Sunday, February 28, 2016

The Stressors Of Being A Zookeeper

The other day, I saw a blog article headline saying that people in the food service industry experience more workplace stress than a neurosurgeon.

I chose not to read the article, mostly because I have had zero experience in either industry and cannot accurately convey their corresponding stress levels.  However, it did get me thinking about the various things that really stress us animal care professionals out.

"Jedi" is also a stressful occupation

Obviously, any time we are dealing with a sick/injured critter or one who has passed away, that causes an incredible amount of sadness, fear, and anxiety.  I'm not going to compare our profession's emotional drainage to that of any others', but it really does require every last drop of your emotional resources.

Other than the very serious things that, hopefully, don't happen very often (side note: let's just nod to the people who work in rehab, because they see some pretty heartbreaking stuff in much higher proportion), there are a few other situations that completely zap our brains.  Let's take a look at a few of them.

1. Records

Uh, who did I have at the 10:30 training session??

We all know the look.  You know, the one where a fellow zookeeper is sitting in a chair either with a pile of records in their lap, or gazing into a bright computer screen.  You know your colleague is technically awake (their eyes are open), but they are not actually conscious of the moment.  You could probably perform quadruple bypass surgery on this person without their knowing it.   What causes such a deep, meditative trance?


Especially when it comes to animal training, record keeping is the Great Mind Erasure of the zoological world.  If you aren't lucky enough to keep up with your records of food amounts, session types, and who interacted with whom, you know the feeling of dread when you stare at a pile of empty spaces, knowing hours and hours of data has not been recorded.  Making the decision to be The One to catch up logs is on par with other fun tasks, such as doing your own taxes.


The PRESSURE to do these records is intense, too.  They have inherent value; it's imperative to know how much each animal is eating and what their behavior was like during the day.  It's also a great way to maintain basic communication between all animal care staff in that department, so they can easily look back at a record and see what was going on.  And at least for marine mammal facilities in the United States, it's a legal requirement to maintain records without fail; every session, every fish fed, every vitamin given, every single day.  You can't (and shouldn't) just make something up. 

Blank records are probably the easiest way to stun an animal trainer.  Like, if I'm about to eat the last slice of cookie cake, just shove a bunch of completely behind behavioral logs into my face.  It'll render me completely useless for at least half an hour.

2. Change in Schedules

Spring Break schedule got me like....

Every zoo or aquarium animal department has its own way of running the day.  Some places are really, really structured, whereas others are not.  But there is always at least a general idea of what needs to happen when, especially when it comes to feeding, enrichment, and training schedules. 

Zookeepers live and die by this schedule, no matter what personality type they are.  You know when the keeper chats/presentations/shows are.  You probably know how long it takes you to clean each habitat in order to be on time for whatever else is on your agenda.  Time management is an essential skill in this job.

So when the schedule changes for seasonal, animal health, or Murphy's Law reasons, we are all a hot mess.  This includes getting called in on your day off, not because you hate working with animals for a bonus day, but because you often come in at a weird time and have to figure out what's going on, what the vibe of the day is, etc.  And usually, these days are considered a Total Loss for record-keeping.  

Zookeepers with a screwed up schedule are basically like flies with one wing pulled off.  No matter how hard you try to right yourself, it'll never happen.  Just put your head down, know that as long as the earth is spinning that time will march forwards and at some point, you'll be at home, lying on your couch eating an entire large pizza watching staring into space as your brain attempts to function once again.

3. After Vacation

Even Gandalf has no clue

Coming back into this job after an extended period of time off is hard.  Harder than just the normal, "Ohhhh I had so much fun on vacation, I wish it lasted foreverrrrrr" thing.  It is an extension of the aforementioned stress-factor.  Time moves differently in a zoo or aquarium; being gone for a week means at least 7 months of stuff has happened in that time.  

Me: Okay, catch me up.  What's new?

Coworker: Not too much this past week, except that the dolphins forgot how to do bows, we can't give them basketballs unsupervised anymore because they were stuffing them into pipes, Charlie hit himself in the face with a flat of herring and broke his nose, and Wanda won the lottery and moved to Santa Monica.  Also, none of the toilets are working so we've been wearing diapers all day.

4. Guest Tedium

Nap time should be part of our workday

Those of us who interact with guests routinely know the Brain Drain that occurs when you have disproportionate time talking to visitors and time to do other things that don't involve speaking.  We work hard to make sure our animal friends have variety in their day and we limit how much time they interact with or can be viewed by guests.  But some of us don't do our own coworkers that favor.

Being in the zoological field means you talk to people; it's the reason why we are here in the first place.  And I actually love talking to visitors, narrating shows and doing animal interactions.  But it takes a lot of concentration and a lot of emotional energy.  You can't have a Bad Day when you're dealing with the public.  You have to keep track of many, many different things when you're conducting animal interactions.  You need time to decompress from that.

Having a rude or upset guest, or repeating the same information for many hours at a time can completely destroy your mental processes.  The only cure involves junk food and lots of favorite-show-binge-watching.  But it's probably best that we try to keep our own guest interaction experience evened-out with our coworkers.

5. The Pet Peeve Miscellany

Intergalactic peeve

Then there are those little pet peeves, often unique to individuals. These are basically Icing On The Cake stressors, because usually these things won't drive you crazy.  But add on the heaps of stuff you have to deal with in a day, and you're ready to Donkey Kong punch someone into outer space because they put your socks in the wrong place. 

For me, it makes me bonkers to my shorts wet.  I don't know why, because I don't mind getting wet.  And it's not just like, khaki shorts.  I'm talking about board shorts, or something similar that is intended to get wet.  The feeling of that wet fabric against my skin just really creeps me out.  Working alongside dolphins, you can imagine I'm often confronted with this irksome scenario.  My level of vexation skyrockets when I'm under a lot of stress, but is often resolved by staring at a picture of Charlie Hunnam for no less than 90 seconds.


Our job is emotionally expensive, and we all want to give our all so that the animals we care for have the best lives possible.  We want to go out of our way for guests to ensure that they leave our zoo or aquarium excited to help animals in their own backyard (and beyond).  An outsider thinks all we do is play with animals all day, but we know how much work it takes to do our job well.  It's important to find ways of decompressing, ways of disconnecting so you can recharge and come back the next day ready to rock.  Or, at the very least, don't judge yourself (or your coworkers) for finding a quiet moment to zone out, even if it's when they're supposed to be filling in records.

Sunday, February 21, 2016

What's In A Name (Of A Behavior, That Is)

A while back, I wrote about different lingo used at different facilities.  Sure, we employ positive reinforcement. And in marine mammal land, we mostly train the same behaviors across the board.  You know, like voluntary medical behaviors, high energy behaviors, etc.

For husbandry or for funsies? How about both?

In general, most of the names for behaviors are similar.  If there are differences, they're usually pretty minimal.  For example, dorsal layout and dorsal present (where the dolphin shows you their dorsal side) aren't really that different.

But some behaviors are called completely different things, sometimes to the point where I've had trouble understanding what people are talking about.  The "rocket", for example, can also be called a "hydro."   So it takes a little while when switching training programs to learn all of the proper terminology when it comes to individual behaviors

So "rocket" may be a little dramatic.

Here's the thing, though.  I recently was poring over a new SD and criteria list at my new job, and LOLed at a behavior name because it made me think of what it would look like if someone with zero experience in dolphin trained behaviors read it.  And then it made me think of all these stories, and then it made me think about WHY we call behaviors what we call them, and then I thought, "I should eat one of these cookies on this table in our office" and then I thought, "I should also write a blog about behavior names."*

There are a lot of things about working with animals that are tough.  It's a physically and emotionally laborious job.  But for dolphin caretakers, one of the hardest things to come up with are names for behaviors, especially with animals whose bodies have basically no similarities to ours, especially how they move.  The way dolphins move around in their environment is totally different than a human.  Labeling the behavior is tough and often requires some very creative out-of-the-box thinking.

When a dolphin jumps, like a classic dolphin jump without any twists or splashes, we in the field typically call that a "dive" or a "bow".  But is that really what they're doing?  No, not really.  I mean, you can see why we got those names.  But if I were someone completely unfamiliar with training, I'd think it'd look completely different.  A bow?

Good afternoon, good evening and good night.

A dive?

That place is a real dive.

OMG, let's also talk about a splash behavior.  Of the places I've worked, the words used in which to describe a dolphin splashing water at you include: splash, squirt, spit.  Splash is sort of general; you don't really know what kind of splash you're gonna get.  Dolphins have a plethora of ways of sharing their water with you, and as trainers we like to be specific about what behavior we're looking for.  If splashing water via the mouth is what we want, then we have to make sure we carefully label other splashing behaviors with other appendages differently (like a fluke splash, or a pec splash). 

But squirt?  I don't know why, but that word makes me feel kind of uncomfortable.  In fact, I don't want to keep writing about it. 

Spit is by far my favorite.  I mean, ask any random person on the street what a "dolphin spit" looks like and I guarantee it involves some version of our cetacean friends hocking a loogie (side note: it took me about ten tries and a Google search to figure out the proper spelling for "loogie"). 

These guys are masters of spitting

The best is when you combine certain behaviors.  Like, "spit bow".   To a dolphin trainer, that means the dolphin is spitting water out of his or her mouth while jumping in a graceful arc above the water.  To the literal laymen, this behavior probably sounds disgusting.  Certainly, spitting while bowing is going to get someone's shoes real gross.

An actual spit bow

Or how about "bows with objects".  This is what I envision one interpretation is:

He's bowing with an object on his head, AND with objects in the vicinity.

Then are behaviors that sound like a feat of physical impossibility.  Anyone here know what a "Tail Slide" is?  Is this some kind of Michael Jackson move reserved only for dolphins? If you don't know what this behavior is, I'm willing to bet there is no way you can possibly come up with what the behavior actually is....but when you know it, you'll be like, "Ohhhh I see where you're coming from."

The behavior is also known as a "flying forward tailwalk", in which the dolphin comes out of the water as if to jump, but keeps their flukes in the water and sort of drags their bodies forward.  Like sliding on their tails, right?

Slide, slide, slippety slide (Thanks for letting me yoink this photo, Jess!!!)

How about an "alien"? 

He knows. 

It might sound like I'm getting a little snarky when it comes to the bizarre names we come up for some of these behaviors.  It also may add a tiny bit of fuel to the animal extremeists' fire; maybe our silly names are evidence that we are just tra-la-la'ing all day and not taking our jobs as animal caretakers and harbingers of conservation messages seriously.  But that's not really the case.  Some of the naming of these behaviors is scientific (breaching), some of it is traditional (do you say "rocket" or "hydro"?), and others are just fun.

Describing via the name helps trainers stay on the same page within their facility and the group of animals for whom they care.  There are so many behaviors that dolphins learn, and variations of those behaviors, that it requires a lot of thought when it comes to labeling them.  In many cases, that's a testament to the creativity of the animals; many of them come up with stuff on their own, leaving us dumb humans to name it.

What are some of the funny names for behaviors that you've trained?

* That, my friends, was a train of thought. You're welcome.

Sunday, February 14, 2016

Animals in Leadership

Leadership is a popular topic to discuss (and let's be real, complain about) no matter what field you work/volunteer in.  There is no limit to resources when it comes to learning how to be the best leader.  But what IS leadership?  I mean, beyond just what makes a good/not-so-good one, what IS IT when someone is in charge of overseeing a group?

Just don't say it out loud.

See I think as zoological professionals, we have a unique insight into leadership. This especially goes for those of us who care for social animals, specifically mammals (and I'm sure there are other species included, but I'm just sticking to what I know best).  When we care for and interact with social mammals in their groups, we really get to see Who's The Boss.

It's really common for us to attempt to scientifically label the animals in our care as "dominant", "submissive", "sub-dominant", or maybe even use older-school terms like "alpha".   We talk about dominance hierarchies as a collective, too.   There are a lot of reasons why it's useful to identify the various social places of the animals we know and love, especially in a training scenario.  Understanding a group dynamic means you provide the best possible care for the animals.  How?

As an example, knowing that Dolphin A and Dolphin B are absolute the bestest friends in the whole wide world......until a football is in the water, at which point Dolphin A forgets said friendship and decides to go after the football, but not before letting Dolphin B in a not-so-nice way that she oughta stay out of her way. BECAUSE IT IS DOLPHIN A'S FOOTBALL. SHE CALLED IT.  IT'S HERS.  NO ONE ELSE'S.  GET IT?

Knowing this means you won't set those animals up in a situation like that, and/or you'll use positive reinforcement to teach Dolphin A to be a lot more polite in that situation.

Let's just all be friends.

We on the marine mammal side of the zoo field get a lot of criticism regarding how dolphins "treat" one another in human care.  Any aggression is often explained by our detractors as evidence that the animals are unhappy or in improper social groupings.  Of course, aggression - like the one I described in the aforementioned example - is a complicated topic.  Aggression is not simply I DO NOT LIKE YOU THEREFORE I DESTROY YOU.  It's also not I AM IN CHARGE AND TO REMAIN THERE I WILL DESTROY ALL OTHERS.  It can occur for those reasons, but in the majority of cases there is a lot more that goes into it.

Play NICE, Dwight!

Setting aside the biological fact that animals do aggress on each other (this also includes dolphins, in the wild and in zoos/aquariums), today's blog is less so about aggression and moreso about the "dominant" animal.   In some of our minds, we think that those two topics are not mutually exclusive.

Obligatory photo of wild dolphin with lots of rakes.

For example, we often say, "Oh, Kevin bit Squiggles because Kevin was establishing his dominance." 

Another wild dolphin with tons of rake marks

We probably know Kevin and Squiggles well enough to hazard a guess as to who is more in charge than the other, but all the same, do we really KNOW that Kevin was establishing his dominance?

I ask that because in many of the dolphin groups I've had the honor of caring for, most of the dominant animals are actually not aggressive at all.  In fact, one dolphin in particular rarely displayed any sort of aggressive behavior towards the dolphins.  So rarely in fact, I can only think of one time in five years that I saw even a slight precursor.  It was a jaw-pop, which is sort of a, "HEY! You! I'M WATCHING YOU" kind of gesture, in dolphin-world. 

Fun fact: I've seen this movie 9,000 times.

This includes male dolphins, who are not delicate when it comes to rough-housing with each other even in the most playful of scenarios.  In fact, in one group, the most dominate male was only obviously such when he was interested in the ladies.  But this dolphin was an old, simple-minded fellow who occasionally got confused by his own shadow (yes, seriously).  He did nothing observable to us humans that put the other two adult boys "in their place", even during breeding season, unless someone tried to mess with him mid-coitus (so can you really blame him? I mean really).  But there was something about this old fellow that commanded the calm respect from the others.

Let's think about human leaders in our own lives.  I don't just mean bosses, either.  I mean the people in our social, professional/academic lives who we admire and really respect.  What traits do they have?

Syntax capability notwithstanding

For me, the best bosses I've ever had were ones who had a great sense of humor, were very fair, went out of their way to show their team members how valuable they were, were willing to admit mistakes but also knew how to respectfully assert themselves when needed.  They lead with compassion, intelligence, and humility.

That's how a lot of my family members and close friends are.  Sure, they're not "in charge" of me, but I go to them for advice.  I trust them to help me through tough times....which still very much falls under the Leadership Umbrella.  And they share the same qualities my best bosses have.

Confident, respectful, and kind people make fantastic leaders in all respects.  No one is scared of them, but they are willing to do pretty much anything for/with them.  They don't need to use aggression to maintain their place at the acme of their company, team, family or social group.


But some are a little more uh, challenging to follow. Out of fear, we follow....until we find a better option.  Just as in humans, there are some animals who rule with an iron fist.  But just as in humans, animal dominance hierarchies are not set in stone, nor are they simple or the same.

Ain't nobody gonna respect you, little angry leader bird.

The other thing is, just because an animal is on one rung of the social ladder in one group, does not mean they'll be there in another group.  Submissive animals may only be that way because they are either willing members of a leader's group, or maybe because they aren't "allowed" to act as dominant.  They also may be like that simply because the group dynamic isn't quite the right fit for that individual.  Put them in a different situation, and BOOM, they may be more dominant.  Similarly, a dominant animal may play the opposite role with a new group of pals.

Additionally, the process of "becoming" a leader or a follower (or whatever you want to call it) does not necessarily have to follow some step-by-step method, as we are often used to describing when we think about animal behavior.  It is often much more fluid, subtle.

Let's think about this from a human perspective, being social mammals and everything.  What is YOUR role in your group of: coworkers, close friends, acquaintances, immediate family, strangers, children, etc.?  Is it really the same for all of them?

I think our ability to be "dominant" often depends on the group dynamic, not just our own abilities.  


For me, I have to find my place in any new social grouping.  When I start at a new job, even if I'm in a position of leadership, I'm not immediately yelling at or biting any of my new coworkers to establish my position.*  When I'm with my immediate family, I have 32 years of being in a particular social that's not likely to change.  In one group of close friends, I'm the loud-mouth with the hare-brained ideas.  In another, I'm the one who just follows the person I think is more of the leader.  See what I mean?

Aggression is not a catalyst for dominance. In fact, I think it's freaking AWESOME to watch a calm, confident leader in non-human animals and how others respond to him or her.  The entire vibe of the clan is totally chill, too.  The animals who have chill leadership are often chill themselves.  There is a lot about that we can learn as humans, too.  As my new boss says, happy trainers make happy animals.  I'd tack on that happy trainers make happy trainers, too!

What animals in your lives have shown you their leadership qualities?  Did you watch them develop?  How have they inspired you?

* Unless they prevent me from eating snacks, in which case yes, I will bite them really, really hard.

Sunday, February 7, 2016

The Unofficial Hierarchy of Animals

Okay can we all just admit that dolphins are NOT the be-all, end-all of the zoo field?  Or the animal kingdom, for that matter?  Don’t get me wrong, dolphins are one of my favorite animals.  I think they’re amazing, but I think we all get a little carried away with how great dolphins are when compared to other animals.  

I LOVE dolphins, but there are a lot of other super awesome animals out there, too!

I have two thoughts about this topic.

1. There is an unofficial hierarchy of alleged-awesomeness when it comes to working with animals in terms of species or families. 

Take that sticker off, Western lowland gorilla!

Tier One animals invoke a swooning and/or deeply jealous reaction from anyone to whom you’ve shared your profession.  Animals like dolphins (including killer whales, they are like Tier One Platinum), elephants, tigers, lions, cheetahs, gorillas, chimpanzees, and maybe maybe maybe wolves.  That’s pretty much it.  


Tier Two animals invoke an interested but definitely tempered reaction. Most people dig them (they may still represent someone’s favorite critter) but generally you don’t really get the WOW factor.  Species include penguins, baboons, orangutans, all tiny species of monkey, otters, the less-popular big cats like mountain lions, bears, American alligators, Nile crocodiles, sea turtles, sharks, pandas, pinnipeds, kangaroos, koalas, giraffes, rhinos, ostriches, most species of parrots, etc.

I disagree!

Tier Three animals tend to elicit neutral responses or more of a “hmm, that’s nice” or “yeah, those are cute, now let’s talk about how cool dolphins are,”  I am hesitant to type this, but I want to keep it real in this blog so I’m gonna just say that even us zookeepers collectively get a little snobby when it comes to acknowledging people who dedicate their heart and soul to animals like raccoons, goats, all other species of fish and crocodilians not yet mentioned, basically all reptiles not already listed, all unmentioned hoofstock, unmentioned marsupials, rodents, farm animals, all unmentioned birds, all unmentioned simians, lemurs, etc.  

"Now where are those whales?"

Tier Four animals are the animals that may or may not have brains but people can appreciate for 10 seconds.  I’m talking about corals, jellyfish, butterflies anything that lives in a shell, frogs, salamanders, toads, crustaceans, etc.  

Poor, poor little sad, neglected frog.  I love you!!!

Tier Five animals tend to elicit a question from people somewhere along the lines of, “How do I kill this?”  Any insects that are not butterflies, arachnids, worms, etc.

It happens.

There are definitely people who have their most favorite animal in each tier, so this is more of a generalized list.  Okay, onto the second thought.

2.  While there is nothing wrong with having favorite species of animals, it’s time we obliterate this concept that some animals are better than others to care about or for. 

There, there, Toby.

  In fact, there are so many species of animals who are celebrated by the zookeepers who care for them that it makes me want to work with all of them.  The other day, I saw three posts about beloved opossums on Zookreepers.  This included two birthdays, special treats for the birthday-marsupials included.  And the comments on these posts were awesome, including other animal care professionals sharing their own stories about the opossum loves of their lives.

What is it that makes Tier One animals so popular?  It seems like their status is a foregone conclusion, and that we’ve all just stopped paying attention to the facts.  There are so many animal memes and videos floating around the internet that are NOT of tier one animals, yet we still go effing nuts for a baby orca.

I mean, I go effing nuts.  I admit it.

Case in point, let’s just talk about otters.  Lots of people like otters, but not the same way they like dolphins or tigers.  The prestige of working with an elephant surpasses that of an otter, let’s just be real here.  You could argue, “Oh, to be an orca/elephant caregiver, you have to be in tip-top shape, an expert in animal behavioral management, and be extra, extra careful with safety protocols.”  Yes, all true.  But this also goes for otters.  I mean, anyone who’s worked with them and/or has seen their less-than-sunny side knows that you basically need intermediate ninja skills to keep up with their antics.

They are also insanely popular.  I have seen more memes about otters than any dolphin.  In fact, I rarely see dolphin memes.  Or elephant ones.  Or tigers.  In fact, all the Tier One animals are suspiciously absent when it comes to starring in comedic internet imagery.  Is this because they are just too good for such things?  Or because they may actually NOT be the best species for that job?


I’m just gonna say it: otters are way cuter and more mysterious than any dolphin I’ve ever known.  That doesn’t mean I don’t love anyone more than the other, but I’m just telling you that when this little otter Pippin sits in my lap and makes turkey-gobbling sounds and then holds my hand….my heart melts.  Ain’t no dolphin who can hold my hand.

This same concept goes for many, many other species of animals.  Thomson’s gazelles are one of my favorites, because a good friend of mine told me these awesome stories about some of the ones she worked with for a few years.  She shared with me their amazing personalities and that made me go, “Wow, you know, I’m embarrassed to admit I didn’t really get that excited about them.”  

So fancy!

I also know that a lot of us, when we’re trying to get in the zoo/aquarium field, we tend to have a group of species with whom we really want to work.  When we don’t get that job, but wind up with one caring for animals we don’t know that much about, we can feel disappointed.  But why do we feel like that?  There is nothing wrong with aspiring to work with your favorite species of cockroach, but I’d be willing to bet that if you worked at the job you landed with tamarins, it would be super rewarding if you went into it with an open mind, eager to get to know WHO it is you’re caring for.  You can still aspire to the animals you originally sought, but it hurts no one to throw yourself completely into the animals you’re with.  In fact, it only helps…well, everyone.  You, the animals, your team, and the guests who see how much you love and care for them.

So let’s toss out this idea of some animals are better to work with than others; it’s a matter of perspective.  We can move forward and think, “Wow, that person got a job working with budgies.  How awesome is that!” or “I didn’t land a dolphin training job, but now I get to work with deer!  I wonder what I can learn about them.” 

What animals have you found yourself placing into tiers?