Sunday, March 27, 2016

Don't Let This Happen To You

Last week, I wrote about something important.  It motivated me.  So I thought, what if instead of a light-hearted blog that occasionally touches upon serious topics, I start posting more important things? 

Let's get serious.

I'm sorry if some of you are disappointed in this decision.  But I feel like I now have a broad enough zoological audience that I can really drive home my opinions.  Any aspiring trainers, this may be hard to read as you wonder and worry about your path towards your dream job.  But I'd be doing you no favors to sugarcoat anything.  And this week, it's time we bring to light another huge problem with the marine mammal (and general zoo/aquarium) industry. 

Wait for it....

Inadequate lunch.


It's happened to all of us.  And if you're getting into this field, it will happen to you. 

Look, we have a very labor-intensive job.  Physically, we're on our feet, lifting things, walking around, running around, sweating, shivering, swimming, scuba diving, shoveling, you name it.  Emotionally, our brains can rarely rest, what with the fact we have 24 hours of work to do in our 8,10, or 12 hour shift. 

Lunch time is the most important meal of the day for us animal care professionals.  We have to refuel.  And there is nothing like a nice, big, delicious lunch to scarf down/enjoy in between scooping poop, talking to guests, and making gastric cytology slides.

But so often, we bring meager lunches.  Lean Cuisine.  A half a sandwich.  Or, in my case as I pen this, one bowl of soup.  WHAT was I thinking?! Obviously, I wasn't.  I got up super early for fish prep and walked out the door with soup.  And some Red Bulls, but that's another story for another time.

Replace "coffee" and "wine" with "caffeine mainlined into the carotid artery" and that's my life

So now here I sit, disappointed in myself.  And worse, still hungry.  How will I endure for the rest of my shift?  Will the dolphins echolocate on my woefully empty stomach and feel sorry for me?  Will their fish start to look enticing to me where I'm like, is it REALLY that bad if I snack on a mullet real quick?*

When this tragedy occurs, there is only one thing any of us can do: Lunch Augmentation (a term coined by a very wise coworker, so I can take no credit for this phrase). 

Lunch Augmentation is a necessary skill all animal care professionals must master before they are considered for a position, or at least that's how it'll be whenever I'm in charge of the Zoo Universe.  You may know First Aid, you may know how to take a blood sample, but it's all for naught if you don't know how to supplement a skimpy lunch.

You want to know what's really sad?  Right now, my lunch augmentation options are:

* Two (2) 6-day old banana nut muffins
* One (1) 6-day old crumb cake from Panera bread
* One (1) chocolate chip muffin and one (1) muffin wrapper.  Also 6 days old
* Half (1/2) a bag of lettuce

Happiness, brought to you by food.

The crumb cake is stale, but still palatable.  There is a fly in the muffin container, but it's just a fruit fly who's probably on the same mission I am.  Lettuce is, and never will be, appropriate augmentation fare.

This situation is unfortunately and totally inexcusable.  I am partly to blame, so don't think I'm just complaining. It's been a while since I've brought communal snacks. It is the sacred duty of zookeepers everywhere to provide a steady stream of goodies to the Common Eating Area.  The Table (you know, the one where if you place food on it, it's up for grabs) should always have something relatively fresh/OK to eat on it.  Here is a short list of what is acceptable:

1. M&Ms (all variety)
2. Cheese puffs in those huge barrel things
3. Chex Mix
4. Baked goods
5. Double-stuf oreos
6. Egg rolls
7. .................................donuts.  I mean, you saw that one coming.

The Times of Plenty make this process so much easier.  Major holidays often result in tons of delicious leftover food pouring in, not to mention seasonal snacks.  It's always the best to fortify your lunchtime with cookies, macaroni and cheese, and (once) I ate week old Olive Garden after someone brought it in from a catering situation.  It was glorious. 


Animal care professionals who are watching their food intake to reach their ideal weight range often use Lunch Augmentation as an excuse to make undesired food items disappear.  Got a bunch of candy from Christmas left over at home, and you know there's no way you won't house that entire bag of Reese's peanut butter cups?  Bring it into work, and put it on The Table.  POOF.  They disappear into the G.I. tracts of your conspecifics. 

Today, for many Christians, is Easter.  And we know that Easter means lots of candy**, regardless of your religious persuasion or lack thereof.  I expect that after today, many animal departments will have at least a few days where they don't have to worry about bringing in a skimpy lunch.  They may have to worry about other things, such as Type 8 diabetes, which is only found in the zoological industry (this also includes veterinary offices). 


Remaining well-fueled on process sugar may sound disgusting to those of you who do not work in this industry, but I'm telling you it gets us through some tough times.  Nobody stress-eats like animal caretakers.  Bad days often mean horrendous weather PLUS some animal health emergency PLUS getting yelled at by a guest PLUS getting a splinter the size of a yardstick shoved under your fingernail.  The only way to heal is to eat a good lunch.  The only way to a good lunch is to have a lot of it.  Plus sugar. 

Pack those lunch boxes to the brim, my comrades. And if you forget, make sure you contribute to the Lunch Augmentation Pile that should always be present in our break rooms.  Take care of yourself, take care of each other. 

* This has happened to me on more than one occasion.

** Also Peeps, which are actually melted PVC pieces covered in radiated sugar

Sunday, March 20, 2016

The Times, They Are A-Changin'

I felt really, really stressed out thinking about writing this blog this week.  

I totally self-medicated.  Not with alcohol, but with these amazing brownies one of my coworkers made.  OMGGGGG

If you've read The Middle Flipper long enough, hopefully you have the impression that my goal is to unite not just animal care professionals, but animal lovers everywhere.  I don't stay middle-of-the-road on most topics because I don't have an opinion, or because I'm afraid of upsetting people.  I try to stay neutral on here because I think being approachable and open-minded allows for better conversation, better solutions.

When I saw the news about SeaWorld, it was very early in the morning...before the world of social media exploded with very strongly-worded opinions.  But as I saw the reaction unfold, I felt it would be silly of me to publish this blog just a few days after this huge news and not talk about it.

Disclaimer: The Middle Flipper is not authorized to give medical advice.  This is merely a suggestion.

First, we don't have to agree with SeaWorld's executive management to partner up with the Humane Society of the U.S.  We also don't have to all agree on "phasing out" orcas.  Both of these topics require careful consideration and understanding.  

I also completely understand why SeaWorld employees are deeply upset, considering that this sort of news was broken to them in the way that it was.  This is one of the biggest news stories to affect us in the zoological field.  It's completely understandable why we are reacting the way that we are.  However, we still need to be careful, especially those of us who do not work at SeaWorld.  If we continue to make very emotional, cut-and-dry statements we may unintentionally drive a wedge between us and basically anyone affiliated with SeaWorld, not the HSUS.

Second, we all know that the marine mammal field is changing; not just because of Blackfish.  We provide fantastic medical and behavioral care for the animals we know and love, and are ahead of the game there.  But how many of us would deny our animals a larger or more naturalistic habitat?  How many of us would get excited about new methods of reaching the general public?  Probably a whole lot of us. HOW those changes happen, or how we INTERPRET those changes is going to differ from place to place.  We may not agree with or understand why a particular place chooses a path.

Those philosophers sure can make a point.

Third, and I'm going to put this in caps because it's so obnoxiously true, WE THE ANIMAL CARE PROFESSIONALS SHOULD BE AT THE FRONT OF THIS CHANGE.   NOT the extremists.

So what does all this mean?

If we continue to turn our back on SeaWorld right now in these early stages, when everything is emotional and confusing, we are going to fracture as a collective.   Don't give the animal rights extremists the power to fracture our community.  

We can't all do the same thing, or agree on every point.  And on the precipice of change, scary stuff is going to happen.  I'd be willing to bet that any major, positive change is going to start out seeming impossible or completely terrifying.  What we do from that point on is what really counts.

Everyone does! Because it's scary!

For those of us who do not work at SeaWorld, let's think about the ramifications of making it known publicly that we do not support the company.  Even when we say that we still support the animal care professionals working there, we are basically turning our back on them.  By saying, "Well, your company just made a stupid decision, and may destroy our field.  But we still support you, the people on the ground", we think we're rallying around the right people.  But what we are really doing is sending another message: we are saying, "Wow, so sorry you're going down and the company you work for is evil."

How would we feel if people we respected in this field (at any sphere of influence) started saying how they no longer supported the facility we worked for?  Would we still want to work there?  We'd surely have a major internal battle of "should I stay for the animals? Or do I need to jump ship?"  I know that some of you out there already know this feeling.  

This is where we are going to struggle the most as a field.  We have to stick together.  That doesn't mean we agree on everything.  That doesn't mean we don't piss each other off, sometimes.  It's okay if one facility thinks all dolphin habitats should be 25 acres.  It's okay if another thinks theatrical shows are the way to connect to people.  We shouldn't all be the same, we shouldn't all protect each other just because we want to stay the same.  We should protect each other when a place decides to take a chance, for the sake of improving animals' lives.

My ideal vision in this situation? I want SeaWorld as a whole to know that our field supports them overall.  We support their effort to make a change in this changing world.  That doesn't change the fact that we want to know why they partnered with HSUS.  We want to know what their future plans are.  Inside, some of us may be wary, scared, angry.  But we can't turn our backs, even if some of us are livid.  We just don't have enough to go on, right now.  And the people working at SeaWorld who were just blind-sided need us.


Our collective voices have centuries of combined years of experience with marine mammals.  We, the experts, are the ones who must take charge of the next step of this field.  If we are moving towards naturalistic exhibits, and moving towards managing animals in more naturalistic social groups, then we are the ones who oughta design the habitats.  If we want to change how the general public view the animals in our care, we decide what that means.  And I'll bet many of us have different ideas about the best way to do that.  Some of us may stay two million miles away from anyone associated with an animal rights' group.  Some of us may think they need to buddy up with them.  I don't know what the right path is, but we've got to try to find it (or them). 

But what I know is that if we, the experts, use emotionally-charged voices to publicly humiliate and become irate with SeaWorld, our intelligent, experienced voices are silenced.  If ever there was a chance at bridging the gap between "us" and "them" (the actvistists, in this case HSUS), now is as good a time as any.  We don't want to listen to them when they scream and shout; why would they listen to us if we do the same?  More importantly, shouldn't we as a community model the behavior we want others to use?  Shouldn't we set the example by saying, "Okay, what's the plan, CEO of SeaWorld?  Can we be of any assistance?  We have some thoughts."  I'd much rather have a calm discussion with someone I disagree with and have the hope of coming to a compromise than I would to be completely tuned out, only to watch something spiral into a disaster with the blind leading the blind.

We can't control what SeaWorld or any other facility does.  But we can control what WE, the animal care professionals do.

If anyone can do it, we can!

Trainers at SeaWorld, I read a lot of comments both from you and others that your voices have been silenced.  I can't imagine what you went through with this announcement.  But let me reassure you that you DO have a voice.   Some of you have posted some really inspirational things, saying that even though you don't understand why your facility made the decision it did, you are still going to show up amidst the confusion and take the best care of the animals you love.  I mean, if that's not inspiring, I don't know what is.  You guys are rockstars.

You are experiencing a very massive change.  There is still a lot that has to settle.  And you, by continuing to dedicate your lives and providing fantastic care to the animals, are speaking loud and clear.  You don't need to be embarrassed or ashamed to work at SeaWorld.  You are still working for a company that sets the bar for many facets of animal care and rescue.  You are working for a company that has consistently said, "Yeah, we're good.  But we won't settle.  Let's always try to do the next best thing."  

We are a strong community.  We are a smart community.  We need guidance, support, and creativity.  No matter if you're an entry-level trainer or a curator, you've got what it takes to continue to not just maintain the incredible animal care we provide, but to continue moving this field forward.  Let's rally around each other, even in these times of unsure fear.   Let's lead by our fantastic example.

Sunday, March 13, 2016

Food Prep Skills

I gots skills.  

Mad skills.  Skillz, even.

With each job I have.

And you do, too, if you've ever worked/interned at a zoo or aquarium and had anything to do with food prep and feeding animals.  Because let's face it, you're probably doing at least ONE thing that is sort of off-the-wall when it comes to making an animal's diet for the day. 

This may come as a surprise to those of you not in the zoological field.  That's probably because you haven't had the glorious pleasure of spending hours in a food prep area (in my case, a fish kitchen).  Maybe when you hear that marine mammal trainers spend a good chunk of their day (usually the earliest part of the day) "sorting through fish" you think of a pile of dead fish and some lucky boy or girl slinging them into a bucket.  Or, when you see us feeding animals, it seems as simple as placing a meal in an exhibit, or tossing food to an animal's mouth, or handing it to them.  Simple simple simple.  Any moron can feed a dolphin, right?

Who's Moran?

HA! What all of us animal care professionals know is that some of our animals have special dietary needs.  Maybe they're old, maybe they have a medical condition, maybe they are super picky.  I've worked at five marine mammal facilities and each one has required me to be proficient in some culinary skill.  

Because I'm so proud of these abilities, I'm going to share them with all of you.


Well, at least break part of you up

I can fillet a fish.  Small, small fish, with swift prowess. Many of the older dolphins I've worked with needed their fish filleted.  Pounds and pounds of herring.  Occasionally, capelin if we were making a fish slurry.   You go ahead and try to fillet a herring.  I'll bet it looks about as put-together as Donald Trump's hair.  But don't worry, that's how we all start.  In time, you'll pick up that herring and free it from its muscle without a rib bone in sight.

Fish Chipping

Side note: we should do some form of zookeeper Chopped

Anyone can rip a fish in half.  Well, okay, that's not true.  I can't rip a basking shark in half with my bare hands.  But smaller  (DEAD) fish are easier to main and dismember.  It sounds gruesome, doesn't it?  

Anyhoo, I worked at one facility whose sea lions and seals were used to fish pieces.  The supervisor at the time showed all of us a method of chunking capelin into bite-sized pieces.....with one hand.  Witness:

For those of you wondering, I'm using a "bad" capelin and doing this over a trash-fish bucket.  Just for demonstration purposes. 

This fish-chipping thang took me MONTHS to figure out.  But, it was part of the job, and I needed to master it.  So I practiced, practiced, practiced.  Eventually, one-handed fish-chipping was part of my repertoire.  A skill I hope to use again one day, if only to impress someone in a bar somewhere or something.

Fish Gutting

Do do do do do do do you have it?

Picture this: a dead fish resting in your left hand.  You, plunging your finger into its gills and ripping a large fissure down through its belly.  With maniacal glee, you scoop out the guts and gills, admiring the coagulated jelly-like blood of the heart, the delicate tissue of the stomach, and the dark red blood running down your gloved hands.  Does this sound like a skill you'd like to possess?  Of COURSE you do!

Why are some fish gutted?  Some dolphins are prone to a condition called iron-storage disease, where they um, store too much iron (I love aptly-named things).   Removing the guts from fish can help reduce the amount of iron the dolphins get in their diet.  It also allows the trainers to practice a little friendly catharsis.  Can't be mad at the woman screaming at the Safeway for someone to PLEASE RING HER UP right in your ear scaring you close to death when you can release all those negative feelings by ripping out a herring alimentary tract.

Pill-Stuffing for Otters


To date, this remains the most challenging feeding procedure I have ever experienced.  I'm lucky enough to have cared for both North American and Asian small-clawed otters (herein called NAROs and ASCOs, respectively), all of whom had members who:

1. Were picky eaters
2. Had medication needs

This is one of the worst combinations in animal husbandry, I don't care what anyone says.  This is especially impossible if the animals chew their food.  Even worse, if they're otters.  Because otters do virtually NOTHING subtly*. 

Why are these one of my favorite animals again?

Some of the NAROs I cared for at the time were very geriatric and had a lot of typical old-man problems, including joint issues.  So they were on medications to help them with their discomfort, which were really important for them to get for their quality of life.  However, this wasn't apparent to these otters.  The ASCOs needed heartworm preventative every month.  All of this resulted in a need to artfully hide their pills in their fish.

This (or some version of this) should hang in otter fish kitchens everywhere.

If you have an animal who swallows food/barely chews it, this is no problem for the most part.  But not so for chewers.  The key is to crush the pill, and hide it with flavor and texture so well that the animals (ideally) don't even realize they just got their meds, or (less ideally) don't realize it until the last minute but you can shove another piece of food in their face as a chaser.

Here are some of the food prep skills I acquired in my time caring for otters:

1. Crushing pills in 1/56ths of a second with the broad side of a giant knife

2. Advanced alchemy and taste experimentation with cat food, fish oil, pill-of-choice, and
    fish guts

3. Fish oil-to-ivermectin ratio to completely hide ivermectin's taste (okay, I lied.  I never
    mastered this)


There was something delightful about pulverizing a pill, mixing it with fish oil until it was an appetizing-looking paste (one looked like pistachio pudding), removing capelin guts with one quick motion, placing the pistachio pudding inside the gutted capelin, and carefully placing the guts back inside, like a cap.  Oh, memories.

Here's the ironic thing.  I am so good at the aforementioned tasks, you'd think this culinary aptitude would translate easily in my own kitchen.  Maybe, my extant culinary prowess is WHY I'm so good at the weird food prep stuff.  Alas, this is not the case.  Not by a long shot.  I am the worst cook in the Northern hemisphere.  I burn everything. All cookware have restraining orders against me, especially frying pans.  I am terrified of cutting my fingers when I chop vegetables so they always come out in bizarre and ever-widening shapes.  Don't even talk about cutting onions, because I can't even be in the same county when that's happening.

Tobey Maguire, the poor man's Jake Gyllenhaal**

I'm not sure if some bizarre physiological shift in my hands/brain occurs the moment I'm not at work anymore, but I am completely worthless in feeding myself unless we are talking about the two things I can make, such as Kraft macaroni and cheese and also cookies.

Oh well, that's just my lot in life.  But now I want to hear about your weird food prep/animal feeding tasks!  As the saying goes, there's more than one way to prepare a herring.


* Except jam rocks into pipes

** Tobey, if you're reading this, I like you better.

Sunday, March 6, 2016

Who I'm Voting For

So now that I have your attention....

Oh, you've got it.
There is a lot of hullabaloo around U.S. presidential candidate-hopefuls.  Those of us who are following this topic probably have some strong opinions not only about the individuals involved, but about the type of person we want as our Commander in Chief. 

The only political statement I'll make right now about the front-runners is that it really sucks that we are so focused on only one species.  Look, I get it.  We are humans living in the U.S., so it stands to reason we'd want another human at the helm of our executive branch.  But isn't this the blind leading the blind?  Shouldn't humans be recused as president (and possibly other major political positions) due to a conflict of interest?  Being human leading a bunch of humans has done some good things, but it's also done a WHOLE lot of bad things.

GET YOUR ACT TOGETHER, PEOPLE! For the aliens!!!!!!!

Therefore, I submit to the great nation of the United States of America that we look into other qualified candidates who are not Homo sapiens.  I've been thinking a lot about who I'd vote for if this was the case, or what the prerequisites ought to be.  This is a work in progress, so the following lists are not exhaustive.  


1) Works for human well-being, not for own career goals

2) Genuinely accepts others regardless of other prejudicial factors*

3) Interacts well with other human world leaders

4) No hibernation/brumation, since that could definitely be problematic if the country faces a crisis when it's cold in D.C., or may require travel to colder areas

5) Does not poop on the Oval Office carpet regularly

Based on that wish list, here's what I'm thinking about potential species:

Animals Who Definitely Should Not Be President

Sorry slugs, you'll just get walked on.
*   Fire ants
*   Reptiles
*   Pac-man frogs
*   Banana slugs**
*   Penguins

*   Donald Trump

Animals Who Could Be President

You grump!

*   Any ape species (may still have conflict of interest due to the genetic relationship)
*   Cockatoos (the well-mannered ones)
*   Canids (loyalty can be a good or bad thing)
*   Felids  (aloofness can be a good or bad thing)

Animals Who Really Freakin' Should Be President

You know I'm right.

*   Dolphins
*   Sea Lions
*   Otters

Okay I'm really sorry if I've left out any animals, or placed one in a category you disagree with.  But this is just my opinion.  Now let's move on.

Why would dolphins, sea lions, and otters make great presidential candidates?  Read on.


How polite!

Campaign Motto:
"It doesn't matter if you don't like me, but we need each other to stuff our faces."

Pro: Dolphins cooperate with one another when the time is right.  They may not be best friends, they may not even know each other, but when there's a giant bait ball ripe for the taking, they know they need as many dolphin pals as possible if they want to feast.  They are complex social animals and have a strong family connection that varies between species.  Nonetheless, relationships are important to them.

President Dolphin could also stun enemies of state with their echolocation.

Con: The White House will have to be completely refurbished to suit their aquatic needs; also, a lot of politicians would need to seriously improve their swimming skills.
Sea Lions
Transcending the species line

Campaign motto:  "It doesn't matter what species you are, we can still be friends.  Unless you want to eat me."

Pro: California sea lions spend time hanging out with other species, and not just pinnipeds.  They'll hunt, play, and travel with various species of dolphins.  They can sleep on top of an animal who just seconds previously yelled at them.  But they know how to make the best of whatever situation, and I think that is a critical leadership quality.

I don't think Cali sea lions could be prejudiced if they tried, which we can all agree is necessary for president (or for being a good person).  However, if you try to eat them, they'll react accordingly.

Con: Aside from leaving poo and oil stains in the Oval Office, sea lions are not necessarily the best with women's rights.  We would definitely need to elect a female sea lion to office.


That's what every candidate says!

Campaign motto:
"Everything is great, everything is fine, wait what aRE YOU DOING YOU CAN'T DO THAT I WILL PUNISH YOUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUU."

Pro: Otters are very intelligent, they can do amazing stuff with their hands and they are constantly looking to do something.  Their adorable good looks are disarming and may assist in foreign relations; how can anyone be intimidated by an otter face? Dictators will giggle, find their humanity, and free their people.  And if they don't, if they even break the slightest rule in a treaty or whatever, the otters will do what they do when some unwritten law has been transgressed: they will tear them up with their little demon mouths.

Con: Poop in the White House (although it'll only happen in one corner).  Also, President Otter's meetings can only last 3 minutes max.

I'm not totally sure who I would vote for; they each have such great qualities.  I suppose when it comes down to it, I'd probably vote for sea lions. Call me a hippie, but I'm a big fan of everyone getting along...or at least not holding grudges if you don't get along.  It's okay if you're not a sea lion, we can still respect each other and be friends.  Madam Sea Lion, you have my vote!

* Unless that "other" is trying to eat you

** Additionally, they look horrendous in business attire