Sunday, November 29, 2015

Why I Can't Complain About Cold Weather Anymore

In my hemisphere, it's getting cold, and that spells out woe for marine mammal trainers.  Yes, even in Florida.  And if you're someone shaking your head at me because you're "from the North" and it "doesn't get cold" in Florida, I invite you to hang out in a wet wetsuit in 30 degree weather for 8 hours.  

Grumpy cat is wise.

Anyways, I feel like the approach of winter means a lot of things for those of us in the zoological community.  First, the holidays.  We celebrate/work (not mutually exclusive) for both of the major holidays in the U.S. November and December and it's always a special time.  

Second, it usually means slow season (with some bumps during the holiday period).  February in Florida is glorious for natives, because all the tourists are gone and the snowbirds are starting to migrate homeward.  


And third, winter time means being chilled and freezing your hands to the point where everything actually feels like it's boiling hot and then you can't feel anything anymore.

For most of my career, I've worked at a place that offers dolphin interactive programs in the water.  I've done my fair share of deep-water programs in freezing temperatures (with 28 degree air temps and 50 degree water).  It's pretty miserable, even though the animals are awesome.  Why? Because you are freezing, and your guests are ULTRA FREEZING.  There is nothing worse than seeing a little kid looking like they are vibrating out of this plane of existence because they are shivering so much.  You can't have a jolly time educating a kid about dolphins when they are in the final stages of hypothermia.

"I'm. Cold."  Thanks "Are You Afraid Of The Dark", for this recurring nightmare I have had since I was 8.

Sometimes, you get guests who think they are tough.  Like the family I met from Canada who chose to do a swim program during one of the coldest days of the year.  Like, the mist whipping off of the Atlantic ocean was turning into snow.  And I gave this educational tour to a family I knew I'd be taking into deep, cold water and even though I was in three wetsuits, I knew I was going to feel like my entire body was experiencing an ice-cream headache for about 20 minutes.  

So we get to the point where I give them their wetsuits, and the father looks at me and this exchange happens:

Canadian dude: Oh, no.  We don't need those.

Me: Uh yes, you really do.  It's very cold in that water and I'd highly recommend a wetsuit.

Canadian dude: Don't need 'em.  We're from Canada.

The rest of the family smiled and nodded at me.

I begged.  I pleaded.  I used my most persuasive arguments, tone and body language.  But nothing could convince the Canadians to heed my advice.  Alas, they came out in the frigid, gusty below-freezing air, donned their life jackets, and followed me into the water. 

Down the zero-entry beach we went.  But as the water moved up past their ankles, some of the family members bucked.  There were a lot of "holy cows" and a couple of them ran out of the water.  The father made it all the way up to his torso before declaring defeat.  We paused the program, gave them wetsuits, and continued on (they complained about being cold the entire time).

Polar Bear Club they were not.

It's experiences like this that make us as trainers dread people signing up for water programs during the winter time.  In the slow seasons, we get used to having many days in a row where nobody signs up for such a program, which allows us to do different types of training sessions.  We can get in the water and sometimes do, but it's always different when you feel like it's your choice to do so (versus doing a program knowing your guests are going to be miserable).  It may not be super professional, but it's the honest way we tend to feel during this time of year.

But I learned an important lesson on this topic.

On one extremely cold, cloudy day in the slow season, a shallow water dolphin program signed up at the VERY LAST MINUTE.  That is the WORST.  You're all like, "Woohoo, two minutes before the cutoff for this wet program! Let's stay dry today and just do a big play session with the dolphins!"  And then you hit the refresh button on the computer reservation website and BAM, there's that program.  One person.  Draaaaaaaat.

Look at those warm, dry trainers.

I volunteered to do the program.  I put my wetsuit on and went to the dolphin habitat.  
That's when I saw our guest, who looked like he had a serious problem walking. That added more stress; it was important that we did everything safely for every guest, but that was more difficult when someone needed more assistance.  However, when he introduced himself to me, his speech was a little slurred but he was very sharp, cracking jokes left and right.  I really took a liking to this man.

We made our way to our entry point,  which involves a ladder (this was not the same place with the zero-entry beach) which is where I realized he basically couldn't get in the water using the methods we typically use.  He kept trying different things, but for some reason his feet kept giving out on him.  I suggested we just hang out poolside and interact with the animals there, because I could not think of a safe way for him to enter.

"Can I just jump in?"

If you want more, more, more

I hadn't thought of that for some reason.  All the dolphins were with trainers, and were used to us jumping in.  The guest had a life jacket on and I'd worked at other facilities where we had guests jump in the water from the side.

After reassuring me that he jumps into pools from diving boards, I agreed to let him do it.  Once he was in the water, he'd swim over to the platform just a foot or so away.  I had another trainer right there on the platform to assist him.  It seemed like it would be fine.  And then....

SPLASH.  He jumped in.  He sank briefly below the surface, then popped back up, white water exploding around him as he screamed I DON'T WANT TO DIE LIKE THIS.


The other trainer and I quickly grabbed his life jacket and pulled him to the platform as he futilely grabbed at the water, trying to find something to hold onto, screaming at the top of his lungs.  He didn't calm down until he was on the platform, and then he told me he didn't know why that freaked him out so much, but he figured it was because the water was much colder than he expected.

We did the program without any other incidents.  He seemed to love every minute of it, especially because it was just him, me, and one of the dolphins.  Then, at the end of the experience, I turned to him and asked him if he had a good time.  He got really quiet for a while.  Then finally he said:

"Yes.  This is very special for me.  Because I only have 6 months to live."

I just stared at him in stunned silence.  He continued, "I have aggressive brain cancer.  And they only gave me 6 months to live."  And then he started to cry.

I wanted to cry too.  I wanted to do something for this man, for this gentle person who was tormented by such an awful fate.  The dolphins were having a great session, so I asked the trainers to stay in the water for a few more minutes and we extended the program.  He played with them using their favorite toys, he gave them rub-downs.  And at the end of the program, I met his best friend who traveled with him to Florida just to do this experience.  They told us this was the man's last wish on his bucket list because dolphins were his favorite animal.  His friend had taken a lot of photos and knew they would enjoy re-living the experience when they looked at them at home.  The trainers and I grabbed a painting done by the dolphin he interacted with primarily and gave it to him as a gift.  It seemed like such an insignificant token to give to someone in that circumstance.

Both these ladies were involved in this story

We parted ways afterwards.  I never heard anything about him.  That was years ago, so chances are he is gone.  I feel so embarrassed and small when I think about how much I dreaded doing that program just because it was cold outside.  I wound up having an incredible connection with someone dealing with something I wouldn't wish on my worst enemy.  Hopefully, the experience was as meaningful to him as he hoped it would be.

So now anytime we get a program on a cold, slow day, we remember that man.  We put a smile on our face and have a great time.  It takes sobering moments to bring joy back into your life, sometimes.  

Phew, that got real heavy real fast.  The point is, it's easy to lose sight of what's important when we are doing the daily grind.  Remember that every guest you interact with, especially if you're doing an interaction program, views this experience as a once-in-a-lifetime thing.  Your encounter with them may move them to positive action for an animal in need.  Every single time you we interact with guests, we have an opportunity to make them an ally as we all fight to save the natural world.  That doesn't mean you won't be freezing some days.  But hey, those days give you an excuse to mainline hot chocolate.  And that ain't a bad thing.

Sunday, November 22, 2015

The Irony Of A Marine Mammal Trainer

The other day, I got to thinking about what I do in my profession and how some of my personal habits make absolutely no sense.

It doesn't make sense that we're not allowed to wear Star Wars clothes  every day for our uniform at work

As a marine mammal trainer, I am constantly around smelly animals.  As any animal care professional attests, my day usually has at least one incident of being surrounded by poop (usually animal).  I get in the water on a daily basis.  There are so many things that I do that could extend to my out-of-work life, but they don't.  There is in fact, a crowbar separation between what I'll not just tolerate, but thrive doing at work, and what I absolutely cannot deal with at home.

Here are all the ways I don't make sense:

1. I Don't Want To Get Wet In The Shower


This one makes no sense to me. I am wet all day.  I am disgusting all day.  On Wednesday, for example, I had penguin poo on the bottom of my flip flops, which probably means I had penguin poo film of varying thickness on my bare feet.  It also rained ALL day, like torrential downpour.  I was soaked through to my soul.

I scooped up the most lethal-smelling sea lion turd I've ever experienced in my career to date.  This piece of feces could be used as biological warfare.  Not to say I enjoyed inhaling its odor, but I definitely was on my hands and knees trying to scoop it out to give it to the vet.  Did the turd log roll onto my fingers a little bit?  Of course it did.  Did I think it was gross? Yeah.


I washed my hands afterwards, obviously.  But still, it didn't make me feel clean per se.  Finding fish boogers all over my sleeves and belly of my wetsuit definitely makes me want to disinfect myself.

And yet, at the end of this wet, gross day, as I got out of my wetsuit and into my dry going-home clothes, I thought this:


This is because I was wet all day, had dried off, and the thought of peeling out of my clothes AGAIN, and then getting wet AGAIN, and then drying off AGAIN is so irritating.  I have no clue why.  But I hate it.  I could shower at work, but all of the girls on both the mammals and aquarist side share one shower and I rarely feel like a) being the jerk who takes all the hot water or b) weeping that someone used all the hot water.

Don't worry.  I showered, despite my disdain for it.  But it is a daily battle.

2.  I Freak Out In The Mornings When My Hair Is Tangled

It's like a glorious crown

One of the first things I have to do when I wake up is brush the lion's mane that is my hair.  I have roughly 5 times the amount of hair on my head than is normal for a human being.  It is its own entity with feelings and thoughts and autonomous movement.  It twists and shifts in ways unholy and requires a very high pain tolerance and a huge #%* brush to tame it, temporarily.

But each morning, I panic as the brush hits its first snarls.  Ow ow ow.  I've got to get each one of them out.  I can't continue on until it is done.  And then I practice yoga, which means my hair gets messy again, requiring another brushing.  Maybe even a third one.

But when I get to work, all bets are off.  I choose whichever go-to trainer hair style I feel like* and let nature take its course.  No matter how well-coiffed I start my work day out, the salt air, salt water, and physical nature of my job turns my hair from "hair" to "nest of rats" in minutes.  It feels gross, especially when I have saltwater dried on there.   Sometimes - and I realize I'm admitting this on the internet where anyone can see, but I'm just being honest here - I brush flyaways out of my face even when my hands are covered in fish skin and blood.  Because flyaways are SO ANNOYING I don't even care that I've just smeared fish guts on my skull.

But I don't care.  It doesn't bother me one bit.  When I happen to see myself in a mirror at any point in my work day, and see the state of my hair, I don't feel the same impulse to brush it or fix it.  I just accept it, for some reason.

3.  I Am Disgusted By The Dumbest Things

You get that Dove soap away from me.

As mentioned earlier, I have no problem handling toxic dumps from animals.  I've had blood spill on me from a blood sample.  I've had an otter toilet explode on me.  I know what a dolphin's gastric fluids taste like.  My 4 month old daughter drools like a seal all over me and it's NBD.

But oh god, let's talk about wet hair in a shower drain (which I've addressed at length in other blogs). Or a wet, sandy tile floor.  THAT FEELING SKEEVES ME THE *%^& OUT.

Or the smell of Dove soap.  Ugh, I'm actually gagging thinking about it.  Oh god it is the grossest smell in the universe.  I'd rather smell a garbage can full of rotting shrimp and penguin poop than smell Dove soap.  GROSS GROSS GROSS I CAN'T HANDLE IT AND I'LL BE A BABY ABOUT IT AND I CAN'T TALK ABOUT THIS ANYMORE.

4. I Have No Problem Talking On A Microphone But I Don't Want To Call For Takeout

No, no it doesn't.

Have an online ordering service for Chinese food?  Done.  I don't care if you're the worst Chinese food place on the planet, I'll order from you if you have an online service.  Am I the only one who gets super anxious calling to order food?  I mean, how ridiculous is that?  I'm talking to a complete stranger about a topic with which I am very familiar, ensuring that I will be delivered a delicious meal in the convenience of my own home, and I can barely bring myself to dial the number.  I can talk to an animal rights extremist who is offending me left and right.  I can talk to a crowd of hundreds of people.  But not the burrito shop guy.  Nope.

5. I'll Try An Animal Vitamin But I Will Not Eat An Eggplant, No SIR

Feels like a dolphin on the outside, tastes like intestines on the inside

Why would I try a vitamin? For funsies?  No, not really.  Sometimes we'll try a new treatment (e.g. a topical anesthetic) to see how it feels at first before we use it for an animal.  Because if it's super tingly or weird, then we will approximate the usage so the animal doesn't freak out.  

Sometimes, if an animal seems sensitive to the taste of a med, we may try it if it's safe for us.  For example, there is this calcium supplement called Os-Cal.  It smells like chocolate.  It does not taste like chocolate.  It tastes like all the chalk in the universe crammed into your mouth.

But if you slap a piece of roasted eggplant in front of me, I'll refuse to eat it.  I don't care that an Os-Cal tastes worst.  I'd rather eat all of those than try your eggplant.  Gross.  I can't explain it, and I refuse to try.

I suppose we all have these quirks, but these are mine.  And I'm not ashamed of them (well, not too badly at least).  It feels good to admit these things to all of you, but I'm really hoping you'll share some of them with me.

* Such as a braid that is thick enough to bludgeon someone to death, or a pony tail that I choke on regularly when the wind blows it into my face

Sunday, November 15, 2015

Thanks, Merci, Spasibo, Gracias, Tak....

Thanksgiving is around the corner.  For my non-American friends, you may or may not know that Thanksgiving is a holiday in which we choose to do several things in the month of November, such as:

1. Posting stuff on Facebook about what we're grateful for
2. Decorate too early for Christmas


Only one of those days is spent stuffing our faces with insane amounts of food, sometimes with family and friends.  And while the actual historical goings-on during the "first" Thanksgiving are enough to turn me off of my appetite (a tricky feat, indeed), the modern-day symbolism of kith and kin celebrating what they're grateful for is something I absolutely love.

But it's not just Thanksgiving that makes me feel grateful.  Recent, horrific goings-on in the world, or the normal, daily personal crap that happens to us all definitely makes me call into light the things that can make me smile, no matter what is going on.

These ladies make me smile no matter what.

It made me realize today too that, wow, I'm pretty easy to please.  I mean, I think marine mammal wait, maybe just all zoo professionals...are easy to please.  We demand the best care for our animals, so in that way we are picky (which is good).  But it doesn't take much in any given day to make us smile.

I'm going to give you an example from this Saturday, because a TON of great things happened at work that seem simple, but are actually the easiest way to make our day the best.  Here is what I was grateful for on Saturday:

1. Dry Erase Markers

Oh, be still my beating heart.

Oh my god.  Any animal trainer can tell you that new dry erase markers are THE BEST.  Especially the multi-colored ones.  We go through those things like poop through an otter, and it is always ridiculously infuriating when you're writing up your daily schedule with a juicy seafoam green Expo and BOOM, it just dies on you.  Then you spend 67 minutes scouring heaven and earth to find another marker to finish up, only to find that the remaining markers also have approximately 9 atoms of pigment left but we love them so much that it hurts us to actually throw dead markers away.

So today, I walked into our locker room and saw a HUGE pack of brand new Expo markers in ALL kinds of colors.  It was a gift from our two incredible interns.  They knew.  They knew how happy those little pens would make us.  

2. Candy

Hope you ate your Wheaties this morning, pancreas.  Because you've got a long day ahead of you.

THERE WAS CANDY EVERYWHERE TODAY.  And cookies.  And a cake.  It was sadly our two aforementioned interns' last day, and they brought us not only markers, but a huge basket of candy.  This included mini Twix, which is of course The Best.  Also, Sour Patch Kids.  We brought cookies and a cake to thank them, so all of us wound up in a diabetic coma by the end of the day.  

You know that time right after lunch, when you're working really hard and you're like, a few hours away from your shift ending?  And you get SO HUNGRY?  Or you start to slip into that "I Could Really Use A 2 Hour Nap Right Now" situation?  You know what I'm talking about, because you get at least one of them 3/4 through your day.  

Right on the sea lion stage.

There is nothing better than experiencing either of those things and realizing that you have refined sugar in the form of delicious treats waiting for you.  Just waiting to spike your blood sugar to give you that little pick-me-up that you need, because you've already had 5 times as much caffeine as medically possible and/or you can't find enough change to get a Coke out of the vending machine.  I was so grateful to wander into the locker room today just before the 2:00 dolphin show and eat a chocolate chip cookie really fast.

3. Cheery Animals

An actual photo from this Saturday, on our Kids Free Weekend day.

We are all grateful for animals who are just having the best day.  There is almost nothing that can bring you down from that.  And on Saturday, we had this super wonderful, long play session after our last dolphin show*.  We spent ten minutes just playing with the animals, each one super into what we were doing.  It. Was. Awesome.  I'll never, ever get sick of that.  Everywhere I looked, there was a dolphin doing some crazy stuff with a toy, then racing it back to his or her trainer for more fun.  

I was interacting with our 6 month old calf, who is basically just into letting ice cubes melt on her tongue.  She took a few ice cubes to go and played with them by herself, so one of the trainers sent me Chopper (who you may remember from this blog, or this one).  Chopper swam over to me with a football.  I opened my arms wide for a big ol' dolphin bear hug, which he quickly obliged and solicited a good long rub-down.  Then we played with the ball a little before I passed him back to his trainer. 

Oh, what a little basketball can do to brighten one's day (thanks for this pic, Shannon!)

You can see why I'm grateful for that!

4. "Singing" At The Fish Kitchen Sink

Every trainer has a little Freddie inside.

This is especially best at the end of the day, when we're cleaning every bucket there ever was and the sun is setting, and it's starting to get chilly and we laugh about all the ridiculous stuff that we dealt with that day.  

The sink we clean our buckets at is outside of our fish house.  We are at the mercy of the weather.  And now that it's getting cooler, it's getting harder to wash buckets without being miserably cold.  But I'll tell you what:  On Saturday afternoon, we had a killer time at that back sink despite the cold.  Someone starting singing Bohemian Rhapsody and then we all broke into song.  Our particular collective singing level is slightly better than a '76 Gremlin trying to turn over, and it often prompts our male sea lion to start his barking.  But whatever.  We washed buckets and guffawed at various versions of the fantastic Queen song as we made lyrics that fit our day.  


Trainers of every level were there, doing the same job, singing the same song.  I don't think anyone in that moment remembered any of the problems they have in their own lives, or what was on the news the night before.  All we focused on was laughing and the falsetto.  Not a bad way to end a day.

5. The Ability To Get WARM


I love getting in the water with the animals.  I mean, it's awesome.  If they want me in the water with them, there's very little else I love more than being in their element and interacting with them.  

But............that doesn't mean it feels awesome when it gets cold outside.  Once the air temperature is below 70, being wet feels awful.  Especially wind.  You get permanently chilled and that's that.  While the animals and candy and brand new markers make you smile, it doesn't take away being freezing for 8 hours.

I'll hug this seal, but only because I have to.

But today after the last dolphin show, some of my coworkers who were dry insisted on the rest of us in wet wetsuits go back to the locker room to change, while they got ready our next sessions.  We ran back to the locker room, tore off our wetsuits and put on dry, warm clothes.  We were so grateful.  We were even grateful that we got to put on wind pants, which are virtually impossible to put on correctly when your legs are even just the slightest bit damp, because for reasons unknown to man, the material fuses directly with your leg and requires uncomfortable contortion and eventual capitulation of the situation as you walk outside with your pants 3/4s of the way on.  But I digress.

Getting into warm, dry clothes after being wet and cold for so long was one of the best feels of the day.  

6. LOLing

Dominic Decoco

I laughed so much on Saturday.  I LOLed when two of my coworkers, who used to friggin hate each other but are now BFFs, talked about how ridiculous their original beef with one another was.  I LOLed when we made up lyrics to songs, and when the animals did hilarious things.  I LOLed when one of our sea lion pups lost her mind and started sampling every behavior she knew before she dove in the pool and zoomed around and never came back to me.  I LOLed when some of us decided to try to spend the rest of the day talking to each other in an opera voice.**

This is from two Saturdays ago (Halloween, obvi), but you can see our team has a good time.

Those are just a few of the things I was grateful for on one particular day.  Did it permanently fix my own problems?  No.  Did it take away from the horrible things going on in the world? No.  And those things are important, and require loving attention.  But it is still good practice to take the time to appreciate the good things that happen in a day, knowing full well it does not undermine the not-so-good stuff.  However, there IS always something to be grateful for, even if it's a seemingly dumb little thing.  Who cares.  Big or small, something good is something good. In our job especially, we have a lot of opportunities to be grateful.  Let's not forget about the BIG things: like the fact we get to spend 40 to 60 hours a week with animals we absolutely adore (and we get paid for it).  

I am also grateful to all of you, the readers of this blog.  You guys are who inspire me to write every week, even on the weeks when I'm all like, "Ohhh man I really want to just sit on the couch and play Plants Versus Zombies and eat Chinese food, not write a blog right now."  I owe you guys!

So now you tell me, what sorts of things are you grateful for?

* This may be directly related to the cookies I consumed just beforehand.  However, more data is required for correlation.  So for reasons of science, I will eat cookies before each dolphin show.  

** We um, didn't last all day.

Sunday, November 8, 2015

The Lunch Box

I'm sitting here in my peaceful living room, with the serene sound of water flowing gently in my 75-gallon native freshwater fish tank.  There are pumpkin-scented candles casting a soft glow across the walls, and I am cozily wrapped in an over-sized sweatshirt in a giant chair.  Also, I am shoving multiple pieces of Halloween candy in my face.

The damage done so far includes two small Take 5s, one fun-sized Kit Kat, and three Reese's peanut butter cups.  Oh, wait, another Kit Kat just went down the hatch.

Just had this for the first time three days ago.  Now I realize I never knew real happiness.

This is bad, really bad.  I'm usually a pretty healthy eater, and especially since the birth of my daughter I've been getting back to my old self.  But then Halloween came around and something unfortunate happened, which included a giant bag of candy that "went missing" (I strongly suspect my husband in this disappearance), resulting in the purchase of another bag of candy, resulting in me finding the original bag in a very obvious place in the cupboard (leading to my marital suspicion) and now there is just Candy Freaking Everywhere.

I tried bringing it to work.  I mean, I did bring it to work.  Well, except some of my favorites.  But I figured that way, everyone could enjoy some free candy and I wouldn't eat every last piece.  And then I got home, put my daughter to bed, and then sat down to write this blog and all the remaining candy I'd saved flew out of their bowl and into my mouth at an alarming speed.  If I'm counting calories for the day, I think I have about 9 left.  And yes, I am trying to figure out a) how much of another Reese's I can eat to eke out that last 9 calories or b) if I should just blow it and eat everything, including the Whoopers.

I Buzzed all of my candy.

Writing about this really helps me put into perspective my relationship with food, which is on the level of Glutton (but Happy Glutton).  And that reminds me of a nickname I've heard and otter and not one, but two dolphins called.  Because I think I could have the same nickname.  

What is it?


om nom nom nom, tis the season (almost, but NOT YET)

I've known two dolphins and one otter who have the same Devour Everything Always tendency that I do.  They will eat until they pop, or at least until they poop.  It takes an insane amount of food for them to voluntarily go, "You know what? That'll do."

A lunchbox on the left, with finicky daughter on the right.

Most animals (including people) have that tendency to you know, feel full whenever they get what they want.  The food experts say you should Listen To Your Body; it'll tell you when it's had enough. And I'm sure that's true.  Like, I took all the anatomy classes in college and understand the neural relationship the stomach has with the brain.  I understand these things about as much as I understand what it feels like to fly like a bird: I really can only imagine.  Because that part of my brain/stomach doesn't exist.  Listening To My Body results in a lot of deep dish pizza.  And these two particular dolphins and otter were/are very much like that, too.  

Kindred spirits in many ways

One of the criticisms our naysayers have is that we starve the animals in order to get them to perform.  Or that it's cruel that the animals "work" for fish.  Some critics say we starve the animals, others say we feed them to obesity.  But none of that is true, at least not in my experience.  We spend virtually every moment of our day making sure the animals get the food that they need.  We obtain weights, measurements, and blood samples to tell us that everyone is getting properly fed.  But in the vast majority of cases, the best test for proper nourishment is the animals themselves.  They often tell us in their own ways when they are full or hungry.  And we respond to that.

"I'll eat everything you give me, plus all the bugs that I find."

But it's not foolproof, because of the Lunchboxes and the Finicky Eaters.  The latter are an entirely different story, usually involving us reinforcing them for eating because they are just picky.  They would rather play with a basketball and get a good rub-down than they would eat six pounds of fish.  But the Lunchboxes are the hardest. 


Because we don't want our animals to feel hungry.  We don't want them to be uncomfortable; we want them to get what they need to grow, feel full, and/or maintain an ideal body weight.  So when you see an animal who is acting hungry, you want to feed him or her.

Our lives as animal care professionals summed up in one Disney gif!

But the Lunchboxes...oh, they are bottomless pits.  They will act hungry long after they've gotten what they need and then some.  They just eat and eat and eat.  Luckily, getting weights/measurements and routine blood samples allows us to make sure they aren't overweight and that they are well-fed (the blood especially tells us that).  

There are some benefits to Lunchboxes.  The two dolphins happen to have similar personalities.  They were both old females, a little girthy, the matriarchs of their respective dolphin populations, and smarter than any human employed at their facilities.  They messed with people all. the. time.  Especially new trainers, no matter the experience level.  That's a benefit, because those ladies make you a better trainer....and they humble you, too.  That's never a bad thing, especially when your teacher is not your same species.

The Lunchboxes I know are unquestionable bosses.

The other benefit is they can EAT.  If you are ever in a situation where you need to feed large amounts of food quickly (e.g. bad storms like hurricanes), you can make 15 pounds of fish disappear in about 2 minutes.  Dolphins are especially good at this, because their stomachs are meant to handle large amounts of food at once.  Wild dolphins experience a feast or famine situation most of the time; they gorge themselves on as much food as they can, because they don't know where or when their next substantial meal is coming.  Lunchboxes take this to the next level (one I bow down to).

We could also nickname them Pacmans.

One of the Lunchboxes I know is nursing a calf right now.  And she is eating so much food, her little calf is a plump little nugget, which is a great thing.  A hearty calf is a healthy calf, especially with winter coming up.  If we need the little one to put on weight, mom gets another healthy helping of snacks.  For most dolphins this would be tough (even a lactating female in many cases) if they are already at a high base diet.  But Lunchboxes don't care.  They are ready to ingest it all.

I wish I had the same benefits.  But basically, me being a Lunchbox costs me more money, no one is benefitting from the extra calories unless we count the clothing industry, which would make some extra dough as I require larger and larger sizes.  Other than reigning victorious in an eating contest, there is no glamor or wonderfulness to me eating the planet and all of the candy on it.  I made a huge mess with candy wrappers and because my blood sugar is crashing through the floor, I'm going to leave the mess for tomorrow, slowly move to the couch, and then eat something salty for a few hours while watching the Walking Dead reruns.

Yeah, it's better to be an animal Lunchbox than a human one.  Oh well.  

Sunday, November 1, 2015

Why Living By The Sea Can Be Awful

I've lived by the sea for the past 14 years.  Ten of those years I've also worked by an ocean or gulf, which has basically been the Best Thing Ever because:

1. Sunrises
2. Wild sea life
3. Who doesn't want to work ten feet from the ocean?
4. Also, hot surfers

Yes please and thank you.

I did my time in a cold, land-locked place.  I even attempted to live in New Hampshire for a few years on the only, tiny little stretch of coast it has.  But as amazing as the North Atlantic is, the winters always sucked.  So I, like so many of us, migrated southward to enjoy the best of both worlds: the beach and the warmth.

Now, my cold weather and/or land-locked friends yell at me: "You're SO LUCKY.  You aren't allowed to say it's cold where you live.  You aren't allowed to complain!"  At a quick glance, they're totally right.  For what could possibly be the downside of such a work/life location?  

The view in late November.  Yeah, it doesn't suck.

Those of you who have never spent a good chunk of time around the ocean might say hurricanes are the worst thing.  Hurricanes are definitely not good*, and they do cause huge problems especially for marine creatures and the humans living around the area.  Aside from the devastating category 4 and 5 storms (which luckily do not happen very often), they are usually treated as just another excuse for: marine mammal trainers to freak out and also for Floridians to drink fancy cocktails.

You also see a lot of stupid people on the beach and in the water.  Like jet-skiiers chasing dolphins, beach-combers littering, or fishermen tossing monofilament into the water.  Where I work right now is located just next to a fishing pier, so we all get to see a lot of sad things.  We've reported some of this stuff, but nothing gets done about it (which is another blog entry in itself).  

But there is something else that sucks about working right on the water.  And we had to deal with it alllll last week.

Hint: It's an invisible force that punches you in the face all day until you go home.

Hint: It kills vertebrates by attacking their central nervous systems and stops them from breathing.

Hint: It is naturally-occuring, but it has been made worse by a certain animal whose name shall not be mentioned but they are a member of the primate family whose natural history involves being born and playing on cell phones for 10 hours a day.

Know what it is?  Of course you do.  

RED TIDE (or, harmful algae blooms but that sounds like some kind of weird Bath and Body Works scent)

Evil, thy name is Red Tide

OMG.  Red tide.  Around my area, it's also known as Karenia brevis (which just sounds like a bitchy name). My eyes are watering just thinking about it.  Or maybe that's because I still have dinoflagellates wedged in microscopic crevices around my eyeballs.  

We had a red tide event in our area recently in addition to a lot of wind, rain, and high seas.  This meant a lot of sadness and death for fish: thousands of fish of various species met a gruesome end this week.  Typically, sea birds and sea turtles also suffer from red tide events.  And if marine mammals eat enough fish affected by red tide, they too can met their end.  

Luckily, the animals at work were fine.  Breathing in the brevetoxins released by our friend Karenia is  an irritant in the concentrations we experienced this past week.  Basically, the only way our warm-blooded animals would be in serious trouble from this red tide was if we trainers went out to the beach, scooped up 400 pounds of red tide fish, and fed it to our animal family.  Obviously, we'd never do such a thing.  Our cold-blooded animal family also fared just fine.  

If Red Tide were a person....

The humans though? Oh, we were hurtin'.  Those little mofo algal creatures wove their way into our respiratory systems and here is my scientific opinion of what happened:

1. One thousand red tide critters got into our noses and throats

2. Then, they pulled out little knives and stabbed us

3. They were also singing merrily while they were doing this

4. All of this joyous, microscopic stabbing influenced other red tide critters to join in

5. Resulting in roughly 359 billion red tide jerks with knives partying/stabbing in each human's body by the end of the day

This x's 359 billion

No amount of involuntary coughing or sneezing displaced the little heathens.  In fact, it worked FOR them quite nicely, because at some point we were coughing so hard, we had to take deep breaths to try to recover from the oxygen debt.

The pain and discomfort increases as the day progresses, so by the time we were ready to go home we were all miserable.  Of course, the animals need to be fed and cared for, so we couldn't just be like, "Peace out, we'll deal with you guys tomorrow."  

We eventually wound up with particle masks on day 3 of this amazing experience, which made a big difference except that it made our job in some circumstances impossible.  For example, if I need to blow my whistle, it's a little difficult to do with a particle mask on.  But with the right attitude, you can do anything....and indeed it is possible (try it sometime).

Not with that attitude!

So there were times throughout that day where we took the mask off, and realized the cumulative effects of red tide.  Like, it starts out just annoying, and eventually gets worse and worse.  But when you get used to breathing normally and pain-free via a particle mask, and then you suddenly need to remove it, it's like all of our little algal party-knife friends have been waiting en masse around your face just to get inside your bronchioles.  They can't believe you haven't invited them in yet.  So the first opportunity to invade you and stab you, they carpe diem (and if you think about it, that's kind of inspiring).  

Basically, when we would remove our masks say, in a dolphin show, it went something like this:

Remove mask ---> start coughing like you have end-stage emphysema ----> but pay it off like a pro

We did try to have some fun with the situation, since we couldn't do a single thing about it.  We polled each other to find out how we felt about red tide:


We also heard some guest comments about it that made us LOL.  We eventually got signage up about what was going on and handed out masks, but not right away.  So we had some guests who came in and seemingly had no problem with the fire-coughing they experienced.  Some asked us what was going on. 

Some thought it was the salt air.  Others just accepted it as a bug going around and went about their day.  They could leave after an hour or so, get into an air-conditioned oasis, and forget it ever happened.  My favorite exchange was this one:  

Guest: Why are we all coughing so much?
Us: Oh, red tide (and we go into explanation of what it is)
Guest: Oh! I thought it was just because we are from Texas

Oh, Texas.

The guests didn't seem to mind actually.  But we just wanted to claw our own faces off. 

The effects waned when we got home and showered, but never fully left.  Each day we went back into work, we prepared to feel that telltale tickle in the back of our throats as soon as we got out of our car.  I'm happy to say, thanks to a lovely shift in the wind, the past couple of days have been glorious for us at the marine park.  Not so for the animals in the wild.  We are still seeing the effects of this red tide event.

So is it worth moving away from a snowy place to a sunny beach, knowing you will likely have to deal with some form of red tide?  In the moment, I say no.  I was ready to move to Kansas City about three days ago.  But I'm sure when I start seeing photos of giant snow drifts and subzero temperatures, I'll feel reassured in my decision to relocate.  

But don't worry, we all suffer in our various geographical locations.  And no matter where we are and what we put up with, we'll always deal with it to make sure our animals get all of the love and care they need and deserve.  It's just part of the package!
* Okay, that's a rough judgment call.  Hurricanes are naturally-occurring weather systems that have positive ecological effects over a long-term period in areas that have adapted to hurricane weather.  But at an individual level, they cause pain and death and sadness and since I am not heartless like Mother Nature, I can confidently state that hurricane are stupid and should go to another planet that would welcome them with open arms, such as Jupiter. /rant