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.

1 comment:

  1. Wonder if Tina would go after iguanas. Great story, as always, Cat.