Sunday, December 20, 2015

My Professional Failures: New Trainer Edition

Here we go again, another journey down memory lane towards that oft-visited town I like to call FAILURE.  It's a bustling metropolitan area that lures me back on a relatively routine basis.  It's one of those places that always sounds really good in theory (you know, the whole "Oh, learn from your mistakes makes you a better person" thing), but when you get there it usually feels rotten.  Occasionally, like any good city experience, it makes you laugh.  Usually both.

Should we laugh or cry? Great.  Now I'm just hungry.

A while ago, I told you about my failures as an aspiring trainer. I mentioned in that blog that I still make mistakes, so here is further proof.

When I finally got my first paid job as an apprentice trainer, I thought I Made It.  I was 22 and figured I'd have a lot to learn, but I really thought This Was It in my career: I'd made so many mistakes in my internships and applying for jobs, I'd surely be impervious to any further blunders worse than tiny little oopsies.

I'll give you a moment to re-collect yourselves, because I'm assuming you're either rolling your eyes at me, or laughing. 

Even though I thought I went into my brand new job with an open mind and the ability to handle mistakes, I still stupidly thought that it wasn't going to be stressful.  This was the absolute best way to set myself up for MORE failure, which quickly became apparent.


For those of you who don't know (YET!) what it's like in your first weeks as a zookeeper/trainer, it's basically like being tasked with presenting a topic on a subject you know a little something about in a language you barely understand to a room full of strangers who know everything you're talking about and will absolutely comment on your mistakes afterwards in a public forum.  It feels like everyone is watching your every move (they are), that they all know everything each other is saying (and you don't), and the entire time you think, "I'm never going to understand what the heck is going on."  Let's not even mention what it's like to find your away around the place.

"A DRI is...."

I'm not saying that to scare you, I'm just saying that's how it is.  Anyone can see that the aforementioned scenario is awash with potential fails, just waiting for you to experience them.

But I didn't know that, or realize it, or admit it to myself (hindsight always clouds my perception of this).  So when I invariably DID make a mistake, it really terrified me.  And the mistakes I made at first were really, really trivial.  For example, during one of my first weeks, I switched which show coolers were in which dock box during my show set up.  After the show, I approached the senior trainer and apologized for my mistake.  Profusely.  Because I thought, "OH MY GOD I JUST MADE A MISTAKE THEY WILL NEVER PROMOTE ME IN FACT I WILL PROBABLY BE FIRED WHICH MAKES SENSE BECAUSE NO ONE SHOULD ENTRUST THE CARE OF ANY LIVING CREATURE TO ME IF I MESS UP THEIR COOLERS OH GOD OH GOD OH GOD."

I've only felt this way 10,459 times.

The senior trainer said, "No big deal.  Just learn for next time.  And if that's the worst mistake you make while you work here, you're doing pretty good."

Even though what she said was nice, I still freaked out.  It shook my confidence to its core, because I really thought I knew enough to avoid making mistakes like that.  In fact, when I screwed up and took way too long in fish prep one morning, I was so distraught that I psyched myself out and had two weeks of horrible fish prep, frustrating my bosses because I kept making the same mistakes.  It wasn't until I accepted that I screwed up, and needed to focus on IMPROVEMENT and give myself a BREAK, that I started actually improving.

But see, we all make little mistakes.  And then, we make some big ones.  What were my big mistakes?  Ugh, don't judge me too harshly, but here are just a few examples.  

Be gentle.

One time, I was finishing checking an area for the evening.  This area had a number of habitats in it, including one with a brand new Pacific white-sided dolphin calf.  The entire facility and all staffs were not allowed to put our hands in the water, much less really approach the habitat closely unless we were going to do a session.  At the time, I was not one of those authorized people.  I know how serious it was to break that rule, not just for your own skin, but because the rule was there for the safety of the animals.  We also had a very, very strict no-jewelry rule there.

So when a group of very formally-clad middle-aged people came lumbering into the area, walked over to the baby dolphin habitat and stuck their bejeweled hands in, I freaked out.


"Yes I can," a man replied.  "We all can.  Because we are board members of this place."

Oh god, I thought.  I'm done.  I just yelled at the people who essentially are responsible for my employment here.  After getting my wrist slapped a little more by the board members for how gruffly I approached them, they left me alone.  I saw them a few more times after that incident, but took more of the Dive Into The Nearest Bush approach versus saying hi, or whatever.

But I just have to remember we all mess up

Another time, while still learning to work with the dolphins in my department, after taking multiple safety and behavior tests, I broke a cardinal rule. I got so focused on the two dolphins in front of me that I ended my session....while the trainer was still in the water.  That's a huge safety error.  Luckily, the same senior trainer I mentioned earlier was there, who quickly got the dolphins' attention, reinforced them for coming over to her and the trainer in the water got out just fine.  I had a stern talking-to (d'uh), and didn't make that mistake again.  But that was definitely one of those times I thought my career was over...because who makes errors like that?!  Do good trainers?  I thought not. 

Maybe I should just work with banana slugs.  They have a lot less safety rules.

I had a lot of bad bridges.  It took my twice as long as the other trainers at my level to get cleared on doing basic layouts with dolphins, because my hand signals were so bad. I dropped the hydraulic scrubber head while it was STILL ON into a habitat full of dolphins (it immediately sucked itself to the wall).  I dove into said habitat to recover the scrubber, because I thought it was the End Of The World sort of mistake....and in doing so, broke ANOTHER rule because I was not allowed to get in the water with dolphins yet.  

I was only there a year and a half, and I made a lot of slip-ups.  Each time, especially after the really critical ones, I thought that meant I was an awful trainer.  I thought it meant that I was doing a disservice to the animals, because I couldn't keep my act together.  It took a lot of outside support from colleagues, trusted mentors, and certain friends/family to remind me, each time, that the only important thing was to move forward.  To learn from those mistakes.  It sounds so cliche, so easy.  But we all know it's almost impossible, because we care so much about doing the best for the animals.  If we screw up, it might mean something real bad for the animals or the people on our we NEVER want to screw up.  Except we do.  

But it doesn't have to be this way!

But you know what?  It's those who do not learn from mistakes: who shift blame, who ignore, who are apathetic, those are the ones at risk for really doing damage.  Those of us who accept our blunder and the embarrassment that comes with it, and kick our own butts to Do Better, we are the ones who constantly strive to become the best caregivers we can (knowing full well we will never be perfect, but it's worth it to try)!

Some random dude I met on an airplane last week asked me if I had one super power, what would it be?  Time Travel is the only obvious answer.  But I say that not because I'd go back in time to change mistakes (because really, they DID make me a better animal caretaker and person).  I say that because I'd love to see dinosaurs in person but then real quick time hop again so I don't get eaten. Also, meet John Lennon.

So don't lose your mind if you screw up, especially if this is your first job.  Accept, wallow (briefly, in your apartment, not at work), and move forward.  That's it.  You'll be okay.  In fact, you'll be great!


  1. Love this! Currently at my first full time, permanent keeper position and was recently made point person for our one crane. Definitely feeling the pressure of being new and trying to mix my style and experiences with those of my new, MUCH more experienced coworkers. (I'm the only keeper 1 on the bird staff)

  2. The mistakes keep coming after YEARS in the field as well! Someone who started at the same time I did, and was VERY safety oriented, sent dolphins on Arians while I was on the bottom of the pool! The only thing that comes with experience is being able to identify the blunder and take action to correct it before things escalate. As you grow in your career you awareness grows as well.

  3. Love this post! Thanks for always sharing your experiences :)