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

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