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.


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