-me-up, and that's worth looking forward to.  

There is one thing I wish I could find.  I've heard tell of it but have yet to experience it: I want to find a big octopus.  Or some bizarre bottom fish that is so weird and hard to identify that it causes another excited buzz around my facility.  Alas, the only way for that to happen is to do fish prep a whole lot, and sadly those opportunities are fewer and fewer the farther up the career ladder one climbs.  

What weird things have you found in your food prep history?  Even if you don't work with fish, I'm sure all zookeepers must find weird stuff in their food all the time.  I'd love to hear your stories!

* You know, that story where people are all like in a cave for their whole lives and then suddenly realize they can leave, so they do, and they go outside the cave and see what's outside the cave (e.g. sunlight, trees, cupcakes) but then when they have to go back into the cave they know what they're missing on the outside world and they're all sad and stuff.

** Is that what those long fish we find in the capelin flats are?? I still can't really ID them.  Some of us call them "snakefish".