Sunday, October 25, 2015

Get Rich Quick Schemes For Any Smart Zookeeper

There are a few skills required of zoo professionals that are kind of weird.  Like, you never think about them until you're required to use them.  It blows my mind knowing that out there on this great planet of ours, billions of people will never know what it's like to say, lock a padlock with one hand.

Forget swim tests: let's do hose sharpshooting tests.

Also, most of us aren't rolling in the dough at our jobs by any means.  Pair these two things together and you've got fantastic potential to make zillions of dollars.  I have come up with so many Get Rich Quick Schemes (herein referred to as GRQs) that I'm pretty sure I could be a majillionaire if I:
a) had money for patents and 
b) got off my lazy butt to actually follow through....

....but usually something happens, like my baby laughs or my cockatiel says "love you" in a  really pathetic little voice and I'm all like, "Ohhhhh" and my idea goes out the window forever.

Question: can I do this entire blog with Napoleon Dynamite memes?

I'm going to throw out some skill-GRQ pairings to all of you.  Because you know what?  Even though I get distracted by a box of double chocolate donuts, I still think someone ought to invent products to help us out.  And maybe one of you will actually do something with this, and I'll benefit from using such a product.  So use my ideas.  I don't even need credit.  Maybe just send me some samples for free or something.

Okay, onto my list.  

Answer: Yes.  But I won't.  I promise.

Skill 1: Locking a padlock with one hand

I was out at our seal habitat a few days ago, and had a serious issue with a lock.  Not that this lock and I haven't had our fair share of nasty fights, but this time I was really mad.  See, the way we get into our seal habitat is through this door:

Behold, the padlock. This leads to a back area, which then leads into the actual seal habitat.

You can see the padlock, right?  Right now, it's a key-lock (side note: number locks in salty air die terrible and quick deaths), and it's getting a little crusty thanks to its close vicinity to the Gulf.  Nonetheless, when we leave our session and go to lock the door behind us, we usually have one hand with at least one cooler in it, leaving one free hand to lock up.  This means we are all dexterously skilled at cradling the lock in our palm, manipulating all parts into position, and in one swift movement slamming it shut.  Boom.

But a couple of days ago, I couldn't do it.  I don't know if my brain was not working properly, or my hands were uncooperative, or if the lock itself was just too corroded to move without the force of two hands.  Either way, it was ridiculous.  My ire led my train of thought to a place called Why Do We Even Have To Deal With This.  My idea?  Let's get rid of padlocks in all zoos and aquariums for back areas and double-barrier gates.  Let's replace them with Star Trek-age doors, the swooshy ones that open smoothly and dramatically.  They have to make the swoosh sound, obviously.  And maybe they are activated by a retinal scanner.

Guests will be intrigued: who's behind those awesome doors? Darth Vader? Harbor seals?

You walk up, buckets and husbandry/training supplies in hand, and WHOOSH, the doors open for you and you alone, and WHOOSH close behind you.  No public can get in.  And you can spend the brainpower required to lock a padlock with one hand on something far more relevant, like eating five slices of pizza at once or something.

Skill 2: Algae removal

Don't even worry about it, they're fine.

Any animal care professional working around water regardless of salinity concentration knows what I'm talking about here.  

Let me first admit that I LOVE SCRUBBING ALGAE.  I have no clue why, but I do.  I especially love scuba diving and using power scrubbers.  It's a great workout and you really feel accomplished when you're done.  I love love love it.  Sure, I have seaweed in my hair for days, but I have basically the worst sense of smell (like one time I thought capelin smelled like pumpkin pie) so it doesn't really bother me.

But the thing is, even with the best power scrubber, there are some pool coatings and types of algae that form a bond stronger than any physical bond known to science.  The only thing that kills this algae is a change in seasons, a hint of roid rage and maybe a little holy water.  Otherwise, you'll get a superficial layer off, but underneath it lies the bane of our existence.

There has GOT to be another way to get rid of that algae.  If it were a human swimming pool, you'd nuke it with chlorine.   Maybe copper.  But those chemicals are not used anymore or are used very sparingly...amounts that won't hurt the animals.  And guess what, barely make a dent in this tough algae stuff I'm talking about.  There was a company that claimed this insanely thin pool coating would "never" let algae grow.  Well, they never dealt with the supernatural stuff I'm talking about, because this insanely expensive coating (I mean....insanely expensive) basically slowed down the growth.  

Or like, a genius Val Kilmer and some lasers?

I don't have any good ideas past a ouji board and whatever else they tried in Paranormal Activity.  Please tell me someone out there is working on something.

Skill 3: Carrying multiple buckets or coolers at one time

Despite all of us dressing up in 80s costumes for our Halloween event this weekend, Kate could not manage a smile because she had so many buckets to carry.

Marine mammal trainers, am I right or am I right?  We carry so many buckets by hand to our sessions.  We want to be Efficient and Helpful.  We want to show our bosses We Are Working Hard.  So we grab four giant coolers instead of two.  We latch two or three metal buckets together per hand and lug it upstairs, outside, downstairs, inside, whatever.

Yeah, for long distances, you can use a cart or something.  One place I worked at used tricycles (I am not making this up) and it was awesome.  But I'm talking about when you walk tens or maybe a hundred feet to your destination.  It doesn't seem all that bad to carry all of those coolers a "short" distance.  But have you ever noticed a twinge in your elbow or wrist?  Of course you have, because that's what carrying those things do.  And over time, that can become a serious problem for some people.  It pulls your wrist out of alignment and puts strain on ligaments that are not supposed to stretch (they don't ever go back once you've stretched them out).

So you can either just carry one cooler/bucket per hand, or we can come up with some device that you wrap around your forearm and wrist, that have little hooks or something on them where you attach your coolers.  And it keeps all of your arm and hand anatomy nice and happy, but allows you to be the badass you are and carry 250 buckets at one time without destroying yourself when you're old.  Right?? Right??? There's gotta be a market for that.  I'd buy some!  

Skill 4: Rinsing large buckets/coolers utilizing Russian Contortionist Moves

Don't mind me.  Just checking for scales.

Along the same lines with wrist health, I know I speak for my coworkers when I say we can twist an igloo cooler around using moves originally patented by Cirque du Soleil.   Thoroughly rinsing one of those rectangular, awkward buckets requires you to move your hands in ways that would make any physical therapist weep instantly.  

This is a cool skill to have, but ultimately one I wouldn't mind leaving behind if only to maintain the health of my wrists.  We need a way to flip the coolers upside down but keep them steady enough to withstand a strong, continuous blast of water to ensure it is cleaned properly.  

Skill 5: Opening gates without looking

I feel like Bad Santa breaking into safes every time

For those of you who work free-contact with terrestrial or amphibious animals, you already know what I'm talking about here.  For those of you who have never worked with said creatures, let me fill you in. 

When I am working with sea lions, there is a point at which the session ends and I need to get out of the habitat.  Ideally, I am out of the habitat before the session ends.  Also ideally, it'd be great to have a second person to open my gate for me (and also to shower me with gifts and candy).  However, I - like so many of you - work at a facility with limited staffing.  Alas, it is not often possible for me to have the luxury of a second person to work my gate.   And some of our gates require more finagling than just simply pushing them open, even if they are technically unlocked.  

This means I have to stick my hand through a hole in the gate, unlatch whatever is required...all while not taking my focus off of the animals in front of me.  This is a skill that I think has to be used in the CIA, because it feels very spy-ish and risky.

Spies are cool

Alas, it would be nice for those of us at small facilities/with small staffs to have a way to open gates without the method I've just outlined.  I'm thinking something similar to my swooshy door idea, but voice activated gates that only recognize the voices of zookeepers in that area, and you have to use a series of random words that change on a weekly basis.  Like, "cheese hedgehog conglomerate" would be a good one.  Or maybe "pancreas" to lock everything up.  I'd be really good at coming up with secret phrases, so keep that in mind if one of you decides to actually invent this thing.

Skill 6: Using a hose with surgical precision

Wombat on your leg? Who cares, you're still a master at hose skills

If anyone needs anything moved under the power of water, hire a zookeeper.  We can shoot a dime-sized piece of poop from 100 yards away with our eyes closed.  Don't even worry about it.  Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid are sharp-shooting amateurs when it comes to zoo professionals.  In fact, if there were ever a need to form militias, zookeepers should be first considered for combat, as long as their weapon is a hose.  Right between the eyes, I tell ya.

I'm not sure if we can improve this system; we are already so good and efficient at it.  But what we can do is spice it up.  We know that new keepers or interns may not be as good initially at hosing.  Sometimes, we lament this to other keepers and wonder how we can train someone to be better at it.  The answer is: laser sights on all hose nozzles.  See where your stream is going to hit.  See which movements clearly move things in the desired direction. Bonus? It's enriching for the animals if they're in there while you clean.

Skill 7: Eating with smelly hands without vomiting 

No, really.  This is for real.

I wash my hands 10,000 times a day.  I'm not a germophobe, I swear.  It's just that I don't really want to eat fish scales, or get anything else all disgusting with my fish boogery hands.  Alas, despite the amount of times I wash, my hands still smell like fish, sea lion sludge, and otter poop.  I intentionally don't bring lunch that requires that I use my hands too much, but that is limiting.  In fact, that lowers the quality of my life.  Sometimes I want a giant peanut butter sandwich.  I refuse to eat pizza with a fork and knife*.   

Like I said, I have a terrible sense of smell, but I can be totally grossed out by the odor on my hands.  If it sucks for me, it must be AWFUL for the rest of you.  So what can we do?  Surely, there must be something.  They made Poo-pourri for god's sake.  Let's get some of that technology on our zookeepers' hands.

Skill 8: Carrying a giant scale for large animals

The ol' "light as a feather, stiff as a board" doesn't work on this thing.

Oh. My. God.  Does anyone actually enjoy lugging around a giant scale on weight days?  I mean, of course we'll do it, because the animals need to be weighed and that's an important part of their basic care.  But that scale.  It's so heavy.  It's so awkward.  And if you're a marine mammal trainer like me, you're carrying it around really slippery areas.  

The only answer?  Hovercrafts.  Let's get them made for us in the zoo field.  Think of all of the things you can do with a hovercraft when you're not carrying a scale.  I mean, you can't argue with me on this.

Hovercrafts, retinal scanners, and swoosh doors.  Obviously, I have a sci-fi theme in mind, but the sky's the limit on creativity here. I am more than willing to give up my skills listed above if someone wants to invent something to make our lives better.  And I hope you get really rich doing it, and then donate a bunch of money to animals in need.

What other skills can be improved with some neat-o inventions, dear readers?


* Unless it's Chicago deep dish pizza, in which case I'll use whatever necessary to get as much of that delicious pie into my mouth

Sunday, October 18, 2015

On-The-Job Injuries (Part 1): Busted Toes and Fish Spines

There are many perils in our job, especially in the way of painful-but-not-serious injuries we incur.  I mean, it stands to reason that if you are actively moving around all day, chances are you're going to hurt yourself.   Animal care professionals in the zoo and aquarium world are not wimps, let's just put it that way.

Look.  Those chicks are tough.

I am typically more prone to injury than the average earthling.  I'm unsure of the exact cause, but confident that I have accidents 39% more than my other coworkers.  Yes, I'm a little clumsy.  I think anyone who knew me as a child would never have imagined me voluntarily working in a place with work conditions such as: slippery.  They likely felt I was better suited to a job where I sat down all day, like my dream job of Senior Cheese Taste Tester.* Working in a wet environment does provide a higher probability of injury, but my particular issue with this matter appears to be supernatural in nature vis a vis, Murphy's Law.

For example, it's pretty common to see marine mammal trainers with busted toes.  Some of us work in bare feet or in sandals.  It's really only a matter of time before your toe meets an immovable object, which I'm pretty sure Newton discussed in one of his laws that went something like, "A toe meeting an immovable object will explode in a bloody mess."

No, you're right, he didn't say that.  But he would've if he worked around fish all day.

But me?  Sure, I stub my toes both at home and work like any other average bipedal simian.  But I went through a period of time where every week, one of my tarsal digits would open up and let loose its innards simply because my toe would get "caught" on a flat surface.  This happened to nobody else.  I'd just be walking along the edge of some of the dolphin habitats, like I did a trillion times before, and suddenly the atoms in my left big toe would become attracted to the atoms in the cement surface upon which I strolled.  This caused a sudden hitch in my gait, at which point my forward momentum forced my seemingly-fused toe to rip forward, leaving a healthy helping of skin still on the surface of the ground.  And the blood.  Oh god, the blood.

The first time this happened, I thought it was just a Classic Clumsy Cat Catastrophe, of which there have been plenty and I expect plenty more to occur in my lifetime.  I hobbled over to our first aid kit, where I tended to my wound and laughed with my coworkers about it.  But then, just after my toe had healed, I did it again.  

And then again.

And then one more time, just because.


Each time, I was in a different location in the habitat.  But it was the same toe.  My boss at the time actually held a staff meeting to tell me that I really needed to stop ripping my toe open.  He was pretty unhappy, which I assumed was because either a) workman's comp insurance increased for the facility by about 395% due solely to me, or b) he was sick of seeing my blood.   Or he could've just been looking out for me in a Papa Bear way.

Exploding toes aside, there is another injury that I really, really, really, really, really, really hate.  It even pains me to write about, but I feel that so much of you out there have experienced it and it's time we all talk about it and start to heal from the trauma.

Fish sp

Oh god, I can't even finish typing it.  Okay, I'm taking deep breaths and envisioning a happy place.  Oh, yes, there it is.  Willy Wonka's factory and I'm there, pushing Augustus Gloop into the river so I can eat all the snacks.  Okay, I'm ready now.

Stop. Help. Police. Murder.

Fish spines under the fingernail.  GAHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHH.  Fish spines are no joke, especially when fish are alive.  You think you're safe when they're dead, but you're horribly mistaken.  Their final vengeful act lies in wait, just below that two-inch layer of ice.

I remember the first time I saw this happen to a coworker of mine.  I was in Miami at the time, and I was observing one of the trainers doing a dolphin interaction program.  In the middle of the program, she stuck her hand into her cooler.  I saw a slight wince and a quick glance at her hand, and then back to the session she went, smiling and laughing.

But afterwards, when all the guests were gone and the session with the dolphins was ended, she got out of the water and ran over to a group of us waiting on the dock to discuss the program.  She was no longer calm, and kept sticking her hand out for us to see my first and horrific vision of my future.

A spine from the dorsal fin of a herring had gone completely under her fingernail, like from the top all the way to the cuticle.  She ran inside the office and attempted to get it out, but the top part broke off, leaving the rest of the spine securely wedged under the nail.

I'm barfing.

Silly optimist that I am, I thought, "Oh man, that looks so incredibly painful.  I'm NEVER going to let that happen to me."

I'll pause briefly to allow you to have a hearty laugh at my stupidity.

I don't really believe that I thought I could avoid this common and excruciating workplace woe.  I think I was so terrified of experiencing the inevitable that I just simply went into deep denial.  A denial that lasted until I got the first spine under my fingernail, which feels like a fat and sharp, white hot needle stabbing into your body.  The pain does not change until you remove the spine, unlike other types of splinters when you're like, "OW!" and then it's okay unless you touch it.  No.  Fish bones or spines under the nails produce searing pain, not to mention provide all kinds of nightmarish possibility for infection.  And another fun fact: removing the spine is more painful than the insertion. But that momentary brutality is better than what happened to my aforementioned coworker, because it's far worse to realize you can't get it out for a while.

Not my finger.  Because why would I want to document that.

Here's the other element to this particular injury: you often experience it when you're with the general public.  It is the ultimate test of your professionalism.  The occasional times when I've just been around coworkers when I've gotten some sharp fish part slammed under my nail, I say some words and we can quickly wrap up the session or someone can take over for me while I run like I'm on fire to the nearest first aid station.

But when you're in a public presentation/show setting, or doing an interaction, well...your reaction has to be different.  It might be alarming to a guest, for example, if a trainer suddenly banshee screams, grabs his or her hand and runs off stage during a show, never to be seen again.  Also, studies have shown that guests may complain if you use words of the four-letter nature, even if they are used while in pain.  

What goes through my head.  Sort of, but not really.

Alas, many of the fish spines and bones that wind up under our nails occur in these settings.  So we must contain the white hot pain in our brains while we continue with whatever we are doing.  It's lucky that the animals are so good at distracting us from this situation, but it doesn't mean we don't torture ourselves by taking quick peeks at our injured nails, desperately hoping that the spine is high enough that we can quickly remove it.  But no, so often this is impossible, so you just power through for 20 minutes, letting all the swear words in the world build up in your brain and wondering if the bathroom walls are thick enough to cloak your screams.

Well, that's all I can write about this topic today, because just remembering how this feels makes my spine compress and all my organs shrivel up, in an attempt to disappear into nothingness (a place where I'm told there are no fish spines).  But I'll recover enough to read any of your comments about your fish spine or toe-busting injuries, because misery loves company (or something).

* I have never received any call-backs for interviews 

Sunday, October 11, 2015

"Kill Yourself You Idiot" and Other Sage Words From Morons

On Thursday night, someone told my friend and coworker, Shannon to go kill herself.

Why, do you ask?

I don't know, really.  The person who suggested she commit suicide has never met Shannon.  The only thing he knows about her is that she wrote a comment on some biased Buzzfeed article, and from that he gleaned that it would just be better if she offed herself.


And this is the problem with the world today.

First of all, Shannon is okay with this whole thing.  She has thick skin and doesn't let these kinds of comments get to her.  

Wow, presumptuous much?

Second, she is one of the sweetest, funniest, wittiest people I've ever known.  She has dedicated her life to a dog she adopted from a kill-shelter.  She is one of the people I rely on as a supervisor to usher one of our gentle, but very nervous sea lions through any changes.  She has an unending passion for the well-being of animals.  This girl never settles for status quo, either.  Not for the animals she cares for at home, nor the ones at our job.  And this generosity and love extends to humans, too.  When I was going through a particularly rough time, she sneakily left me this insanely awesome care package (it involved the It Follows DVD and a lot of Reese's Pieces) and she can make anybody laugh.  Shannon is a genuinely good person.

Her amazing dog she rescued from the Panhandle Animal Welfare Society (PAWS)

Third, the person I've just described is among a lot of people I have known and worked with who have gigantic hearts and put their money where their mouth is when it comes to caring for others, human or non-human.  And the person I've just described is not the only person to be the victim of callous, even evil cyber-harassment.  Not by a long shot.

So what did Shannon do to solicit someone to say such a heinous thing?

Because she wrote a factual reply to a Buzzfeed article discussing the California Coastal Commission decision to allow Sea World San Diego to expand its orca habitat (like, state-of-the-art exhibit) but under the stipulations that they are not allowed to breed or transport any of the orcas.  Here's what she wrote:

Everything she wrote here is factually correct.  That doesn't mean you have to agree with her; you can still have your own opinions about this topic.  Rejecting facts is not an actual method of supporting your own contentions on a topic.

Of course, comments abounded with the typical misinformed and emotionally-feuled internet warriors who heralded this decision as the beginning of the end of SeaWorld.   So while they expressed their opinion via the medium of Internet, Shannon chose to do the same and share her many years of knowledge of actually like, being IN the industry they're criticizing.  And for that, she received this:

I especially like the philosopher's comment on the top left.

Normally, I try to take an understanding viewpoint, especially on this topic.  So let me first say that those of you who read this blog who do not agree with cetaceans in human care but who are rational, educated, and emotionally intelligent human beings who get out in the world and do good work for animals in need, this blog is not addressed to you.  We may have fundamentally different opinions, but none of you would ever say or do anything I'm discussing in this blog.  And I would say the same thing to anyone on "my side" who did this to "your side".

But for the rest of you who get your information from Buzzfeed and Netflix, here are some real-world truths you should accept.

You're Embarrassingly Unoriginal

I mean, aliens are coming to Earth.  Did you SEE Close Encounters of the Third Kind?

Congratulations.  You're like every other immature fool who believes everything they see on a 90 minute documentary.  No intelligent person, regardless of their opinion on any topic, would be caught dead admitting that their information came from a f***ing documentary.  No educated person develops an opinion on a topic based on biased information (including their own bias).  

Also, your weird attraction to a good conspiracy theory is annoying.  Just because someone supports a view opposing yours (especially if that person happens to be an expert in the topic about which you are discussing) doesn't automatically make them liars, or recipients of sums of money for their support, or brain-washed. Seriously, the rest of us smart people all outgrew that world view when we were 16.  

Also, for God's sake please stop responding to every counter-argument with "have you seen Blackfish/The Cove?".  Unless of course, you are in the habit of telling every expert in all fields they should watch a movie about their profession, then I guess you get points for being consistent (but -72987598235 points for not actually using your brain). 

You're Hurting Your Own Cause

Try being a nice person.  It's fun.

Do you even know what your cause is?  At present, it appears as though it involves a lot of trolling (an action that requires approximately zero skills) and coming up with the most heinous insults to hurl at other human beings.  If your cause involves changing people's minds about your opinion, here's a fact that's important for you to accept: no one likes mean people.  Like no one.  And armchair activists who make 7 million comments on an entertainment site are not really making the rest of their "cause" look very intelligent.  Of the friends of mine who are animal right's activists, they are completely mortified by your behavior.  

You Have Made No Impact Where It Matters

Your ridiculously ignorant commentary saved not a single pilot whale in Denmark.

Because the people who share your general view point about cetaceans in zoos and aquariums who are actually out doing beach clean ups, or volunteering to care for UME pups, or trying to stop the drive slaughters in Japan, they don't have time to surf the internet and tell people to kill themselves, or that they're part of some massive secret marine mammal trainer club that abuses orcas and lies to the general public about everything.  

Not a single comment you post on the internet has saved a single animal. Not one.  Tell yourself that the next time you look in the mirror.  Don't you have a dog or a cat or someone who could benefit from the time you're spending being heartless to complete strangers, some of whom actually know what they're talking about? 

I Would Never Let You Near An Animal If You Are Really As Mean IRL As You Are On Facebook

For realz

Seriously? Are we, the marine mammal care industry supposed to hand over our facilities and the animals we care for to you, the people who are telling us to kill ourselves?  Uh, what.  I don't think so.  If I ever considered having you people build a so-called sanctuary for the animals you know absolutely NOTHING about, then I'd deserve to be charged with felony animal cruelty.   

What do you guys do after you post this ridiculous crap?  Do you feel really good about yourselves, because you just love to punish a total stranger?  Do you actually think that you, with 90 minutes of a documentary under your belt, are an expert in this topic?  Seriously?? Are you like that person who tells doctors that their diagnosis is wrong because, unlike their years and years of medical school and real-world experience, you spent 20 minutes reading bullet points on WebMD?

Or watched a documentary (or TWO, even)

Personally, I have nothing to hide after 10 years of being in this field.  I have never lied to a person who's asked me about the marine mammal training field in the United States.  I don't believe in that.  I take my job very seriously, not just for the animals I'm privileged to care for and know, but for the bigger picture impact it has on animals in the wild.  

I'd like to invite all the unoriginal, obnoxious, socially unintelligent human beings of the internet realm to go to a marine mammal stranding event, when they have to look into the eyes of a perfectly healthy baby dolphin who is being euthanized because some feel it's better they're dead than in a zoo.  Yeah, that happens.

Or spend a month working alongside marine mammal trainers to see what the job is actually like, including what horrific things guests tend to say to us (so you realize that most people don't care one bit about animals or the environment).  I'd also like it if you'd come say to our faces all the stupid stuff you slather all over the internet.  Are you really that brave?  

I can't imagine a single scenario where I'd say, even jokingly, to someone "go kill yourself".  The good news is, you're just a bunch of cowards who give the impression of having no heart.  So let's look at the final numbers here:

Number of Orcas You've Helped: 0

Wow, looks like all that time on the interwebz really paid off.  I bet all animals everywhere are so grateful you're out there, being jerks.

Do some research, and not just the ones that support your opinion.  Maybe start with learning how to form a good argument.  Vet your sources, and if you aren't sure that what you're reading or hearing is unbiased, then canvas both sides of the topic.  For example, you guys have a lot of information saying how awful cetaceans lives are in captivity.  I'm telling you, from the bottom of my heart, that most of that information is factually incorrect.  It's not a conspiracy, I get paid nothing for my views or this blog, and I actually work with these animals year-round.  I have no reason to lie to you, because lying is WRONG and eventually the truth comes how does that help animals if I distract from something that could help them?  

Or, if you think I'm full of crap, that's okay, too.  But lay off the holier-than-thou, awful commentary that does nothing but stroke your ego for ten seconds while you house an entire bag of Doritos and binge watch Whine About It Wednesdays*.  Go live your life and do something nice for someone.

* Stick with that kind of content instead of commenting on issues you know nothing about, Buzzfeed.  Seriously.

Sunday, October 4, 2015

Cat's at a Hurricane Party--I'm Taking Over (For This Week)

Your favorite Middle Flipper author is stuck in the Bahamas this weekend with the rest of IMATA. Thanks to hurricane Joaquin showing up late to the conference then throwing a big fit when they wouldn’t let him in, you get me, Russ, as your guest writer.

In the epic vacancy left here by Cat, I’m humbly shuffling onto the stage like Seymour filling in for Clyde.

For those of you who don't know me, I'm Cat's husband, a former marine mammal trainer, and currently Cat's biggest fan.

Hurricanes are no laughing matter--they can wreak havoc on lives and livelihoods, and I’ll start this post by saying that my heart goes out to those on the out islands of the Bahamas who’ve been slammed by Joaquin. 

But as a marine mammal trainer, you’d better be prepared to deal with a hurricane or two throughout your career. Oh, you’ll deal with plenty of scares thanks to 24-hour weather coverage, but taking a direct hit is a different animal altogether.

This would be a good time to prepare.

Being in the cone and in the eye are two very different things, and if you wear a whistle long enough, you’ll probably get to experience both.

For me, my first real hurricane experience came in my second year of zoo work. Until then, hurricanes generally meant: buy a bunch of batteries, wax up the board and strategize my way out of school. But life was different once I took my first grown-up job.

After working my way into a job with the animals at Sea World, I eventually scored a position at Dolphin Research Center on Grassy Key in 2004.

Yes, that’s the DRC where folks in the MarMam field always say they want to land a job at some point. And yes, that’s the 2004 that kicked off three years of relentless hurricane beatings in the state of Florida.

I ran from Jeanne, but I couldn't hide. So I surfed.

We were hit from the west, south and east that year and I logged over 1,000 miles on Florida Interstates chasing waves and running from storms with names--it was a busy year to be a guy living in a matchbox on a dock in the keys and a surfer on the weekends with a job during the week.

What follows is sort of a survival guide for young trainers bound to experience the oddities of a hurricane landfall at some point in their careers--well, at least my version of a guide.

Get Some Jerry Cans

I’m a second generation Florida native, and that comes in handy because my parents have already experienced the weirdness of Florida long before I had to deal with it myself. 

A unique thing about living here is that I’ve seen what it will look like when the oil finally runs out. We don’t have refineries in Florida, so our oil comes in by truck. But when the southbound lanes are closed, whatever’s in the ground is all there is. That means that during an evacuation gas stations get f****** crazy. Throw in the fact that south Florida is home to approximately a China-load of people, and you have a mass exodus and limited fuel combination that can lead to a Walking Dead scenario.

These are jerry cans. Buy them. Fill them. Transport them safely--Avoid Walkers.

So buy some damned jerry cans. This tip was passed to me by my dad who said before I set out on a 350-mile evacuation, “Fill some jerry cans and put them in the back of your truck--and cover them up so you don’t get shot.” 

It was good advice because I stopped for a coke at a gas station in Martin County on my way north to Daytona Beach. They had one pump running at a trickle and about twenty cars in line. Everybody was out of fuel and the gas stations all had highway patrolman stationed limiting each car’s fuel purchase. While a rear-end collision could have rained fire on my parade, I did get to sip a cool soft drink while cruising right past every almost-out-of-fuel gas station thanks to good advice from dear ol’ dad.

Buy Beer and Dry Ice Early

As the bottled water stocks dwindle, beer prices will go up. Count on that. As a dolphin trainer, you’re into a bargain, and that means you’ll need to stock up on your favorite canned cocktail before it hits champagne prices. This means hit the stores before a hurricane warning is issued. Dry ice is a good choice because when the power goes out, it will keep your beer and pot pies cool for several days. 

Get to the store before this happens.

Oh, and buy some food, too.

Get Your Swim Test Practice

Start surfing now. It’s a great alternative to boring exercise, and when a hurricane threatens it can be the best swim test practice you’ve ever had--but you’ll need several year’s experience to take advantage. 

Note to beginners: that's not a surfboard.

I mentioned that chasing waves was a big part of the miles I drove in 2004, and that’s because there are no legitimate surf spots in the keys. However, with storms bouncing all around the Atlantic basin, Florida received some epic waves. This meant heading north nearly every weekend during that season either chasing a swell or running from a storm.

Paddling out takes it’s toll on the arms in a big hurricane swell, but the best swim test practice I’ve ever had is losing my board on a big day and having to swim in after it. 

Once this happened as a result of a broken leash on one of the biggest days I’ve ever seen in Florida. The barrier islands were closed, and getting to the beach required sneaking across three blocks of a locked-down neighborhood with cops patrolling. And I was wearing yellow flowered shorts and carrying a ten-foot red board.

I’m not going to say you should defy a mandatory evacuation, sneak past patrolling police, and paddle out from a closed beach. In fact you shouldn’t. Don’t do it. 

But it is one heck of a way to build the confidence that makes a 110-foot underwater swim feel like a day at, well, the beach.

Just don’t do it.

Be On Call

In the days leading up to a hurricane’s arrival, especially those last 72 hours when it becomes more and more imminent, prepare to work like you’ve never worked before. Depending on the facility where you work, the animals could be in serious danger, and that’s going to require some major prep. 

You’ll be working like a construction worker one minute and then spending hours in the freezer the next. Everything has to be ready for intense storm conditions and the possibility of days without power following it.

Be there when your supervisors ask for your help. Trust me--your help is needed.

Until it’s time to evacuate, you’re working to save the lives of your animals, and that means safeguarding their habitats and securing their food.

Preparing for a storm is hard work, but you’ll do it because, when it comes down to it, those animals are the reason you do what you do. 

We'll just hang out while you get everything ready.

You may or may not become a millionaire, but you’ll have a relationship and love for those animals that only a handful of humans have ever experienced.

When it comes time for your first hurricane experience as a marine mammal trainer, enjoy it. Take it seriously. And give your all. I’ll tell you that when it gets bad, you’ll be amazed at the way everyone comes together.

You’ll get your Cat back next week, but until then send her some photos and comments about your craziest natural-disaster-at-work experience!