Sunday, April 24, 2016

Earth Day Has Come And Gone

So how was your Earth Day?  Did you do anything super earthy?

The only extra-terrestrial life that truly matters is if it's in the form of cacao.

I keep seeing memes everywhere that are all like "EVERY day is Earth Day!"

So hostile!

So aside from pithy images with text, how else are we spending our time trying to make a positive difference on the planet?

To be honest, I feel overwhelmed when I read articles about global climate change, or the gigantic garbage patch floating in the Pacific, or see the trash piling up in Baltimore's inner harbor area.  How the heck can I, an average person, make a difference on that scale?

:( My view walking to work

I feel that as animal care professionals in a zoological setting, we feel this sense of hopelessness more acutely than the average person.  We know what human-related nightmares wild animals face in their natural habitats.  We also interact with people on a daily basis and hear some really depressing things.  For those of us living in touristy areas, we see the aftermath of high season on our beaches, state parks, and other natural recreational areas.

That's not to say all of our encounters with guests are disappointing.  And it may depend on what sort of zoo/aquarium you're at, and the context in which guests are interacting with you.  For example, at one place I used to work in a touristy-part of Florida, I expected to get really awful comments/questions regarding how "stupid" it was that it was illegal to feed wild dolphins, or watch people toss their trash in animal exhibits, or leave tons of trash on the beach. 

Jetskiers chasing a dolphin mom with a newborn calf.

Even when you're talking to guests who care, how many of you ask yourselves, "Am I getting through to someone? Anyone?" when you're doing a narration, keeper chat, or a one-on-one discussion with a visitor?  Conservation messages are fine and dandy, but how well do they empower individual guests to go DO something?  How well do they empower US to do something?

On TOP of all of this, it's virtually impossible to be a purist when it comes to making your carbon footprint zero, or living totally green.  I shudder to think about the waste I produce when I toss out a bunch of my kid's diapers.  Cloth diapers would be "greener", but then how much energy is required in electricity/water to wash them? How many chemicals are being dumped into environment?  Sometimes it feels like no matter what path I choose, I'm still creating a huge problem.

Sometimes, it makes me super sad to think that I can't make a difference no matter WHAT I do!

There, there!


Let me tell you how I spent my Earth Day.  

It started on Earth Day Eve, when I went to an exercise class that meets outdoors in a gorgeous city park.  The instructor had this super amazing idea: we were all to grab gloves and a (recycled) plastic bag, run as fast as we could to different corners of the park, and pick up as much trash as possible in five minutes. 

It was so. much. fun.  It was a great workout, sprinting to the place where I thought there'd be tons of crap, then stooping 6 zillion times to pick up all kinds of junk people had left.  My bag was bulging by the time the five minutes were up.  There were twelve of us, with tons of trash we'd picked up in FIVE minutes.  If we'd spent the entire 60 minute class picking up the park, I bet we would've picked that place clean.


Then you know what our trainer did?  She picked a piece of garbage (with gloves, obvi) out of each person's bag.  Each item had a corresponding exercise (so like an aluminum can was 12 burpees).  It was one of the most intense high-impact exercises I've ever done, but all of us had a blast.  Plus, it meant less trash.  And then the trainer stayed after the class to sort through what everyone had found to make sure the proper items went into recycling.

That was so inspiring.  That felt amazing, to have a small group of people spend a super short (i.e. highly doable) amount of time making a positive change for the environment.  The other people in the park took notice of us.  One guy even thanked me.  So maybe it inspired someone else to do the same thing.

I'll pick up trash with a seal pup ANY day.

Okay so then the next morning, on Earth Day itself, I got an email from National Aquarium's 48 Days of Blue Campaign.  Click on this link.  CLICK IT.  DO IT NOW.  It'll take you to the website where you can sign up to do these super fun challenges every day.  

Each day you do something different that's eco-conscientious.  Like yesterday, the challenge was to eat dinner with the lights off.   Later, there will be a tougher challenge, like a Do It Yourself Compost.  How cool is that?

Join!! Join!!

The concept behind 48 Days of Blue is to fill the time between Earth Day and World Oceans Day with lots of things we can do as individuals that make a huge difference.  Multiply that by how many people are signing up to do this campaign.  If YOU sign up, you'll probably talk someone else into signing up to because it's so much fun!  Maybe it'll help start a new good habit.

Grab a flashlight, light a candle.  Read a scary book.  Boom, that's an eco-friendly awesome evening.

Anyways, my day wrapped up with talking to a lot of guests about dolphins, including two adorable little girls.  We talked about dolphins forEVER.  And when it was time me to go, the 4 year old looked at me and said, "I love you! And I love animals!"  That was so freaking cool to hear a young kid be so excited about just learning about an animal, that she couldn't contain the passion she felt!!!

All the good feels!!!

So no, we are not perfect.  No, we won't usually get the satisfaction of knowing how much we positively impacted the environment (including inspiring other people) by making small changes in our lifestyle.  But it DOES make a big difference.  The more of us who know that, the more of us can rally.  And the enthusiasm is contagious, both to people you know and to complete strangers.

The most inspiring zoos and aquariums live their conservation mission: do their animal care/education staff take pride in having meaningful discussions with visitors?  Does the staff as a whole lead by example (like having a reusable water bottle?).  

Lots of facilities do incredible things!  One thing I love about National Aquarium is we don't sell bottles of water; we have reusable water bottles for sale.  We also have a compost and recycle area in our cafĂ©, with a visual guide to help visitors (and staff!) know what sort of waste goes where from their lunch.  They sell sustainable and locally-sourced food (let's talk about the invasive species of catfish they had featured in a po-boy sandwich....SO GOOD). 


If we as zookeepers can live our mission the best we can, we can help our guests realize that yes, a super easy task really DOES make a positive impact.  But it is so critical to lead by example, in whatever way we can.  

There are many wonderful people in very different fields leading the charge on conservation efforts on small and massive scales (read: that doesn't mean "insignificant" or "more significant" scales).  But as animal care professionals, we are at a fantastic advantage to be the catalyst for change in a 4 year old, or a 40 year old, or a group of teenagers, or whatever.  We really DO make a difference!!

Keep up the great work, guys.  :D 

Sunday, April 17, 2016

The Dedicated, The Passionate, The Zookeeper

I was gonna write about why caring for animals is the best.  With the changes happening in our field, especially the marine mammal one, I've had a lot of people ask me "what's next?"  While my perspective is just an opinion, I wanted to share/remind all of us why it is we do what we do, and what the big picture awesomeness is.

Look at all those awesome faces!

But then, something tragic happened on Friday and it felt wrong to not acknowledge it.

A very loved, well-respected lead tiger caretaker at Palm Beach Zoo was killed by one of the tigers to whom she dedicated her life.  I didn't know this person, nor do I know the details of the incident.  You can read the latest news about it if you want to know more, but that's not the point of this blog.

In fact, I don't even know what the point of this blog is.  I'm writing purely from an emotional place right now because I think we are all in that mindset.  And that basically brings up what we all know--and that is...

...that this is a job of the heart*. 

Every life matters

In a philosophical and literal sense, we use our brains to do a lot of different things at work.  The logistics of animal care are seemingly endless and require a lot of energy to remember to do every single day.  We literally wear our bodies down doing our job.  We destroy our joints, skin, eyes, connective tissue, feet and hands just doing status-quo work.  It doesn't matter if you work with hissing cockroaches living in a 10 gallon tank or elephants in a gigantic habitat; you're busting your butt every day to make sure they have the best of what you can offer.

We exhaust our emotional energy by interacting with our guests.  We share our life's work with people, we tie our own moods to that one AMAZING guest who just wants to know more, or who loves animals....or to the not-so-amazing one who calls us wardens, or the one (worse) who tells us they don't care about animals. 

I can't even tell you how much I loved this dolphin

Our emotional energy is not just used on guest interactions, but on our own team of humans and non-humans.  We are constantly asking ourselves questions like: was that the best I could do? Did I make the right decision?  Am I good enough?

Our logical brain is filled with questions and check-points/failsafes: is everything safe for the animals? Is everything secure (usually to protect the animals from wandering guests)?  We sort through and weigh out food amounts, we monitor medical cases, vitamins and medications, behavioral changes, social changes, enrichment, etc.  Every day is filled to the brim and every day we go at it 100%.**

We make a promise to each animal we care for to always do our best.

WHY do we do this?  Some of us are lucky enough to make a living that is not paycheck to paycheck, but most of us don't make a lot of money.  Some of us don't make enough to live on, so we sacrifice a lot of comfort in our personal lives so that we can continue the mission we believe so deeply in.  Some of us wind up with second or third jobs; talk about running down your reserves.  We don't spend holidays with family, we don't see our kids as often because our hours are weird, we are always on-call.  We feel a deep and profound grief when an animal dies; even moreso when we know that the rest of the world doesn't understand our pain with the species of animals they don't deem "worth" grieving for.

So why do we do this? 

Because. It. Is. Important.  

The lives of the animals in our care matter.  What they represent matters.  The lives of their wild counterparts matter.  The entire world should care the same way we do about the animals collectively and individually, but they don't. So how do we bridge that gap?  How do we reach out to people who feel hopeless about making a positive impact on the environment?  How do we get through people's heads that animals are not just machines "put" here for human use?  That their fate is ours?


Each one of us does what we do because we deeply, deeply believe that what we do as individuals is our life's passion.  It is virtually impossible to do what we do on a daily basis if we don't believe in what we do with our entire heart.  It is a soul-sucking feeling to be involved in a program where you do not believe 100% in that place's mission; it is not a long-term option.  You can pay zookeeper's minimum wage, make them work 80 hours a week, and protest everything they do 24/7, but give them an ethical, meaningful place to do their thing and you've got someone who will stay as long as they can.

So when an animal caretaker is killed doing what he or she loves, we feel a lot of rotten things.  It calls into light what we ALL know to varying extents: that many species of animals we care for are dangerous.  It's not that you show up to work every day expecting some horrible thing to happen, but you always know there's a possibility of something awful happening.  You may go your entire career never experiencing that, or knowing anyone personally who goes through it.  But when something like this happens, it makes us all pause.  It makes us bow our heads not only in deep respect for a life lost, but because that person was just like the rest of us: passionate, intelligent, knowledgeable.  A lead keeper with oodles of experience is not impervious to a random accident.

They aren't machines, so they aren't predictable

Then of course, we get the people who respond like it's their job to judge and punish.  "This is another example of animals lashing out of frustration because they live in captivity."  Oh, wow.  How insightful.  You know, if only the thousands of us who are experts in the animal care profession had that crystal-clear insight into the psyche of the animals in our care.  Of COURSE! Why didn't we think of that first? That a tiger or orca or elephant are MAD so they just LASH OUT.

Is that productive?  Does it EVER invoke the change the extremeists want to see, when they make one statement declaring the reason behind "the attack"?  I think this not only completely disrespects the care and love the keeper provided the animal, but it also incorrectly simplifies the individual animal.  We don't know why he did what he did.  We could say he's a wild animal, so what did we expect?  We could say he was confused.  Or that he was playing and didn't know his own strength.  Or defending territory, or displacing aggression from another situation.  All of these are possible reasons, but unless anyone can sit down and ask the tiger what was going through his head, it's just our guess (the experts' guesses, I should say).

We don't even know why members of our OWN species hurt each other

What we do know is that the tiger in question is a Malayan tiger, a member of an extremely endangered species.  The keeper who died played a key role in conserving that species--a species that can kill a person in a zoo setting or in the wild.  Dangerous yes, but worth saving as a species, too.  

With the fantastic intention and good work towards saving or conserving a species, there come a lot of risks, especially with dangerous animals.  

So I think we all take a moment in quiet reflection to thank this keeper for what she has accomplished in her lifetime, for the sacrifices she and her family have made for the sake of something she stood for with her entire heart.  We know that feeling.  We live that feeling, in spite of a lot of adversity.  We are the animal advocates,  embracing the best and absolute worst parts of this life's work we call our careers. 

My thoughts are with the family of any animal care professional who has passed away while caring for animals. 

* Thank you, April, for this inspiring phrase.

** And if you don't, it's time for a new profession

Sunday, April 10, 2016

Guardian Angels for Zookeepers?

I saw this article the other day discussing the signs that indicate your guardian angel is around (here's an example of one), and it made me laugh because in our field, I feel like all of these signs are so common-place.   Does this mean we have zillions of angels flying around us invisibly?  Does it mean that all of these signs indicate that they are desperately trying to get our attention, only to be callously ignored?

I believe in angles.

I'm gonna share some of these "signs" with you, and then propose that any angels trying to send us subliminal messages try some other methods that zookeepers would actually notice.

The Normal Guardian Angel Signs

1. Feathers

No zookeeper will notice a feather

Um, if an angel is trying to get our attention by leaving feathers, you're competing with a lot of other feathered-animals.  Unless this angel feather is like 5 feet long.

2. Scents 


They say suddenly smelling something good means an angel is nearby.  Look, if I smell something good at my job, it means one thing: some lucky guy or gal got to take a shower before their shift was over.

3. Babies/Pets

Do yourself a favor and NEVER google "creepy baby"

If a baby or an animal suddenly fixates on something invisible in the room, it may mean there's an angel standing there.  If an animal in a zoo or aquarium does this, it means your facility is haunted.  End of story.

4. Music

I can hear it in my dreams

Hearing angelic music suddenly is another sign....but there is no way the harkening of angel trumpets can be heard over the endless-loop of our zoo or aquarium's mind-numbing soundtracks. 

5. Coins

Throw pennies into an aquarium.  Throw plastic bags in the ocean.  What's the difference?

Find a penny on the ground?  It's probably from an angel.  Unless you work at a zoo or aquarium, then it's a guest who tried tossing something into one of the habitats to "make a wish", and now you are filled with murderous rage. 

6. Temperature Change

Our life in one meme.

A sudden temperature change indicates the presence of a guardian angel.  Or it means you work outside.

7. Feelings


Caring for animals means you have all the feels.  Ain't no heavenly being going to be able to infiltrate the emotional complexity of an animal care professional, especially not at work.

Zookeeper-Friendly Guardian Angel Signs

1. Really Unusual Scents 

Smell that surstromming?? It must be an angel!

Angels, if you want to get our attention, then suddenly flood our noses with the scent of flafel.  Or other smells we'd never encounter at work OR at home, such as gourmet food, or money

2. Food Prep Completed

I googled "glorious" and this is what I found.

If we come in and all of our buckets are made for the day, we'll know what's up*.  

3. $100 bills

Or a fifty.  Fifty's fine.

Pennies won't cut it.  We'll notice big bills, because no one's throwing those on the floor.

4. A Clean Staff Bathroom

Is this so much to ask?!?!?!?!?!??!??!

Not that we live in squalor or anything, but especially with marine mammal caretakers, our locker room/bathrooms are damp places with heaps of clothing and random bottles of shampoo everywhere. Our towels have holes in them and none of our socks match.  It smells like neoprene.  It'd be a sure sign of angelic activity if we walked into a lilac-scented, dry bathroom with all of our clothes neatly folded.  Also, I don't want to get too greedy, but a sauna and/or hot tub would be nice.

5. Perfect Temperature and Weather


I work indoors now (which is awesome after being outside for 10 years, can I just say), but it still gets cold.  Today, it sleeted (brrrrr).  So while it was definitely a million times better to WATCH sleet instead of work in it, I was chilled.  Temperature changes are not adequate paranormal signs.  Maintain a 78 degree day with absolutely perfect humidity, a dash of clouds in the sky, and no sunburn despite a sunny day?  That's a sign I'd pay attention to!

6. An Actual Angel

Come, my child.  Let us walk to the snack bar.

Sometimes, they may just need to come down and talk to us.  We're usually most approachable after we've eaten.  Trying us just before lunch time is a waste of time, because we wouldn't notice a volcano erupting ten feet away if we are on a mission for our lunch.

7. Free Food On A Really Bad Day


This I've actually experienced: random food that just appears from nowhere on a terrible day.  It might be bad weather, or something sad happening at work, or maybe the guests are all super crabby, but the appearance of food on those days is by far the best, most scientifically-sound evidence that angels exist.  

While I realize not everyone who reads this blog believes in angels, I'm just covering my bases.  If they DO exist, then surely we'll start to see some of those signs at our jobs, since we've probably been missing the typical ones.  But regardless of your personal beliefs, I think we can all agree that we have a lot of angels in our lives: the animals we are privileged enough to care for and know, and the amazing people with whom we get to share our life's passion.

One of many angels I know :D

* Which can also mean our commissary staff, less experienced trainers and/or volunteers are angelic

Sunday, April 3, 2016

I Pity The Fool (Which Usually Happens To Be Me)

I wanna share with you what my life is like as a marine mammal trainer on April Fools Day.

And it was.

This is a day I dread.  Most of us zookeepers are sarcastic, goofy, looking-for-any-reason-to-prank-someone kind of people.  I myself am one of those people, although as a side note (and fair warning to anyone who knows me), I respond to practical jokes, not initiate them. 

Anyhoo, it's basically guaranteed that you're going to get pranked if you work in a zoo or aquarium on April 1st.  If you work with marine mammals, here is a short list of the types of things you can expect to happen to you:

1. Get pushed in the water (without animals in it, d'uh).

Karma is thy name

2. Get bloody fish water poured all over you

Ha. ha. ha.

3. Get ice water poured all over you


4. 2 and 3 combined

Do this and die.

5. Some work-related prank, like telling you your shift was changed when it wasn't, or not having any trainers go out for a presentation and letting the narrator talk endlessly, etc. 

I'd be okay with this workplace prank.  

6. Messing with food


The last one is the one I am the most afraid of, because I love my food and it is very much tied to my happiness.  If you prank food, you basically crush my soul.

So on April 1st, I had a late shift.  I came in just before noon.  I was real tired, too.  The whole baby-getting-up-at-5am thing is hard when you're up all night watching How To Train Your Dragon 2 and eating spaghetti.  So I was dragging.  I was crabby because I knew April Fools was going to get me.  

In I walk.  Another trainer and I had scheduled a practice blood-stick with one of our younger dolphins right when we got into work, so we did that (and the dolphin did AMAZINGGGGG), celebrated, and then headed into our office.  That's where I saw a note that said, "CHOCO COVERED BROWNIES IN THE FRIDGE."

"GREAT!!!" I thought. "I'll have to save those for later on my break."*

I checked my email, caught up on some stuff, then headed out to help out with some sessions.  Then back into the office I went to meet up with some other trainers to go to a presentation on this awesome conservation initiative National Aquarium is doing (more on that in a later blog!).  While we were waiting, a trainer (well call her Meanie Pants) walks in and puts a giant box of Dunkin Donuts on the table.


I opened the box.  I opened it with hope in my heart and a smile on my face.  It took me a few seconds for the visual information to move from my optic nerves to my brain to register the horror that lay within:


If it could happen to me, it could happen to you.

Okay, veggies are fine.  But they are not donuts.  They do not inspire me like a good chocolate-glazed cake donut does.  In fact, without thinking, I ran to my office door and pounded it in a gorilla-like rage.  I was so mad, and Meanie Pants was LOLing.  

Somehow though, I had to get over these big feelings.  Once my heart rate returned to a safe range, I joined up with the aforementioned group of trainers (including Meanie Pants, might I add) to walk over to our super shi-shi office building across the street where the conservation presentation was.  We walked over there in our steel-toed boots and realized only after we got in the elevator that we had no clue what floor we were supposed to go to.  So we did the only logical thing one can do in this situation:

1. Wait for a while in the closed elevator while it goes no where
2. Push buttons and hope for the best

Neither of these options worked, sadly.  Luckily, an aquarium employee saw our sad, idled elevator and ushered us to our final location.  We got properly inspired in our meeting, then walked back to the aquarium to continue with our day of sessions, presentations, and lots and lots and lots of bucket cleaning.  I also got stabbed by dead mullet a few times.  Really, a riveting day.


We DID play a little prank on someone, and my involvement was basically YES I WILL GO ALONG WITH THAT, so I can't be held too accountable.  But we do these enrichment demonstrations, where we talk about different ways with enrich the dolphins.  Sometimes, we come up with crazy things.  On this April Fools Day, one of our enrichment leads (we'll call her Jazzercise) set up this awesome obstacle course for the trainers to do in front of the underwater viewing windows in our main dolphin habitat.  She spent a long time designing the course/relay.

While she toiled away at this genius enrichment idea, the girl scheduled to narrate the enrichment session told us her evil plan.  Jazzercise is actually a jazzercise instructor (isn't that awesome???).  So while on microphone, Narrator was going to introduce Jazzercise as the instructor she is, and then basically peer-pressure her into leading the rest of us in a workout in front of a packed audience.  We were all really excited.

Very excite.

Jazzercise told us the rules of her obstacle course, broke us up into groups, and then marched us out to the dolphin habitat.  We played along brilliantly until Narrator started saying something like this:

"So actually we are not going to do an obstacle course, because this trainer here is a Jazzercise instructor and will lead us in a group work out!"

And then we chanted her name really loudly as she shot us all death stares.  But when Taylor Swift started playing on her phone that someone brought out, she led us through a little taste of Jazzercise while we all laughed and marveled at her prowess while the rest of us looked like complete idiots in steel-toed boots.  And the dolphins stared at us, so goal accomplished! basically what I look like in any exercise class.

Jazzercise (who, I must mention, was also part of the Veggie Donut plot, so don't feel to badly for her) took everything in stride, even though she said she was embarrassed.  And we still did her obstacle course, which was super super fun except the over-under relay part (which I'm not ready to talk about yet).

The rest of the day continued with out incident of the prankster variety, and two bags of donuts magically appeared later in the day.  By that point, I had already self-medicated my sorrow with two pounds worth of crumb cake and also four celery sticks from the donut case (you know, to be healthy).  And at the end of the night during the last training presentation, I got to snuggle with two adorable dolphins who just wanted to get loved on and play with frisbees.  Not a bad way to end a day, that's for sure.

I drove home, walked into the house and got screamed at by my cockatiel, sat on the couch and ate pickles and fell asleep.  Really, how can you beat a day like that?

* In a cruel twist of fate, they were NOT actually brownies, but chocolate-covered strawberries.  But the person accidentally labeled them wrong (on April 1st...hmmm).