Sunday, May 31, 2015

An Aspiring Trainer’s Guide to Conquering Career Induced Depression (Special Guest Author Justin Dickinson)

I met Justin Dickinson when he interned at my current facility last year. Now, he's all growed-up, working as a zookeeper and writing blogs. When I read the one I'm about to share with you, I got real excited. Here was an entry that perfectly encapsulated not only the struggles of aspiring trainers...but ALL of our bad days and ruts in our career and life. But the best part of Justin's spiel? The ability to turn our jobs as animal trainers and caregivers into a life lesson. There are a lot of gems of wisdom in here, and I happily pass this on to you, dear readers. Enjoy! 

Look at him, enriching those dolphins.


When Cat contacted me about taking one of my tumblr posts and putting it on TMF I thought, “Justin, you can’t vomit right now! You’re pumping gas!” So after I got into my car and remembered that I was running late for work I immediately accepted the offer to share my thoughts with a wider audience; which is possible because Cat is *cough cough* basically internet famous *cough cough*. Ahem. Sorry, I had something stuck in my throat… er… keyboard.... Anywho, I thought it would be a great opportunity to share, collaborate, and maybe start some new conversations. And as I promised Cat I would edit out most of the gushing over how excited I am I’m gonna save myself some work and get right to it! So! Without further ado (other than this introductory sentence) here’s what I call An Aspiring Trainer’s Guide to Conquering Career Induced Depression.

So if your experience pursuing a career in animal training/zoo keeping is anything like mine then you’ve probably run into many disappointments. You’re not qualified enough. You didn’t pass the swim test. You didn’t get offered an interview. Et cetera, et cetera. This can turn into a massive funk cloud that just smothers the life out of you. You feel hopeless, like a loser, probably a bit fat if we’re being really honest. So what can you do to help move forward? Well I’m gonna tell you. I’m gonna talk about what you can do to help yourself feel better. Not feel better about your resume. Not feel more comfortable about your interview last week. I’m talking about actually feeling better emotionally. You can’t take care of a dolphin’s health if you’re not taking care of your own health. Mental and emotional included. Anyways, here are my not so expert steps in how you can make yourself feel better in general:*

1). Change Your Base.
You’re probably gonna feel the urge to eat a lot of junk food. Do it. Eat all of it.

This is really easy if you make friends with the fine folks at concessions
Eat every last chip and cookie until you recognize that it isn’t helping. Then change your base. The animals get a base diet for training, calories, etc. but we never really plan out our own diet that way. So start eating fruits and vegetables out the wazoo. Bake a chicken. Look up those “gross vegan recipes” and make something.

Okay, but have you BEEN to Olive Garden?

After all that junk food you’ll be amazed at how good you feel to be eating right. How awake you are, how much energy you have, and how happy you feel. Plus if the occasional “I didn’t get an offer” pint of ice cream sneaks in you won’t feel quite as guilty.

2). Clean Your Habitat.
Let’s be honest. The only thing that smells worse than the fish covered swimsuit you aren’t wearing right now is the combination of sweat, old pizza boxes, laundry, and general funk of depression that’s filling your room.

Yeah that's about how proud you should look.**

So first step to tackling this is to take a long hot shower. Actually standing up this time is suggested but not required. After you’ve thoroughly cleaned yourself you’ll have a better appreciation for just how badly your habitat is in need of cleaning and repair. Dive right in with the trash. I strongly recommend getting at least two large trash bags from the get go so you don’t lose motivation when your trash can gets full. Next you need to dust, sweep, vacuum, and/or rinse with a fire hose… I’m not here to judge, you do what you gotta do.
Now I know for some of you this next step will feel impossible, but DO IT ANYWAYS! Strip down your bed, grab your hamper, and do all your laundry. All of it. Leave nothing soft, cozy, or snuggly in that room. This will help prevent you from taking a nap or just curling up in a corner and reminiscing about the first day you got your favorite teddy bear.

I'm sorry Mr. Bear, but that means you, too.

Meanwhile go have a snack or something (If you’ve already successfully changed your base I’d recommend a banana. If you haven’t completed that step yet, I still recommend a banana). Take your mind off your clean yet barren habitat. Once the laundry is done the next step is to put your bed back together, straighten any pictures, fan out the magazines, and I suppose put the clothes in the closet. After all of that is done walk to the middle of your room and lie on the floor. Yes, get down and put your body on the freshly vacuumed carpet. Now look around and enjoy your fresh space. Notice the lack of dark clouds and the fresh scent of lavender or lemon or whatever kind of scented cleaning product you used. This is no longer a space of dreary disappointments. This is now a happy home for accomplishing goals and good nights’ sleep.

3). Get Some Enrichment.

This one is very open for your own interpretation. Basically you need to go out and try something new. Old hobbies not bringing the same joy? That’s fine. Go find a new one. Go buy a hula hoop and set a new personal record. Go to Wal-Mart and count how many people you see in their pajamas. Go see a movie you’ve never seen before. Go wave to strangers. Go try and do anything new or different. Give your brain and body some stimulation, because odds are, the 6 seasons of reality tv you watched on Netflix didn’t do that for you. I personally find it very enriching to get my adrenaline pumping. I’m not really a thrill seeker so the most enriching thing to my daily schedule is being scared witless or conquering a fear. Like my fear of eagles for example.

Warning: Please do NOT make capturing eagles your choice for enrichment unless properly supervised :)

4). Do an Interaction.

Probably the most dangerous of the steps is to do an interaction with an actual human face-to-face in person. It doesn’t really matter what you do for this step; dinner, drinks, donuts, but you need to engage with the other person.

I think what Google is trying to say with this one is you first were displaced by depression, now you’re getting closer to face-to-face contact, and soon you’ll be out getting sandwiches with someone. Or something like that…

You’ll be amazed at how good it feels to feed off of the energy of someone else for a while. Talk about their life instead of the troubles in yours. Now this can be dangerous because you run the risk of discussing all your career troubles. But that’s why this step is toward the end. If you’ve mastered the other steps then you should be ready to talk about anything. After you complete this interaction, book another. Plan to do one at least once a week until you’re ready for more. This will help keep your skills as a human (eating, sleeping, bathing, etc.) in working condition.

5). Learn a New Behavior.

Now last and most difficult is to learn something. I know how inconceivable that sounds. Especially after you did all the other steps. But it’s time to face facts. Whatever you tried before didn’t work. What can you do to make it work next time? Maybe you need to have another set of eyes on your resume or better prepare for the interview. Maybe you need to hit the pool a bit more often or get some experience on a microphone.*** Maybe you did everything perfect and it was just a personality preference. In that case you need to work on accepting that. Sometimes you just never know what they’re looking for, and that’s okay. Grow from it. Learn how to market who you are so that when someone is looking for it, they see you and they want it even more than they thought they did. And once you feel that you’ve found what you’ve needed to learn and mastered it, reinforce your behavior with a slice of cake or a new shirt or something. It’s all for nothing if you don’t find a way to encourage yourself to keep doing it.
I don’t really know what the babies are being reinforced for but yeah… clap for yourself. You deserve it!

Now, if you’ve followed all these steps you should be well on your way or fully out of your Career Induced Depression. Don’t be afraid to revisit these. Odds are you’re gonna get pretty bummed more than once. That’s the nature of the beast. But more than anything, remember what it takes to train any behavior: motivation. Ground yourself in what motivates you to pursue this career and never lose sight of it.****

* You can perform these steps in any order, but they’re listed in my recommended order.

**I always found it ironic that Hoarders is played on a network with the initials TLC.

***Or maybe you make too many lists like me...

****Note: I didn’t include this in the list because it didn’t really fit the “treat yourself as the animal and care for/train yourself” theme I was going for but I would also recommend talking it out. Find a person who gets what you’re going through and just get those feelings out. A mentor, a therapist, a parent, whoever. Someone who has been there with you and you can trust. And if you don’t have anyone you feel really gets it then send me a message. I just spent my day off retyping this up so it’s safe to say I know how you’re feeling.

Sunday, May 24, 2015

How To Make A Zookeeper Guilty: SICK DAY edition

How familiar are these scenarios:

You get home after a long day of work, exhausted.  Maybe a little more exhausted than normal, but you just brush it off.  But as the evening hours pass, you feel worse.  Not even binge-watching Netflix can help you ignore your uncontrollable shivering with crippling body aches and a feeling like, "Yup, I'm going to die today."

Nailed it.


You are ripped from a peaceful sleep by a stabbing pain, rhythmically  pulsating in your stomach.  And then, through sheer involuntary muscular power, thanks to some invisible little organism having a great old time, your body and everything you've eaten in the last 24 hours experiences an exodus of biblical proportions through all available exits.

Like that scene in Problem Child 2 with the puke tubes coming out of everybody

I'm sure most of us (unfortunately) have been quite sick before, probably with at least one of the above-listed ailments.  I know I sure have and you can read all about it in its painful hilarity here.

For most hard-working people, getting sick is one of the deeply troubling Internal Philosophical Arguments (IPAs as referenced herein*).  Especially if you're an animal trainer or caretaker, you've got a long mental fight ahead of you the moment you realize you're not feeling so well.

I was inspired to write about this topic because it popped up on the Zookreeper Facebook page the other day.  It's comforting to know that the collective zoo and aquarium field experiences the same wrenching guilt that I (and I'm sure many of you) feel when I get sick and realize it's one of those things I need to call out for.  But WHY?  What is the source of our guilt.  Why do we begin the IPA discussion in our minds when we contemplate using a sick day at our jobs?

Look, if Viggo was in my house on a work day, I'd call in lovesick.

Well first off, it's not like we all work at large facilities with massive staffs.  Maybe some of us do, but many of us don't.  Many of us work on a team just large enough to manage through a day; one person's unscheduled loss is definitely felt.  The first feeling of sorrow stems from the worry that People Will Be Mad that they have to do YOUR workload in addition to theirs.

Secondly, we are a driven bunch of people. Animal trainers and caretakers work their butts off to put 145% of themselves into all aspects of care for their animals (well, at least us good ones do!).  We worked very hard to get the job we have, and we take it very seriously.  The lives of animals we love fiercely depend on us doing our job very well each and every day.  We don't cut corners**.   So when we're sick, we think, "Hey, I'll just tough it out.  Feverish hallucinations never killed anybody!"***

"Yeah, I'll just tough this out."

Thirdly, and please don't get too worked up over this, some of us may not have very understanding management.  There are some work cultures in our field (and in others) that are not very compassionate towards individual employees when it comes to the "inconvenience" of sick days.  Let's face it, even if you have a great boss, it's still scary to call out.  What if they think you're lying? What if they are really secretly mad and it shows up on your next annual review?  What if they set you back on your goals?  WHAT IF IT GOES ON THAT PERMANENT RECORD OF LIFE AND OH GOD I WILL NEVER GET A JOB ANYWHERE ELSE AND I'LL WIND UP LIVING IN MY CAR WITH SEVEN CATS?  

But look how happy she is!

But seriously, the Will Boss Get Mad concept is a major player in the IPA of calling in sick for a zookeeper.  It is made exponentially worse when you are not working for a very sensitive person.  Yet another reason to ignore those festering pustules and slog it out.

There are other reasons why people may feel guilty calling out sick, but those are the three big ones in my experience.  So what's the point?  What are you supposed to do when you really do need to take a sick day?

You guys, and this is the greatest hypocrisy of our amazing field: Treat yourself like you'd treat the animals in your care.  We do AMAZING things for the critters we get to see and love every day.  If you're a trainer, what kind of operant conditioning do you use?  Positive reinforcement.  If one of the animals gets injured or falls ill, what do you do? You and your veterinary staff take care of them. You put all of your effort into ensuring a thorough and speedy recovery.   If they are involved in any kind of show, presentation or public appearance, you let them set the pace of what they want to do (and that might mean they don't do any of those things). 

You take care of me! :D

Why do we not treat ourselves (and for other supervisors and managers out there, our subordinate staff) as compassionately as we treat the animals?  I'm not sure.  It's a complicated topic (it's an IPA after all).  We can't be responsible for treating illness in our employees, d'uh.  That's their job.  But we can certainly make it easier and less stressful for the people on our teams to make smarter decisions about their own health.  Because remember, we work with some extremely dedicated, hard-working and trustworthy people (if they AREN'T that, why are they on your team?).  Here's a fact: us dedicated, hard-working and trustworthy people sometimes make really bad decisions about our own health because we'd rather take care of sea lions than sit on a couch eating toast and ginger ale.

Except toast with peanut butter.  I'll eat that all day anywhere, anytime.

I'm writing about this topic like I've somehow mastered or eradicated the guilt I feel anytime I call out sick.  Ha! Not a chance.  I don't necessarily think it's possible for me to really get rid of it.  Chances are, that's the same situation with you.  We are wired that way.  But I have come up with a system that works for me to help me determine when it's a good time to take a sick day with minimal guilt, including WHY it's important.  

This isn't medical advice. This is my system; if you like it, awesome!! But remember, when you're sick, call a health care provider and get the scoop. 

My PERSONAL Middle Flipper IPA Guide To Less-Guilty Sick Days


1) Have a fever

Aye aye, captain!

2) If my G.I. system is doing things that defy the laws of physics

However, cats defy the laws of physics all the time.  If your cat defies the laws of physics, you can't call out sick.

3) Have gotten absolutely no sleep due to nasty illness symptoms

*insert maniacal, cackling laughter here*

4) Have anything contagious, even if I'm are capable of working (you know, like pink eye.  Ew)

Oh, well-played Picard.  Stupidity doesn't count.  

5) Have a doctor's note.  I actually have to follow their advice (what, are they doctors or something?)

A doctor's note = Pendant of Life from Legends of the Hidden Temple.

Again, this is not an exhaustive list.  It's your choice when it's time to stay home. As long as you are not being dishonest and/or abusing the system, it is totally your decision.  In the U.S. it's your right as an employee!

The Philosophy

1) Having a contagious illness is the worst thing you can bring to a workplace.  Think it's hard missing one person on a team?  Try three.  Or Five.  Because they're all puking their guts out, or seeing dinosaur unicorns in a feverish haze.   Can't see the dinocorns? Oh, that's probably because your eyes are sealed shut with pink eye mucus.  STAY HOME AND HEAL YOURSELF! I don't want none of that #*%&!


2) You are not operating at full capacity, or even 50% capacity, when you have a knockout sickness or  injury that prevents you from doing your job.  Okay, a little head cold or something may be something we can suck it up and work through without a problem.  But the flu?  Bronchitis?  Something that really makes you sick sick sick, you're worthless at work.  

Bahaha oh Mitch, your life perspective refreshes me.

3) Take care of yourself.  You do it for the animals, why not for yourself?  Taking one sick day to recover and get back on your feet is better than pushing yourself and winding up with a doctor's note mandating you are on bed rest for five days.  I've seen that happen with people a number of times; it could've been prevented had they just been a little nicer to themselves in the beginning.   

Take care of yourself so you can take the best care of me!! 

4) Your team is going to be just fine.  That's what your team is there for; to support one another.  You do it for your coworkers, and they'll do it for you.  Personally, the ONLY time I've been frustrated in that setting is when I know the person who called out sick was not actually sick (they told me they were going to play hooky) and it was on a super busy day.  But even on the days when we're busy, short-staffed, and it's one of those Hey Let's Invite Murphy To Work Today, You Know The Guy Who Made Up That Law? days, I am never irritated or frustrated with someone who calls out sick.  So what, maybe I work a little harder that day.  Usually that translates to more animal time for me anyway!

More time with these faces?? Yes please!!!!!

5) If you're someone who abuses the system, STOP IT.  You're making it crappy for the rest of us.  Seriously.


And for those of us in a supervisory position where we field the sick calls, it's a good for us to remind ourselves how scary it is to call in.  That the vast majority of our team members are honest adults with a driving passion to do the best in their job every day.  That they put the animals and their team first; so calling in sick is the last thing they want to do.  Instead of answering their sick calls with an irritated tone, or trying to bargain with them to come in (or worse, guilting them in), let's show them the same exact compassion we show for the animals in our care.

This is a larger topic I'll admit, but if you are concerned as a manager that your staff cannot maturely handle the sick day policy, you have a much, much bigger issue.  Trust your staff, make your policy clear and fair and stick with it.  If I am concerned that a particular individual is not being honest, then I deal with that person as his or her own entity...not the entire team (the same way we'd work through illness or injury in our animal families)!

So let's all take a deep, refreshing breath.  Sick happens.  And when it does, it's okay to call out if you feel that's the best thing.  That surge of guilt will pass when you realize you're not only doing what's best for you, but for your team (both humans and non-humans).  It's okay!!!

Dogters.  Haha, get it?

* IPAs as defined by this blog may be improved or worsened by drinking the beer IPAs: user discretion is advised

** If you do, get another job!

*** They have.

Sunday, May 17, 2015

Why You "Otter" Love Otters.

Everybody loves otters.  Why IS that? 

You otter know why.

Yes, they're cute.  I mean, no matter what kind of otter you're talking about, otters are all adorable.  But I think the reason they pull on our heartstrings is because they are basically an animal that is as close to a Living Cartoon as anything else on this planet.

All otters share a common ancestry with the toons down in Toon Town.

Think about it.  Otters look like they should act like squirrels or something.  Based on their physical constitution, they ought to just swim around, hunt, dig holes and/or run across the street, like all the other woodland mammals we encounter all of the time.  Opossums, raccoons, woodchucks and their kin are known to the laymen as just sort of Robot Animals.  They just Exist and occasionally Eat Something They Shouldn't.  We just coexist with them.  Why don't we just want to coexist with and/or ignore otters?

While all of the animals I've just listed actually have complex ethology and individual personalities, they don't tend to display these things very blatantly.  At first I thought, well maybe raccoons and opossums don't get the credit they deserve because they are mostly nocturnal and we really only see them when they are: sifting through our garbage cans and/or sitting on the side of the road contemplating complicated physics formulas that allow them to come within 0.00005th of an inch of a tire of a car moving at x-velocity (basically, the raccoons and opossums who are really bad at math are the poor souls you see lying on the side of the road, at least in my estimation).

It's scientific fact that many North American mammals are just really bad at math.

But this "we don't understand them because we are asleep when they are awake" hypothesis doesn't really hold water, because it's not very easy to see an otter.  And they are diurnal.  I can count on one hand the number of times I've seen a live North American river otter in the wild, alive.  For the most part, the sightings are very brief.  

Squirrels, chipmunks, woodchucks and other "common" woodland mammals you'd find in your own backyard are way easier to see and observe, and yet we still kind of just brush them off.  So really, to recap, the reasons why we don't really go ga-ga over these guys is NOT because of a) limited viewing, b) too much viewing, and/or c) because we don't have easy access to them.

I just want to know you better!

Just a quick glimpse of an otter and BOOM, everyone falls in love.  Why? Because they do WEIRD QUIRKY CARTOON ANIMAL THINGS.  ALL THE TIME.  You don't have to spend any time at all observing them to see them do things that instantly make you giggle.

One of those things?  How they use their hands.  Yes, their hands.  This even goes for their marine brethren, the sea otter.  They have little cartoon pawhands that they use to grab things, put things away, pick up their babies like Rafiki holds Simba at the beginning of The Lion King.  

Nants ingonyama bagithi Baba!  Or whatever the Zulu words for "Here comes an otter holding a tennis ball" are.

They also don't swim like a normal aquatic mammal.  Look at animals like fisher cats, who are closely related to otters.  Every time I've seen a fisher, it just swims, surfaces to breathe, and dives.  A perfectly respectable spectrum of behavior for an aquatic predator, right?  Yes, of course.


But otters? No, they've gotta add their cartoon flair.  They tumble, turn, roll about, all the while spilling glorious bubbles from their insulating, double-layered fur coat.  They look like they're playing and splashing about, even though they are usually engaged in very serious survival business.  They even breathe through their mouths way more than I think other swimming mammals manage; there is something about watching an otter frolicking in the water and coming to the surface for a gasp of air, giving you a glimpse of their adorable tiny tongue and sharp teeth, as if they don't have TIME to take a good long breath through their nostrils because they are playing too much.

Look.  Look at my cute little mouth.

Each species has its own unique cartoon charm, too.  I've worked with North American and Asian small-clawed otters.  I've written about North American river otters in all of their delightful glory here, but the ASCOs?  Their charm is surely in their capable little alien hands, which I'll get to in a moment.   There are several other species of otters out there, many of which are found in zoos and aquariums and I am just dying to hear stories I'm sure some of our readers are willing to share.

Sea otters? They really blow the Cute Cartoon Animal concept out of the water.  Wrapping yourself in kelp to sleep? Okay, that's pretty cute.  Lying on your back, balancing a rock and smacking delicious sea snacks atop it deftly with anthropomorphic prowess?  Even cuter.  Picking up your baby with both hands and snuggling them? I think I've died and gone to heaven.

How's about holding OTTER HANDS? 

What I'm saying is, otters wear their personalities on their sleeves. It's impossible not to love them, right?

Well, let's address what I'm sure many of you readers who have experience with otters are thinking: Otters Destroy.  

Wait, what, me?

The danger about their in-your-face charm is that it is the biggest lie in the Animal Kingdom.  It's pretty common for people to generally think cute animals are totally incapable of causing injury, death, or mayhem.  I mean, look at dolphins.  People think of them as the Hari Krishna monks of the ocean, completely bastardizing their deeply complicated social behavior repertoire.  But this even goes for animals you'd think are like, no d'uh, dangerous.  Polar bears are one of the deadliest animals on the planet, but they are pretty adorable.  Most of us know better, but some people would probably have no problem giving one a hug (or a Coke).  

Or you could just have otters as pets in the middle of nowhere Scotland.  Seriously, READ THIS BOOK.  It's a memoir about a guy who raised otters in his house and any otter keeper will appreciate it.  Here, let me help you out: BUY THIS BOOK.

But otters? They can disarm any skeptical wildlife viewer.  I think it's not until you actually work with them, or know someone who does, when you realize their deeply dark addiction to Anarchy.  With extremely powerful jaws with crazy bite pressure, a short fuse when it comes to temperament, and a NEVER SAY DIE attitude, otters are a force to be reckoned with regardless of who you are.  Human? Who cares, they can take you down.  A giant crocodile? Whatever, they smile at a challenge (and have been documented harassing and even killing crocodilians, including big.ass.crocs).

Here, check out this Buzzfeed photo essay of a North American river otter killing an American alligator. 

Maybe this is because otters are the perfect balance between predator and prey animals.  They are great predators, but they are not safe from being hunted, either.  They have the confidence of a predator but the razor thin "OH GOD I'M GOING TO DIE I BETTER FIGHT OR FLIGHT" attitude of prey.  Combine these traits and you have the perfect storm: a crazed, terrified animal with very, very powerful predatory physiology.   

Otter mayhem.  Make sure you take time to fully appreciate everything that is happening in this photo.  Oh, and the scruffing? That's a trained behavior (literally the only thing going right in this pic).

Aggressive behavior from otters doesn't happen in zoos and aquariums alone.  It happens pretty often in the wild, especially where humans interface with our fuzzy cartoonish friends.  Sometimes, it's because people are trying to get a good, close snuggle with our mustelid friends.  Other times, it's unknowing victims traipsing through otter territory who receive an unpleasant surprise, like the triathlete who was just doing her own thing, running her race, when all of a sudden she was attacked by a crazed NARO, resulting in hospitalization for her and Just Another Day On The Job for the otter.*

This....could be my next big tattoo

Asian small-clawed otters have another tool in their toolbox for destruction, though.  Yes, they can bite.  Luckily, the three little girls I happen to work with are not very prone to biting.  But what they can do with these little hands is incredible.

Their sense of touch is out of this world.  They use their hands much like raccoons to explore and detect prey items or anything else of interest.  Our three ASCOs use their hands to:

1) Carry ice until it magically disappears
2) Pick up Jello eggs
3) Find All The Cockroaches
4) Check That Crevace Seven Hundred Times To Be Sure There Really Isn't Anything In There
5) Gently hold our hand (OMGGGG talk about adorable)

Pick up Jello Brains that they get for Halloween

and, number 6):  Peeling off concrete or tiles when no Power Tool could do the job.

Their hands and fingers may seem dainty and delicate, but they could probably dismantle Earth if given enough time.  We found this out the hard way when we had to put our ASCO gals in a temporary holding area in a locker room during major habitat renovations.  I mean, we quadruple-checked the otter proofing in this locker room place.  We plugged up every possible hole, bolted down covers over drains, made sure there was no possible place for them to climb, pull apart, or bite. And then....

They cast a spell on us.  Wait, no.

They pulled the tile off of the walls.  Yeah.  The tile that was secure.  The tile that we could not budge.  They got their tiny, Iron Man fingers around one little porcelain square and POP.  Off it came.  Oh, what fun! They did a few more before we had to make some serious changes.  

On the bright side, it did give me a great business idea: let's contact our otters out for house redecorating.  Need to strip your kitchen or bathroom?  Don't want to pay a contractor?  Go to your local zoo and hire out their otter family!  Secure them in your bathroom or kitchen for one (1) day, provide all food and water, and BOOM.  Your room will be completely stripped!**  All we ask is that you let the otters take whatever tokens they'd like with them, since they worked so hard to harvest it.  Great enrichment for the otters, you get work done in an 8th of the time a human could do it, and the zoo makes a little money.  Boom.

Ready to work

For all their delights and terrors, I love me some otters.  And I bet after reading this, you do too.  

* My favorite quote from this woman was, "It just kept coming after me. You never knew where it was going to bite next."  Oh, we know lady, we know.

** Warning: there might be poop.

Sunday, May 10, 2015

Mother's Day Is For Us Animal Lovers, Too!

Happy Mother's Day to all the moms out there!

Just a friendly hello from your local Nicholas Cage!

I mean yeah, happy Mother's Day to the mothers of human progeny.  But what *I* mean by moms in this blog today are all of you, the animal caregivers: zookeepers, animal trainers, rehabbers, veterinarians, vet technicians/assistants, and anyone who cares for pets at home.  You know, the ZOO MOMS!

Those of us who care for animals? We are all moms, even if we're not girls.  
Seahorse dads get this concept and enjoy reaping the riches from both parental holidays

It just so happens that the zoo and aquarium field is mostly comprised of females.  I commonly get asked by guests, "Why are all dolphin trainers girls?"  Or when they see one of the two or three dudes we have on staff (paid or interns), they treat it like this anomaly.  

"Oh wow, must be nice for that guy to be surrounded by all those chicks in bathing suits."

No caption required

But to answer the question of why are many of us marine mammal trainers girls, I've heard a commonly given answer that deals with how nurturing females are compared to males.  I always cringe when I hear that, because I don't think that's a fair sweeping statement to make.  I have zero clue why there was a shift from a predominately male field in the 70s and 80s to now mostly female demographic.  I'm sure some sociologist with a good grasp of statistics* could give us an interesting answer, but that's not what this entry is all about.

The fact is, there are a lot of gals in our zoo/aquarium family but there are some dudes, too.  And all of us act like mothers to the animals in our care.

Before any guys get upset at this comparison (i.e. why not just wait until Father's Day next month to be like, hey boy trainers, thanks for being great dads to animals!), read my list of evidence and then decide for yourselves if you're ready to be in touch with your Inner Zoo Mom.

Without further ado, here are all the ways in which ALL animal caretakers are like moms.  

1) We Worry All The %&#@ing Time

All. The. Time.

We are wrought with worry over everything.  Nightmares over whether or not we locked a gate or removed a bottle of Dawn soap from an enclosure (even though we did).  Sleepless nights over animals who aren't feeling well or who are geriatric and in palliative care.  Racing hearts over small little quirks that are probably just fine but What If They Mean Something Bad.

Hypochondria is a raging problem in us Zoo Moms in our own lives, too.  It's like the chicken and the egg example: who knows where it starts and ends.  But I can tell you there've been more than one occasion that I've been convinced that my sore throat is actually some horrific illness not documented since the 11th century because Web MD told me that's what's up.  And similarly, there are times when I just KNOW that this totally normal situation with an animal acting a little off is probably something Really Bad so I better wake the vet up.

I have this posted in every room in my house.

Like moms with young children, we obsess over poop. When we look at poop, what are we really looking at?  No, we're not admiring the dimensionality or pungency of the leavings (although I will admit, sometimes I am impressed with the output and velocity of otter crap).  We are looking for any subtle signs something is wrong.  What human mother couldn't relate to this?  Haven't you too become a Poo Anthropologist, digging through the subtle layers of material trying to understand What's Going On?  

An actual poo photo from my phone.  Slap some eyes and  big smile on it and you've got...

! You're welcome.

Vets must have the Mommy Worry Problem REAL bad, because they actually know what this stuff means more than most of us zookeepers.  Not to say we aren't educated, but our knowledge is usually like, "Oh, this symptom or sign is probably this based on what I've learned and what I've experienced, but I better run it by the vet."  Vets are probably like, "OH MY GOD I SAW THIS IN VET SCHOOL ONE TIME AND HAD NIGHTMARES FOR WEEKS, or it could be this totally no-big-deal problem LET ME RUN ALL THE TESTS!!!!!!!!!!!!!"  

Those of us who train animals also worry, like a mom, that we are screwing our animals up on any given basis.  If someone isn't progressing in a training goal, we are not as concerned with the animal as we are with our own perceived lack of skill.  The Am I The Worst Trainer Ever syndrome is in fact a nugget of evidence that we worry all the time about our animal kids' happiness/comfort/security.  

And it never stops.  Like any good mom, we will worry even after we are not in the animals' lives anymore...when we move away, or they move away, or whatever.  We still eagerly wait for updates or go visit them, and love them just the same.

2) We Are Bizarrely Involved With Our Animals' Love Lives

Who's that nice boy our littlest sea lion is hanging out with?

Uh, this is an understatement.  No matter what your breeding program entails or what animals you're talking about, we are like the craziest, most possessive mother on earth when it comes to who our animals are dating.  You think your mother-in-law is bad?  Wrong, check out what a zookeeper talks about and deals with when breeding seasons roll around.   

Like I can't tell you how upset well all got  a few months ago when we were worried one of our longterm African penguin pairs were on the rocks.  A sexier, younger and more assertive male used his youthful charm to woo his cougar of choice, resulting in the older male getting his feathers ruffled and feelings hurt.  While this penguin fling never amounted to anything and our faith in penguin loyalty resolved (oh us cultural humans and our rules), there were more than a few of us trainers who felt sad at the potentially shifting relationship.  "But Dapper!!" we said.  "We know Sly is much younger, but Tux really has your best interests at heart.  STICK WITH IT! WORK IT OUT!"  The animal biologists in us understand that this happens (....conveniently forgetting that it happens with our own species for better or worse!).  Like any mothers, as long as the relationship is healthy (e.g. it is a responsible breeding decision), we have to let our animals make their own decisions and put our own emotions about it aside!  

"We may be lambs in the kitchen, but we are African penguins in the bedroom."

This is even more relevant to anyone who raises domesticated animals: you guys are like My Big Fat Greek Wedding, carefully vetting sires and dams and asking them, "But dear, we'd really rather you marry another Russian Blue.  I know a nice tom you're just gonna love and I've already made a date for you two."  

3) We Are Obsessed With Having Grandchildren

A baby dolphin with her actual grandmother

This needs little explanation.  How special is it when a young animal grows up and has kids of their own?  Especially if you've known the parent since he/she was born, there is something so exciting about seeing them go through this major milestone in life.  I've looked at baby dolphins and thought, "oh man, I can't wait until you have cute babies of your own!"  

I daydream about our two older sea lions, Tina and Molly, being moms and how awesome their kids would be.  Molly's would be a gorgeous redhead (she has a very pretty auburn-colored coat) with a giant heart.  I just know it.  And Tina's would rule the universe and probably earn herself a position in executive management at my facility, because Tina is a super genius and would probably only have super genius pups.   

Admit it, you think this about your animals too!  Another reason you're a Zoo Mom.

4) We Cook

Or buckets of fish.  

Fish house.  Food prep.  Commissary.  Whatever you call it, you spend much of your career getting breakfast, lunch, dinner, and snacks ready.  You know exactly what comes in just as you know exactly what comes out.  Except those times when maybe your animal kids eats something that you didn't put on the menu.   Example? The great mystery of why one of our Asian small-clawed otters named Luna wouldn't lose weight.  We carefully prepared her diets, weighed her regularly and tried to get chubby self down to a better weight but to no avail.  What was going on?

Bring me my food gifts, human slaves!

Oh, I'll tell you.  We caught Luna red-handed helping herself to palmetto bugs in the evening and early in the morning.  It's Florida, it's an outdoor habitat, and she's an otter who loves her snacks.  Put it all together and you get Augustus Gloop at the Wonka chocolate river, except way grosser.

5) We Clean (And Daydream Of The Day When Our Kids Clean Up After Themselves)

Also, we get disproportionately excited over great cleaning products LIKE THIS AMAZING HOSE  BOX

Every marine mammal trainer or aquarist who has to scrub habitats has fleeting-to-long term thoughts about a scrubber that can run itself and/or be operated by the animals in said habitat.  What about terrestrial keepers?  Do you guys think about the benefits of teaching an elephant to use a shovel and a go-cart or tractor?

We as zoological moms clean every day, without getting grossed out and without resentment.  Daydreams of easing the workload happen, but they are never out of spite.  Cleaning habitats is, at least for some of us (myself included) sort of a zen-like moment with a major feeling of accomplishment at the end.  Plus, we do it because we love the animals and want them to be healthy and happy.  It's also really fun to see how well you can control a hose stream.  But seriously, all we do is clean up after our animal kids.  And those of us with pets at home, or working in a vet office, you do the same thing and think nothing of it.  A labor of love!

6) We Baby Talk

That goes for you too, gentlemen.

Yep.  We do.  Even if we do it privately.  So many of us change our voices to talk to the animals, the end.  Males who read this, I know you do it too.  Yes, yes you do.  YES YOU DO.  You mom, you!

7) We Swell With Pride Whenever Our Kid Learns Something New Or Reaches A Milestone

My thoughts exactly

Right???? How awesome is it to see an animal accomplish a goal? And it NEVER gets old! I already talked about this to some extent with the whole grandkids thing, but even if you aren't training an animal, aren't you so happy when one of the animals in your care reaches some kind of milestone?  Whether it's in their natural history or it's them figuring out some cool enrichment device you had....or even if they are just being n-a-u-g-h-t-y?  

We all got really excited when our three sea lion pups figured out how to play fetch with frisbees both in and out of training sessions.  Not just because it was fun, but we couldn't stop talking about how exciting it was to see these little pups just light up when we'd play with them.  And when we left, they used their newfound skills with the toy to play with it for hours on their own.  Our days as animal trainers are packed full of these moments; they never get old, and if we're doing our jobs right, they never stop.

8) We Love Our Kids Unconditionally

I mean, they're easy to love :)

'Nuff said. 

9) And We Talk about #1-8 All The Time Everywhere To Anyone With Ears

"Excuse me, do you have a moment to talk about how great I am?"

Like any human mom, we overshare about all the things I just gushed about.  The only people who get it are the people who are as big of animal nuts as we are.  We have one album dedicated to Important Life Things (like five of the best wedding photos**, a few of us doing something fun, maybe a pic with a favorite relative).  And then we have 150 Facebook albums with hundreds of photos of one animal doing one thing with a new toy from sixty five different angles and each photo is precious to us and THE WORLD MUST KNOW ABOUT IT.  

Tell the world, we are taking over.

At dinner parties or family gatherings where we are outside of our zoo/aquarium/vet/animal lover world, we find ourselves in this weird mental place where we are talking nonstop about every story about the animals in our lives but our brains are going, "holy cow, I'm talking too much" BUT YOU CAN'T STOP.   Like a new human mom pulling out her phone and showing you the latest 883 photos of her infant's I'm-Pooping-But-You-Classify-This-As-Smiling moment, non-zoo/vet people see us coming down the street and groan, "Oh great, I wonder how many photos of the binturong I need to look at today."

Since I want to look at this sweet face all day, I bet you do too!

Well, tough.  We as Zoo Moms are proud to be as such and you will submit to our need to share the love and pride that spilleth over!!!!!!!

So what does being a Zoo Mom mean? Well, it certainly means you can walk with a sense of pride on this the day celebrating maternal love and what it represents.  Plus, you can indulge in those amazing cakes all the grocery stores have out for Mother's Day without feeling any guilt (major bonus if you are a dude: do you really need an excuse to eat a frosting flower-laden cookie cake that says "THANKS MOM"? I don't think so).  It means that you put the needs of someone else first.  It means that no matter what the species, moms everywhere (even the male moms) deserve an extra hug or high five today.  


* Hint, this is not me.  My statistics knowledge involves things like How Likely Am I To Get Up Right Now As I Type This And Eat Snacks Mindlessly: 100%.

** I still have zero pictures of my wedding up on Facebook, sort of because I eloped but mostly because I need all the space I can get to put photos of my adorable cockatiel on there.

The latest photo of Lennon on my photo, sleeping under my horribly tan-lined feet.  I JUST LOVE HIM