Sunday, July 26, 2015

Animal Training Misadventures -or - Another Story Where I Screwed Up

There are distinct moments in my career where time feels like it slows down and everything burns a little brighter.  Why this phenomenon doesn't happen during awesome amazing events I don't know, but I lament it.  The experiences where this Time Slow occurs are almost always ones in which I've made a mistake and/or when the poop hits the fan (and in this job, sometimes that's actually what happens).

Well said.

The good news for all of you dear readers, is you get to benefit from my misadventures and laugh heartily at them.  Some of you will probably laugh and cry at the same time, because you can relate your own stories to mine.  Not that I enjoy other people's emotional pain, but I am a proponent of the whole Misery Loves Company concept. 

In animal training and zookeeping, there are a lot of Rules we gotta follow.  It's actually amazing how much we have to remember in a given day, or even moment, because most of us can barely find our keys in the morning.  As an aside, I'm about 89.3% positive that we animal care professionals have brains like computers.  The brain RAM required to remember all of the rules, daily operations, and guests' names is so intense that it leaves basically nothing for us to use for our Outside Of Work Life*.  If I can remember what I want on my burrito for dinner AND to brush my teeth in the same night, that's a win.

An actual photo of me at the end of a typical work day.  I'm not normally that furry but sometimes I just let myself go.

As animal trainers, we additionally have to remember all of the big and small rules/quirks/lessons of each individual animal.  We have to be on our A game every day not just for the benefit of the animals having a good time, but to ensure everybody's safety.  This is especially true for the animals who can really take you to the cleaners**, like sea lions.  Knowing who they are as a species combined with who they are as individuals is critical for everybody to have a good ol' safe time.  It's when we as trainers forget the slightest little thing that the animals say, "Oh hey, looks like you slacked just the teensiest bit, LET ME TAKE THIS OPPORTUNITY TO TEACH YOU A LESSON AND THEN LAUGH ABOUT IT AS YOU PICK UP THE PIECES!"

Now, let's clarify that I'm not referring to making a serious mistake. This blog is not about getting so complacent that you put yourself or someone else (including a non-human) into serious danger.  This is about those rules like, don't leave that bucket too close to the edge of the habitat or else Delilah the dolphin will help herself to all the snacks inside of it, and then she will think you're charmingly stupid for the rest of your employment.

Move, Lily. You're in the way of my lunch.

This type of situation happened to me last summer with one of our sea lions named Tina.  I've already written about Tina, because she is one of the animals with a larger-than-life personality and is a member of Mensa.  She uses her brainpower for debauchery whenever she sees an opportunity, but she's a sweet soul.  She'll have a great time with you, but every now and then she needs to remind you that she's in charge.  

Crazy eyes, yes.  But they see everythiiiiiinnnnggggg

One of her penchants is to mouth things.  There is something about shredding up something that gives her great pleasure (except she does not do this to humans, which is I'd say quite polite of her).  Quite unfortunately for the local wildlife, Tina also seems to enjoy killing sea gulls using the same brutal technique she's perfected in destroying her food, ice cubes, and target pole buoys.  

All of us who interact with Tina know her Rules: reinforce her variably for not shredding her fish or ice, choose her toys carefully and reinforce when she doesn't try to destroy it, and shoo away any birds that land in the habitat because they are on a countdown the moment they are within Tina's reach.  These rules are followed very consistently, and we rarely have problems with her destroying very many things.  


Look at that face.  Ready for trouble.

One day, I had a blond moment.  And it happened to be during a show.  A packed show.

I was having a great time with Tina.  She really steals the show, and it's so much fun to be up there on stage with her listening to the audience react to how awesome she is.  You're just along for the ride, as the trainer.  Those shows are a total blast to do as Tina's Professional Assistant.  I was really in my Trainer Groove too; variable, crisp, totally on the same wavelength as this amazing sea lion.  

Please observe all the Fun We Are Having.

As I've already mentioned, Tina has a history of shredding her capelin into tiny little pieces so she can eat the stomachs of the capelin last (yes, you read that correctly: Tina loves capelin worldly of her).  One of the many ways we've worked to extinguish/reduce that bad habit is to be variable in how we deliver the fish to her.  And so, in my infinite wisdom, I decided during that Perfect Show to toss her capelin up in the air while she was in the water.

Oh wow, Haggis.  You look really...tasty....

She was really into that, which reinforced my decision and increased the frequency of my capelin-tossing behavior.  Up they went, down they came into Tina's eager and open mouth.

What's so stupid about that?  

Well, I work outside, in Florida....about 10 feet away from the Gulf of Mexico.  Know what else likes to hang out 10 feet away from the Gulf of Mexico?  

Who's laughing now?

Laughing Gulls.  Lots and lots of them, swarming and pooping and eating things they shouldn't.  They watch from remote locations for any possible food item to be unguarded for more than 0.0003 nanoseconds at which point they fly at Mach speed to intercept it.   

Even though I knew what would happen if a gull flew into Tina's life, I somehow didn't put two and two together when I was tossing this capelin up into the sky like some kind of overzealous flower girl. It didn't take long before an opportunistic gull dive bombed the raining fish and found himself in a very, very bad situation.

The moment my brain registered that this poor laughing gull was in striking range of Tina, and that I had lured him there was when the Time Slow happened.  Because it wasn't enough knowing exactly what I was about to witness in normal speed; no, my brain had to slow it down for me so I could experience every terrifying and possibly gruesome second in all its horror so that I'd have a crystal clear memory of this scenario for the rest of my life.  

oh. my. god.

I had tunnel vision.  The only conscious thought I could muster over the internally screaming I was doing was, "maybe Tina will miss" as I watched the sea lion launch herself out of the water, mouth agape and eyes wide with concentration at the unsuspecting sea bird.  But no.  Her mouth closed around the bird's delicate legs with surgical precision.  The gull's eyes widened in fear; he didn't have time to scream as Tina fell back into the water, dragging him with her into what I was certain would be a watery, torturous death.

Yeah, this is basically exactly what it was like.

My brain raced.  I had made a terrible mistake.  Not only that, but as the supervisor...I made a big rookie mistake, one that I'd probably have talked to another trainer about had they done the same thing (which no one did).  I felt so stupid, so guilty.

I stared the swirling sea lion, toying with her prey just beneath the surface of the waves for what seemed like hours.  I had to do something.  I glanced around to my right, where the other sea lion (Molly) was.  Molly has the soul of a saint trapped in a sea lion's body, so I wasn't worried about her going after the gull that Tina had, but I didn't want to assume she was fine before I made my next move.

At this point, the audience's attention was fully locked on me, staring helplessly into the water.  We all knew what was happening.  I was convinced that every single guest at that point was watching me and wondering why I didn't Do Something to save the gull.   I'd be the next famous villain on Instagram, the Trainer Who Let The Sea Gull DIE and that'd somehow connect me to Blackfish because, like, all of us trainers are pure evil and want animals everywhere to suffer.

We could replicate this exact scene where zookeepers are the "witch", and the village idiots are the extremists who annoy us all the time, and it would be accurate and just as hilarious.

Tina surfaced for a quick breath, so I called her name to redirect her.  I didn't expect it to work, but yet again I was wrong because she totally stopped and looked up at me.  I called her out of the water. I don't know what exactly I'd done right up until that point, but somehow Tina's attention fully returned to me and I was able to quickly gate her to another habitat without her giving a second glance at the sea gull, wherever he was.  You might say it was good training decisions that allowed me to get her out of there, but I am pretty positive Tina was thinking one of two things at that point:

1) "Oh, that poor Cat, making such a silly mistake like that.  I think she's been punished enough."


2) "Bahahaha that dummy! I'm going to follow her around because she'll probably screw up again to my benefit!!  Mwahahahahahaha!" 

Yes, clap for yourself Tina.  You must be very proud of yourself while I hang my head in trainer shame.

Luckily, I didn't eff up again.  

When I came back from gating Tina, I realized that the show narrator was still going full steam ahead on the show, but the audience refused to take their focus off of me.  That is, until the unfortunate gull popped up. Alive.  Gasping for air.  And right against the plexiglass closest to the packed audience.

I couldn't leave that gull in there.  I didn't know what his condition was; he was too far away for me to see if he was mortally wounded or not.  I also didn't totally look forward to handling a very injured, very traumatized sharp-beaked bird, but there was no other option.  If our guests wanted a show, they got one. Another trainer had brought me a small crate, which was now also on stage.  I jumped in the water and swam slowly over to the wounded bird, so I wouldn't scare him more than he already was.  I looked up briefly at the audience and saw their wide eyes looking at me, with the lilting voice of our charismatic narrator attempting to continue on with the show like nothing was happening.  No, there was no sea gull attacked by a sea lion.  No, that's not the dumb trainer who baited the gull into the waiting jaws of said sea lion.  THE SHOW MUST GO ON.


It was like the swim of shame.  If this bird was fatally injured, it was my fault.  As I gently reached out for the gull, I hoped I wouldn't feel its little body crushed beneath my fingers.  Luckily, all I felt was his beak latching onto my hand and trying to bite me as hard as he could.  Unfortunately for him, sea gull bites are not very painful at all.  A good life lesson for all sea gulls to learn: ditch the biting and rely on vile aerial poo attacks as a method of defense.

Although being bitten by these guys probably upped my pain tolerance for bird bites .

I swam the critter back to the stage, where the task of getting him into the crate provided the park's best, most memorable entertaining moment of the day.  Abbott and Costello's skits were mere child's play compared to the farce that occurred as not one, but two of us trainers tried to stuff this injured bird into a crate on a slippery sea lion stage.  I was on my knees with my face basically at level with the crate and the sea gull's snapping beak.  The crate slipped and slid on the stage surface like snot on a door knob, despite the other trainer holding it steady.  

With the gull's beak latched onto my hand, I was able to distract him just enough to finally get most of his body inside and then quickly (and without a shred of grace) slam the door shut and lock it.  Success!  I picked the crate up, and exited the stage.  And the show continued with poor, shy Molly.  

Molly is a showgirl in her own right.

I had to pass Tina as I left with the sad sea gull.  She merely glanced at me through the gate of the habitat she was in, as if to say, "Oh, that old thing? You can have it."  

The poor laughing gull had only a broken leg and was taken in quickly to a wildlife rescue facility a few minutes away from the park.  He was fine, but probably will never frequent my place of employment again (which....let's face it, is good for all parties).  I sheepishly explained to the staff the series of mistakes I made to lead to such a fiasco and welcomed the laughs.   Yes, I wasn't thinking clearly and luckily, nobody was seriously hurt.  And the park guests that day got to see one very unique sea lion show.  

Do I remember the Happy Life Altering Memories like birth of my child or the last time I ate a chocolate frosted donut in this clear fashion?  No, of course not.  Not enough RAM for that.  But those silly lapses in judgment, especially when everything ends well, are critical points in our careers.  We can laugh about them after the fact, as long as we learn from them and don't make the same mistake again.  

As for Tina, she doesn't need her trainers to screw up to get her a sea gull.  She's perfectly capable of figuring out how to bait them herself.

K bye!

* Which accounts for roughly 9 hours a day, 8 of which is spent sleeping.

** Which is another errand I keep forgetting to do, so if any animal feels like actually taking me to the cleaners, I'd really appreciate it or else this dry-cleaning pile is just going to get bigger.

Sunday, July 19, 2015

Chris Pratt And The Clicker: What's The Big Deal?!

Here's a question:  What is the word, repeated four times in rapid succession has the power to bring animal trainers everywhere to their knees?  

Answer: Click.  As in "clickclickclickclick."

I know you were pissed that Vader was your father, but improper bridging is just more troubling.

For those of you unfamiliar with what I'm talking about, you either haven't seen Jurassic World or you became delightfully lost in the narrative that you just didn't let it bother you.  But chances are, Chris Pratt's bizarre clicker usage had you clawing your ears off.*

...but this redeems him, so he is pardoned.

We've all had a jolly good time poking fun at the Hollywood blockbuster's technical advisor failure: had they talked to an animal trainer for about 0.3 seconds, they would've done it right.  I mean, look at the other popular animal training movies over the past twenty years: Free Willy,  Zeus and Roxanne, Andre, Dolphin Tale (so I'm a little bias in using marine mammal movies).  All of these movies had major flaws in them when it came to accuracy with what our job entails, but those were all forgivable.  We know that good storytelling often involves exaggeration or whimsy.  But none of those movies had such a blatantly incorrect usage of a bridging stimulus.

They look so simple to use, and yet....

So what!  Did it ruin the movie for me?  Um, pop quiz:

What did Jurassic World have?
a) Dinosaurs
b) Chris Pratt
c) Nods to Michael Crichton's fervent belief in not screwing around with nature and
    advancing science conscientiously
d) All of the above

The answer is D, so therefore I LOVED THAT MOVIE.   Clickclickclickclick and poor timing isn't going to take that away from me.  But it did bring up an idea for a blog. 

One of my favs.  You should probably buy it.

I've heard non-trainers exclaim something like, "WHY are people freaking out about a stupid clicker in a stupid movie?  Seriously?? What's the big deal?"  You know, because our community made hilarious, en point memes and videos about it.

Oh.  OH.  It's a big deal to us.  The sound of sloppy bridging makes us weep instantly.  Let me explain why.

"Wait! Does anyone know how to use this thing?"

Animal trainers everywhere have developed a fine ear and eye to observe behavior and respond accordingly.  Those powers of observation are not just for the animals in their care.  Like Neo in the Matrix, once you know about Animal Training, you can never un-know it.  You see the world completely differently and that's a fact of life.  Trainers observe all animals, human and non-human: the behavioral Matrix so to speak (minus the whole robots-turning-humans-into-batteries thing).

One of the very first skills a trainer learns is how to bridge properly.  

Also, how to obsessively check that your whistle hasn't fallen off anytime you are near an open body of water including but not limited to: habitats, swimming pools, the ocean, toilets, etc.

For anyone reading this who doesn't know what a bridge is, it's a signal that pinpoints the exact moment an animal does something correctly.  Usually, the bridge means, "Great job! Stop what you're doing and you'll get a reward."  Sometimes, it means, "Great job! Keep it up!" and the animal continues to do whatever he or she is doing (these animals have learned that their reward will come later in that particular context).   And the reason we call this signal a "bridge"?  It's short for "bridging stimulus", and it refers to the fact that you're bridging the gap in time between when the animal is doing the correct behavior and when they will be rewarded for it.   Blah blah blah, terminology.  The take home message is that the bridge tells the animal that they did the behavior exactly correctly. 

The importance of the bridge is if you use it correctly, it is the fastest way to clearly communicate with the animal.  Most animal trainers use the bridge to mean "YES", and not "sort of!" or "almost there!"  That might seem a little mean, but it's actually for the animal's best interest.  

Whistle Face: it's a legit affliction.  


Well, think about it.  Since you can't verbally explain anything to your animals, you really only have one tool like a clicker to let the animal know if they're on the right path.  Let's say you're working with a dolphin who knows a front flip.  He's learned exactly what he needs to do when he's asked for the front flip to get his favorite football.  So you ask him for the flip, and he is really, really slow to actually DO the flip.  Yeah, the flip looked great, but it took him a really long time to start.  That's not part of your criteria, so what do you do?  Especially when he zooms back, pops up in front of you and looks super psyched?

You could bridge it.  I mean, he tried so hard.  Maybe something happened underwater that slowed him down.  Maybe he just is having one of those days, like all of us do.  The rest of the flip was great, so can we really penalize him for that?  

Therein lies the problem.  Looking at it like you're "penalizing" him would bring any empathetic trainer to the conclusion that they should bridge sub-criteria behavior.  Because the animal was trying so hard, you don't want to hurt their feelings or discourage them.

Oh, and if it's not Whistle Face, it's the Unintentionally Stern Point Bridge.  HEY YOU, IN THE GREY.  

But what's REALLY happening when you bridged that sub-critera flip?  You communicated to that dolphin, "Hey, change of plans, from now on, be real slow to do that flip."  

Think about how frustrating that would be to an animal trying to figure out the rules of the training game.  One day, he's supposed to do x,y,z to get his football.  The next day, the rules have changed.  Instead of him feeling encouraged, he feels frustrated.  He doesn't know your intention (and our jobs would be totally different if we could communicate that), he only knows that whistle you blow tells him "YES!! ALL OF THAT GOT YOU THIS FOOTBALL!" so he pays close attention to EVERYTHING he did to get you to blow that whistle.

Oh? Is my whistle still there? Phew.  There are more photos of me checking for my whistle than they are me using it.  And if you think this is me getting ready to use it, you are incorrect.  That dolphin was deaf, so we didn't use a whistle as a bridge.  No, it's really just me fondling my whistle lanyard.

Or maybe, his flip was really perfect, but you keep screwing up when you're blowing your whistle (a la Chris Pratt).  If your bridge is too late (like the flip is over, and now Mr. Dolphin is swimming back to you when he hears the whistle), you will likely - over time- draw so much attention to the wrong part of the behavior that Mr. Dolphin will start focusing on THAT instead of what you originally wanted.  

Poor bridging leads not only to behavioral breakdown, but WORSE, it leads to animals getting frustrated, discouraged, or in extreme cases it can cause avoidance (of certain trainers, behaviors, etc.).  Obviously, it's crucial that all trainers use their bridges properly.

There's just no good whistle face.  

For that reason, all animal trainers are really tuned-in to bridging stimuli.  Not just how it's delivered, but the TIMING of it.  Whether or not to bridge and timing are arguably the most important elements.    

Here is a highly-accurate account of the sequence of thoughts that were going through the heads of Animal Trainers Everywhere when they saw Jurassic World:

1) What the *#%( is that sound?
2) OMG.  That was a bridging stimulus.
3) WHAT A FARCE! Such awful timing! Like seriously?
4) Holy crap.  I fear for Chris' safety.  With such horrendous use of that clicker, he definitely has some confused and frustrated raptors.  Someone needs to fix this!

Portrait of a blowfish and Whistle Face ex situ.

As you can see, we are really just worried about human and animal safety and mental well-being.  The fact is, if Mr. Pratt really was training raptors in this fashion, they'd probably not give him the time of day.  They would've probably eviscerated (or worse, avoided) him in the scene where he goes all Free Contact with them.  Why? Because he completely slaughtered his only real tool to communicate.  Yeah yeah, he could just cut the bridge out and just toss slabs of meat into the raptors' mouths as they emit the behaviors he asked for, if his aim and timing are perfect.  But relying on food for if it's your only reward?  C'mon, we as a field do much better than that.  And there are many behaviors I can imagine are totally impossible to feed immediately (like when the dinos' bodies and heads are restrained in that cage-like thingy). 

Chris Pratt's character may have a gentle touch, he may have the best intentions, but ultimately he pulls the proverbial rug out from underneath the raptors.  All because of clickclickclickclick.   The good news is, with just a tiny adjustment in timing, Chris' raptors will be happier, more cooperative, and will learn a lot faster.  I mean, if they weren't almost all eaten by larger dinosaurs.  Better luck next time, sir Pratt.

Sea World, here I come!

* What, you didn't do that?

Sunday, July 12, 2015

Tattoos: A Career Killer?

I think it's safe to say that most of us zookeepers/trainers are head over heels in love with the animals in our lives.

Why is Snape so attractive?  Can someone please explain this?

There is definitely a dichotomy in this concept, though.  There is a passion/deep respect for the animals as a species.  For example, many of us have our "favorite" animal(s)*.  Most of us grew up thinking, "ONE DAY I WILL WORK WITH DOLPHINS/AMUR TIGERS/VENOMOUS SNAKES/BULLET ANTS."  We pored over every book, TV show and news article about our Favorite Animal, knowing that the course of our lives had been set clearly before us and leading straight to the Bullet Ants (or whatever).

Once we realized there is no clear, straight path to anything worthy in life, much less a job in a competitive field like animal training/caretaking, we worked our butts off with the motivating drive that we would one day convene with our Favorite Animal and Share Our Passion with the rest of the world.  So we worked really hard, got a little lucky and boom, suddenly there we are surrounded by our beloved Bullet Ants.

This guy's hands were surrounded by bullet hands (see the hand mitts in the foreground? The ones with ants sewn into them?) and he may disagree that anyone would want to be near them.

Um. Hang on a second.  This analogy was going so well, but it actually doesn't sound so great anymore. I'm not sure many people would choose to surround themselves with these ants, so let's switch over to something slightly more charming that does not contain formic acid as a weapon: dolphins.

Also, this guy attempted the same ritual as the dude in the above photo.  Let's just say he is probably not going to get a bullet ant tattoo.  

That is when the next level of our love for the animals develops.  Because being nuts for our Favorites is not really enough.  They are no longer an intangible concept; you are now the zookeeper behind the scenes getting to know the animals and who they are individually.  When I did my first internship, I thought I loved dolphins.  But then I actually got to be around them every day and see who they were. That brought me to the next level.  When I landed my first job and could actually build a meaningful relationship with them, BOOM.  Locked. In.

Knowing the animals as individuals (or, if you work with "populations" like with worms, insects, fish, etc.) brings you to another level, uniting your initial passion for the Species and the experiential knowledge of WHO these guys really are, at least in your view.  That's a fantastically strong combination.

Where is all this going?  Well, this leads me to a topic that's been brought up to me from a few different people, completely independently from one another:



"Whoa wait, what?" you say.  "What do tattoos have to do with my obsession with cow-nosed rays?"

Maybe nothing.  Maybe everything.  The fact is, many of us animal trainers and caretakers have tattoos of our Favorite Animals (species or individuals, or both).   Tattoos are undeniably growing in popularity, at least in the U.S.  People choose this ancient art to express all kinds of things important to them, such as: religious beliefs, loved ones (human or non-human), milestones or tribulations, and/or their general IQ.**

Or perhaps, how much $$ you are willing to spend.

I'm not for one moment suggesting that if you don't get tattoos of the animals with whom you work, then you don't adore them as much as someone who does get ink of them.  But I'm saying that many of us choose to express these passions in the form of body modification.

Seriously, scroll through Facebook.  There are some baller tats out there.  I have a half sleeve of dolphins, and a dolphin my shoulder blade.  I'm rather fond of it (the artist Jesse Britten did a great job: here is his gallery for anyone in the Saint Augustine, FL area).  I've seen zookeepers and trainers with tiny little tattoos of their favorite animals' flippers, faces, outlines.  I've seen animal care professionals with full sleeves, chest pieces, and entire back pieces covered in gorgeous tribute to their life's passion and work.  Amazing.

But I know what you're all thinking when you read this.  Most of you work at a place where you are supposed to cover these tattoos up.  I'm all about supporting the facility I work at, but I'm right there with you heavy-sighers as we think about how, well....confusing this policy is.  A lot of us wonder, "Is it worth getting inked?  What if I can't get a job because of it, because the facility I work at doesn't allow it?"

Well....okay this guy is passionate about donuts.  Obviously.

It's a good question.  Here's how I've dealt with that.

First, let me be honest.  If I were in charge of a facility's policy, I wouldn't have a problem with people having visible tattoos.  Clearly offensive tattoos would be the exception, d'uh. Yeah yeah, I realize even saying "clearly offensive" is subjective, but come on.  There are things that you just can't argue are going to make people upset.  Any tats of hateful symbols, nether-region body parts, or lyrics from Spinal Tap's song Big Bottom are not work safe, no way no how.   Even a gorgeous tattoo of a naked woman, not intended to offend anyone, is not going to fly at a family park and you are being ridiculous if you argue otherwise.  Is it offensive to adults?  No.  But does it belong in a family park? Uh, NO.

No lie, I just spent about 30 minutes looking at Spinal Tap gifs.  

However, I'm not in charge of policy-making on a park-wide scale, nor have I ever been.  So I have basically no say in how much we are supposed to cover our tattoos.  The good news is, especially if you are in the marine mammal industry, most of the places that do not allow visible tattoos require you to wear uniform pieces that cover a lot of your skin, or at least have uniform pieces you can choose to wear to do so.  When I worked for a company that was very strict about this, I just figured, "Well, I have to wear a rash guard all the time.  That's not a bad thing for my skin.  In fact, it's cheaper and more effective than slathering on sunscreen twenty times a day!"

Also applies to marine mammal trainers.

So I've just kind of dealt with it.  I was gainfully employed at a company that did not allow visible tattoos when I decided to start my sleeve.  I knew full well that meant I couldn't wear just a bathing suit at work.  If you are deciding to get inked, it's a good idea to consider doing in a place that is easy to cover up.

I've also worked at places that are kind of lax in their tattoo policy.  They don't encourage it necessarily, but there is a sort of, "Ehh...just kind of make an effort to cover it up."  For example, if I wear a polo shirt, you can see my sleeve peeking out but that's it.  This is the kind of in-between policy I've heard implemented at other places, because some people have tattoos on their feet, behind their ear, on their inner wrist, etc.  Most managers hire people based on their intrinsic skill set, work ethic and personality.  It's also illegal to discriminate hiring employees based on looks in the U.S. (unless you are "casting" for a role and that is made crystal clear in the application process).  A boss/company worth working for is not going to turn down a super star prospective employee because she has a cheetah tattoo on her inner wrist.  They may say, "Hey, just like, wear your watch on that hand."   They may just let it slide.

And for those of you who work for zoos and aquariums who are like, "YEAH! Let that artistic, tasteful self-expression SHOW!", you can't tell this because you're at a computer, but I'm actually giving you and your company a standing ovation.  There might be tears in my eyes.

Me! Me!

I'm going into all of this because recently, I was told that there was a nasty rumor flying around that if you get a tattoo, you'll "never" get a) hired in this job, and/or b) you'll never progress up the ladder.

So, I have two tattoos, one takes up half of my arm, and I am a supervisor (the second-in-charge) at my facility in my department.  Sometimes, my tattoo's been visible.  Sometimes, it's not.  One thing it does not do is in any way affect my job performance as a trainer or manager.  It's not some demonic entity that controls my life choices.  It doesn't mean I lead or have lead a Life of Crime.  It means I am a giant dolphin geek WHO LOVES DOLPHINS.  A dolphin trainer, at a dolphin facility, with a dolphin sleeve.  C'mon.  Even dolphin trainers would roll their eyes at my dolphin huggerness (but dang it, I'm proud of that).  And it's really only a matter of time before I figure out my next piece with seals, sea lions, penguins and otters, because I adore those guys too and like to express myself that way.

Cranberry doesn't seem to be affected in any way because of my sleeve.  Even though there are no penguins involved (but one day....)

For all of you fellow tattoo-lovers, don't let a fear of employment rejection stand in your way of self-expression.  But be smart about it.  YOU can't control policy yet, well at least most of you can't.  So you are at the mercy of your company, but that's life.  You have your entire life to get inked, so if your dream tat isn't possible with the way your zoo or aquarium works, just be patient.  If you can get it done in a way that it can be covered up and in line with policy, go for it.  It's not going to stop you from being successful.

And if you are one of the people who are spreading these silly stories about how your Career In Zookeeping Is Over when you get tattoos, stop.  Just stop.  You're being silly, and you've got better things to do.  If you're someone who does kinda sorta discriminate (in the nicest way possible) against zookeepers and trainers with visible tattoos, remember this: You're surrounded by passionate, intelligent, hard-working people.  That's the best!! That's what matters.  Their difference in opinion about getting ink permanently injected into their skin has nothing to do with how awesome they are at taking care of animals, connecting with the public (many of whom, by the way, have tattoos too), and making the workplace a fun and safe place to be.  Maybe there is a middle ground we can all be happy with; or better yet, perhaps the trend towards acceptance of tasteful body art will eventually render this Middle Flipper entry moot!

* Because seriously, how can you just have ONE?

** In these cases, typically very low.

Sunday, July 5, 2015

When Zookeepers Have A Kid (Part 1)

Recently at my place of employment, we had a delightful happening!

A baby dolphin was born.


It doesn't get any better than watching an animal you love go through a pregnancy and then deliver (in whatever method that particular animal does) a healthy kid.  Even if he/she has to grow in an egg for a while, or chillax in a pouch.  As soon as the newborn nugget emerges in its finished ready-for-external-life all animal caretakers everywhere celebrate.

But what I think is the most fun? Watching the little guy or gal grow.  Not just physically, but cognitively.  How does this brand new being interact with the environment?  With their conspecifics? So for the past two months, I've been able to basically do what I've NEVER been able to do before and that's basically just sit and watch a dolphin calf grow.

It's been a really, really rare treat for me at a supervisor level to have the opportunity to do observations for massive chunks of the day for so many weeks.  It's not just because I got to sit in a comfortable chair; it's because I got to observe some incredible milestones that I'd only read about in books.  I'm not just talking about the "big" milestones in mammalian neonatal development (like successful nursing or whatever), but the more minute ones.  Like when she started to veer off from the adults and started playing with her own bubbles at just a few weeks old.  Or the first time she started to actually play with the other dolphins.  And that story is another blog in and of itself (so stay tuned)!

My obs shifts also allowed me to take a zillion photos

But the reason I was confined to a comfy chair taking in the glorious wonder of young'uns blossoming was because I was gestating my own progeny.  At later stages of pregnancy, I could do all of the following activities:

1) Sit down
2) Complain
3) Eat
4) Word puzzles and endless episodes of Mad Men

You just keep watching me, Draper...and I'll keep watching you <3

Other activities such as: sleeping, walking, and working as a supervisor of animal training were a little more challenging.  Luckily, the timing of the birth of the baby dolphin allowed me to feel relatively useful.

Being preggo at the same time as another animal is pretty cool.  I definitely watched the entire experience differently knowing that I would be experiencing something similar just a month or so after mama dolphin did.  But because I am Cat, nothing about my pregnancy or raising a kid has been like, normal.


First of all, let's talk about being pregnant and being a nerd.  It is really, really weird.  I'm not saying that to poop* on people's dreams of growing a little person in their body.  I know it's a very beautiful and spiritual thing on different levels for people.  But for me, in addition to the fun anticipation, I looked at it like this bizarre science experiment; an added bonus for being excited that a little version of myself would roam the planet (and I'm really sorry to the rest of humanity for that).  

Actually I'm not.

Before I knew I was knocked up, I made these epic vacation plans for a 10 day trip to Monterey, CA. My plan was to basically whale-watch every day, all day, until my money ran out and my camera punched me in the face and jumped off the stern of the boat in protest for abusive use.   I was so excited.  I wanted to see Northern right whale dolphins.  I wanted to see sea otters in the wild for the first time in my life.  I wanted to eat all the delicious seafood, and go to cool yoga classes and then wonder how on earth I'd one day be able to move out to coastal Cali (my dream place!).   I found an awesome deal on Travelocity and booked the trip.

Then, I found out I was pregnant.  Cool, that'd be a nice way to just unwind and really embrace the change on the horizon.  I was going to be in Monterey for most of the trip by myself, so I took it to be a sign from the Universe** that this would be a deeply meditative trip.  I'd be amidst wildlife I adore, with a little creature carefully grown in me that I knew I'd love fiercely, and I could just take it all in surrounded by the majesty that is the Pacific ocean.

Oh little long-beaked common dolphin, did you know how much I needed to barf everywhere when I took this photo?

So I got there, started my whale-watching journey and thought, "Oh man, this is GREAT!"  The next day, I woke up for another day of fun and BOOM.  Morning sickness from Hades.  Like, some devilish creature actually crawled up from an underworld and into my digestive system and rendered me bed-ridden for the vast majority of my trip.  My spiritual journey amounted to watching Chopped episodes for 10 hours a day and wondering how anyone can eat ANYTHING ever again, much less the stuff they have to use on that show.

Don't look at me like that, Ted Allen.  I've seen every episode and LOVED IT.

But I took it all in stride and made the best of what I could.  That trip set the stage for the rest of my experience.

I used the fact that I could wield an ultrasound machine to my advantage every so often.  That was pretty cool, seeing this little thing wiggle around inside of me and I was the one actually doing it.  If ever I needed a quick glimpse, I could hop into our lab after work and fire up the machine, make sure babycat still had the important things (like ribs) and then go home.  But what I was really excited about was the Legit Ultrasound that happens between 18-20 weeks gestation.  That's when you get an expert with a super duper ultrasound machine who tells you if your kid is healthy, what gender it is and/or if it has any super powers.***

But you know what I mean.  You know how on Facebook when people make their cute/quippy pregnancy announcements with the subsequent Standard Profile Mug Shot Ultrasound photo?  The one where you're like, "Awww, look at that little sonic representation of a human fetus!!" (what, that's not what you think)?  Well, I didn't get that.  I got the ultrasound, which was really cool because we found out we were having a girl, she was human, and got to see cross-sections of all of her organs (to be used as embarrassing story fodder in the formative middle school years).  And then they started freezing images to send to my nurse practitioner midwife and to give to me as a keepsake.

Standard adorable ultrasound profile shot.  That's what every pregnant chick gets to look forward to after coming out of the haze of Vomville, right?

"Yes!" I thought.  "I'm going to be able to send my parents the Standard Profile Mugshot Ultrasound Photo!"


This.  This is what I get.

Can't see it? Wait, lemme rotate it.

The head is in the center.  The gaping hole is the mouth (near the label) and there is one eye present (on the right), a vacant triangle where the nose would be, and zero eye on the left side.  SHE IS A GOBLIN.

I found out I was gestating a little one-eyed demon.  Or zombie.  Maybe a banshee.  I couldn't tell, but it was definitely from another world.  And was a girl.  So a little ghost girl, growing inside of me and making me feel like I'm going to yiff everywhere all day.

Here's another one, same thing: right eye all Living Deadish, zero left eye.  I like the ribs on the right, it's a nice ghoulish touch.  

Immediately, I began thinking what anyone else in this situation would've thought: Is there a way to get this kid into the scary movie business?  I mean, think about it.  Paranormal Activity could easily use this image to inspire 8 or 10 more movies.    I also found there are several advantages to having a Paranormal Kid:

1) They are cool
2) They don't eat much
3) They are free on airplanes (probably...I can't find a "Banshee in Arms" ticket option so I'm just making an assumption)

I won't bore you with any further details of my Tim Burton-inspired offspring, only to say that she's been born a real, non-ghosty person (with both eyes).  AND that I feel even closer to the dolphins at work.  When their appetite decreases and they act a little sluggish for the first few months of pregnancy to the final stages where you can see their calf kicking around, resulting in an oddly-positioned, squinty-eyed dolphin....I feel like I can really commiserate with them.  And that's pretty cool.  In fact, all of us zookeepers empathize with the animals under our care, even if we haven't had the same experience.  But for those of us who have reproduced, I hope all of us look at our zoo/aquarium ladies with a little camaraderie.

Good news: my kid has both eyes and is of this world.  

And now you'll have to excuse me.  My newborn infant, who can't even hold her head up on her own, has farted something unholy into her 57th diaper of the day and it has registered as seismic activity in Los Angeles.  This is one part of parenthood the dolphins really got away easy with. ;)

Side note: I have 100 photos of this baby dolphin on my iPhone.  I also have 100 photos of my daughter on my iPhone. I don't care what species the baby is, I'm going to take some insane photos. Guilty as charged.

* Ha ha, zookeeper and new mom making poop's all I seeeeeee

** Or whoever is in charge...God? Murphy? Carl Sagan? I hope it's the latter.

*** Mine does, but I'm choosing not to share.