Sunday, May 29, 2016

From The Archives: Dolphin and Humans Share A Lot in Common: Refer to Owner's Manual

This blog has been in action for three years.  What!!!!

It's crazy how much time has passed.  Three years in trainer-world means I've made a lot of mistakes, I've learned a lot of new things, and I've made a lot of new friends (humans and non-humans).

Oh, you're so right Albert.

I've been in a reflective mood the past few days, especially about enrichment.  We do an enrichment talk at my current job, and it reminded me of one of the first posts I wrote.  It's a common misconception us animal trainers have that you "must" pair enrichment items with food in order to make them reinforcing.

While that's true in some cases, it's not true in others.  In fact, it's not so much that you're magically creating fun by using're actually -

- wait, I already wrote about this.  Read on!


There are a lot of bizarre parallels in the realm of dolphin training and being human.

One of those parallels involve Instruction Manuals/Booklets/Tutorials.

I am one of millions of human beings who experience the ironic emotions of receiving some kind of gift and realizing it has an Instruction Manual. For those of us born after 1970, we experience the love/hate relationships with Instruction Manuals from a young age, usually after some Major Commercial Holiday such as Christmas, Hannukah, Birthdays, or Temper Tantrums.

I recall the first toy I received that needed an Instruction Manual to operate. It was a Robie Jr. the Remote Command Intelligent Robot.

Yay! It's Robie Jr!

I don’t believe I could read Instruction Manuals at the point of my life when I received Robie Jr. In fact, I don’t believe I can read Instruction Manuals now, but at the time I recall my father attempting to absorb as much information as to how to animate Robie Jr. 

Robie Jr. had a tray that could hold a Coke. He could (in theory) roll around the house and deliver you that very Coke. He had a little bumper that when pressed said, “That tickles”, “Oops, excuse me”, or “Ouch, that hurt!”. His eyes lit up in meaningful ways; like if he was turning left, only his left eye lit up. I guess he didn’t need both eyes all of the time, because they didn’t shine when he wasn’t moving. 

Pulling Robie Jr. out of the box, he doesn’t seem like a guy that requires a lot of thought to figure out. But that isn’t true. He needs different types of batteries for his remote and his body. My young self did not quite understand how many degrees of torque poor Robie Jr’s arms could endure before they snapped off. And he said 9 phrases and had four modes of operation. I wanted to know them all!

I hated waiting for my dad to finish reading the Instruction Booklet. This hatred has exponentially increased as I age and am exposed to newer technology that does not have arms or apologize when it bumps into things (e.g. smart phones, adding Digg buttons to blog posts, starting a car without a key ignition, etc). Sadly, my overwhelming feelings of anxiety and anger are simultaneous with my understanding that in order to play with Cool Things, I have to read how to use them. Gone are the days of Cool Things that are simple to play with, like teddy bears or bags of marbles.

Humans rely so heavily on well-written Instruction Manuals* to usher them through the Fog of Confusion and Desire to Play with Cool Thing and guide them to the Realm of the Savvy User. I dare you to use a DROID platform phone without spending 49 hours learning how to unlock the phone and dial 911. Without the Instruction Manual, you can’t use your Cool Thing for anything other than a door stop.

Like humans, dolphins play with a lot of toys. They are curious, they are playful. In trainer and zookeeper terminology, we call toys “enrichment”. Enrichment isn’t exclusive to toys, but can include different sights, smells, habitat changes, social group changes, awkward ice-breaker socials, etc. 

But let’s just focus on toys, because dolphin trainers usually provide a wide variety of toys for their animals.

Dolphin toys can be as simple as basketballs or boat buoys, or they can be an aggregation of Dolphin Safe Things (e.g. items that a powerful, 500 pound animal cannot destroy). 

Many dolphin training facilities require that newer trainers or interns build a new toy for the dolphins, so they can understand what goes into providing dolphin-safe enrichment to their family of sea mammals. Veteran trainers will also make new toys when they are inspired by what other facilities are creating.

When this happens, we enter the Parallel Universe of the Instruction Manual. 

A dolphin usually knows what to do with this object:

A Basketball.  Simple. Elegant.

So fun!

So easy to use!

It’s round. It doesn’t make sound. It doesn’t sway in the current. It is a toy that other dolphins play with, so it must be safe. The dolphins can watch other dolphins play with it, so they have a good idea with what sorts of things they can do with it. It is User Friendly, like a ipods, pop-up books, and pizza. 

A dolphin does not usually know what to do with this object:

W. T. F.

Wait, let me retract the aforementioned statement. Sometimes, a dolphin will not know what to do with a new, Crazy Toy. Sometimes, the dolphin will Freak Out, his/her whole life flashing before his/her eyes, and won’t return to the place it saw the Crazy Toy for decades. 

This is not such a far stretch from humans interacting with a new object, especially one that seems daunting and has only slight components of familiarity to it, like Twitter. I will not go anywhere near Twitter, because it terrifies me. Other people ignore it because they don’t know how to use it.

Most humans are able to read, and therefore can take initiative to read Instructions. If their will to play or use the Cool Thing is strong, it will outweigh the frustration of deciphering the Instructions and they will prevail as a Savvy User.

To get a dolphin to the point of Savvy User, trainers must use another method.

A lot of people are surprised to hear that we “train” our dolphins to play with toys. It almost seems to cheapen the point of play. We are suppose to let the dolphins play because it keeps them engaged in something, it is a way they can choose to pass the time, and they are really smart animals, so why would they need to be trained to play?

Because none of their toys come with an Instruction Manual.

As far as this author is aware, dolphins are unable to read, so Instruction Manuals are simply out of the question. It is also impossible to sit in front of the dolphin and attempt to explain what they are supposed to do with the new Crazy Toy.

Trainer: Okay, Dolphin. Just pull on this car wash strip to drag the gigantic yellow ball with you. The traffic cone will follow. Or you could just drape the car wash strip over your flippers, for a carefree look. 

Dolphin: The car wash strips, yellow ball, and traffic cone look okay. It’s the dangling garden hoses also attached to the ball that concern me. They look dangerous, like monster tentacles that specialize in terror.

Trainer: No, no. I can see where you are getting that from, but take my word for it. These hoses are perfectly safe. You can carry the toy by the hoses, or just enjoy the sound they make as you drag them along the surface. Here, why don’t you just take a gander at this Instruction Manual. 

Dolphin: Oh, thanks. I’m glad we had this chat. 

So with what method of communication are trainers left? Training. Training is the easiest, most effective way to communicate with animals that do not understand fluent human language (this includes ex-boyfriends). 

If a dolphin is completely horrified by Crazy Toy because they have not seem certain components of it, the first step trainers need to take is to reward the dolphin for being calm when in the presence of the Crazy Toy. Usually, the reward comes in the form of fish, but we can use other things that motivate the individual animal. Some animals go ga-ga for ice cubes, rubs, and favorite toys. It doesn’t matter what you use, as long as you are rewarding them with something that motivates them to stay calm.

Once they realize, “Oh wait a second, that oversized hula hoop ISN’T the stuff of nightmares and all things unholy!!!!” the dolphin can then be taught how to play with the toy.

Sometimes, once you’ve taught the animal that Crazy Toy is not dangerous and therefore isn’t scary, the dolphin will get brave and will start playing with it on his/her own. But sometimes the dolphin is content to ignore the object. At this point, this is when the dolphin trainer becomes the Instruction Manual.

How do you do this? Well, that requires a lot of boring, technical babble. There are an infinite number of toys we can create or find for the dolphins, and therefore there are a lot of different ways to play with the toy.

Generally speaking, most dolphins like to push their toys, carry them in their mouth, toss them around with their mouth or flukes, or rub on them. Whenever the dolphin starts to investigate Crazy Toy by pushing on it, rubbing it, our mouthing it, you reward them. Because their training is reward based, and reward means “correct”, they start to put together their actions and when they are rewarded. 

Then, the dolphin begins to experiment with what he/she can do with Crazy Toy. They become familiar with its basic use, and eventually become a Savvy User.

Training a dolphin to play with toys is great for a lot of reasons. It allows the animal to expand his/her horizon in terms of enrichment and in terms of what they are motivated by in training. That makes you as a trainer less boring. It’s better to have a lot of different types of rewards instead of just one or a few. And for you skeptics, food is not everything for every animal. Even animals who want nothing but to be stuffed with food until they explode will get bored with a trainer who turns into a vending machine.

Training a dolphin to play with Crazy Toy -especially a dolphin who is terrified of it- builds a lot of trust between you and the animal. Because you are taking a neutral or negative experience and turning into something fun, the animal trusts you more. You also benefit the dolphin, because the more Crazy Toys they’re exposed to, the less and less nervous they are of new things. In essence, they become more Worldly.

So much of animal training is defined in cold, “scientific” terminology and it sometimes makes us forget that humans are animals too. Those of us who have brains share the same neurons and neurotransmitters. We will learn in the same way. 

The only difference in learning to play with Cool or Crazy Toy in humans and dolphins is that dolphins get the fun version of Instruction Manual. The humans are still suffering through their own, mundane version. But hey, maybe the dolphins will suffer with us when they start showing an interest in the latest version of the ipad. God help us.

* Ha ha, this is a joke. There is no such thing as a well-written Instruction Manual.

Sunday, May 22, 2016

The Field Guide to Guest Crowd Types

Today I want to talk about the phenomenon of group-mentality.

Now THAT'S a race I'd sign up for!
I'm not going to delve into some of the most horrific examples of this in human history (or...sadly...current events in many parts of the world).  But we know that a human's psyche is often altered when in a group setting.  Especially when they feel they are anonymous and/or can diffuse responsibility within the group, humans are prone to "deindividuate" in an emotionally-charged mob setting.

This deindividuation can be great or not so great.  And it made me wonder recently if this applies to the massive groups of people/audiences we as animal care professionals encounter at our zoo or aquarium.

Deindividuation Girls
Has anyone else noticed that there is usually no mix of guests when the group is large?  When I say "large", I guess that really depends on your situation.  Where I work now, we have a relatively big amphitheater that can seat hundreds of people.  Thirty people in our amp is definitely not "large".  But if you're doing a keeper chat in a relatively small area, 30 people is a huge group.  So it's relative.

Nonetheless, a large group quickly becomes one of five (5) major categories in my experience.  Let's take a look at them.

1. The Engaged and Interested Crowd (EAI Crowd)


One of the best groups to encounter, the EAI Crowd is not only super into whatever is happening in your show/narration/chat, they are really interested in what's going on from an academic standpoint.  They ask thoughtful questions.  In fact, almost every guest you encounter sounds like they've been researching animal care or natural history for 20 years.  Even the kids.  All the precocious children in your area are in the EAI crowd, drawn to intelligent conversation like moths to a flame.

One guest wants to know if it's REALLY true that corvids are studied extensively for their cognitive abilities.  The next guest wants to know if dolphins have blood types.  The 3 year old reminds you that the true plural of "octopus" is actually "octopodes", you know, because of Greek and everything.

EAI crowds recharge you, no matter what your level of introversion is.  They make you excited to talk to guests, give you a renewed sense of purpose.  They enter your world as strangers and leave as legends; you'll share your experience with them on Facebook and at dinner parties.  Oh, we bow do you EAI audiences!



Maybe not as intellectual as the EAIs, but EIA crowds are a very close second in terms of fun audiences.  These people are just AMAZED at EVERYTHING.  WOW!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! DID YOU SEE THAT DOLPHIN TAKE A BREATH????? HONEY DID YOU GET A PICTURE OF THAT GORILLA'S PINKY FINGER WE SAW FOR 8/17ths OF A SECOND?? THIS IS THE BEST DAY OF OUR LIVES!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

If you're in a show setting, these are the crowds who cheer for everything.  They laugh heartily at all of your jokes on microphone.  They watch the animals doing their thing in their free time, all the while beaming with excitement.  When they're not smiling from ear to ear, they've plastered a camera to their face or are taking 8 trillion photos with their iphones.

In EIA crowds, no one seems unhappy.  "What a great crowd," you'll say to yourself.

This is also the crowd that is just DYING to get soaked by a water animal.  Or any animal who can splash/spit water.  And when you ask that animal to soak the crowd, the crowd cheers.  Their smiles cannot be dampened, although you've soaked them through to their very soul.  They'll spend the rest of the day in soggy shoes, but they will wear them with pride.

3. The Are You Alive Crowd (AYA Crowd)


Picture this.  You are about to do a narrated dolphin training session.  You walk out to your typical narration spot, the dolphins porpoising around you, excited for what the session will bring.  You stare at hundreds of faces, who have waited for 30 minutes to see "something" happen in the dolphin habitat. 

You and your team of humans and dolphins play, learn, and inspire.   And you, the narrator, are articulately orating.  You've been touched by a higher power to deliver your conservation message without any stumbling. Your words are floating beautifully into the ether, full of promise, hope, education, inspiration.

A dolphin emits a gorgeous back breach, showcasing her power and skill in a classic but awe-inspiring natural behavior.  A tidal wave of warm saltwater sloshes over the side, soaking the people in the first couple of rows.  You look to gauge the crowd's reaction: are they smiling? Do they seem intrigued? 

No. No, they are not.  They are not smiling.  They are not frowning.  They are not moving.  They are staring at a fixed point in space.  Their brains have probably been sucked out of their skulls by aliens when you weren't looking.  No, they are surrogate humans...decoys, maybe....placed BY aliens.  No, they are all members of Blue Man Group and will never, ever, ever smile no matter what.

Dang it, it's the brain-eating aliens again!

This is the zombie crowd.  AYA audiences are one of the worst, and you cannot find a single outlier person who is smiling or even reacting to what's going on.  AYAs are bored by your keeper chat, or presentation.  They'd rather see something really cool, like aliens sucking the brains out of someone's skull. 

You leave feeling confused, drained, dead inside (but not as dead as your audience).

4. The Crabby Crab Crowd (CC)

Not today, friend.  We're fresh out.

The. Worst.

Sorry, AYAs are pretty bad but at least they are not hostile.  The CC crowd has spawned from hell, oozing up from a netherworld and ready to rain all over your parade.

EVERYONE is upset.  The admission prices are too high.  The dolphins have "nowhere to sleep".  The zebras don't have as many stripes as we were led to believe. And oh, you're going to hear about it.  You'll get all kinds of life advice, too.  Because CC crowd anger is not limited to the spectrum of whatever animal exhibit they're watching, or even the entire zoo or aquarium.  Some of them don't like how you speak on a microphone.  Some of them don't agree with your life choices on an ethical level, while others feel you're wasting your life doing frivolous work ("get a real job").

The best way I've found to navigate through a sea of crabs is to try to a) remember the most obnoxious quote of the crowd for later enjoyment and b) imagine myself neck-deep in donuts and/or doublestuf oreos.

5. ??????????? (??)


Also known as Full Moon Syndrome (although studies have shown there doesn't actually have to be a full moon), these crowds are full of um, interesting people.  Some of them are delightfully bizarre, some of them terrifying.  The questions you get are from another universe, the discussions are so off-the-wall you begin questioning your lucidity (am I dreaming? am I dead and this is the some kind of bizarre afterlife?).

Here are some examples of some of the experiences my coworkers and I have encountered:

* Dolphins are from another planet and were brought here by dugong-man hybrids from
  another planet

* Can we charge our healing crystals by the habitat and come back later when they are

* "I love this place so much.  When I die I'm going to put my ashes in a beautiful statue of
    dolphins turning into angels and have them display it here."


It seems as though all five audience categories are ripe for research.  Any sociologists out there ought to look into why like-minded people - all from random origins - wind up at the same keeper chat.  Or does it just take a couple of really angry or really happy people to influence the entire vibe of the crowd?

I don't know.  But either way, it's best to quickly identify what sort of audience you're dealing with and prepare accordingly.  And as always, try to connect, even in the toughest times. Our connection to guests is one of the most important aspects of our jobs. The worst thing to do is lose your cool; because even in a Crab Crowd, you may be able to improve someone's day or outlook.  In fact, it's even MORE important to try to make that connection in a CC or AYA audience.

And hey, if times are really tough, you know the animals will always make you smile!

Sunday, May 15, 2016

The Smallest Of Worlds

The world is a small place.  Thanks to the runaway train that is technology, we are now connected more than ever. 

Like totally

There are many spheres of life a person lives in, such as family, work, hobbies, secret clubs, etc.  Within those spheres, we find out just how small the world is.  Maybe you run into an obscure relative you only heard about once as a kid, and well, there he is, your fourth-removed cousin from Istanbul, standing in the checkout line at Safeway.  Or something.

It's a small world after all.

Animal care professionals, especially zookeepers and zoo veterinarians, experience a very tiny world indeed.  Everybody knows everybody....or at least you know someone who knows someone who knows someone.  Not only is our community small in comparison to other job fields, we also have a very specialized job that requires a lot of passion.  A certain type of person dedicates their lives to animals.  Sure, our personalities may be different, but there is something fundamentally similar within all of us.  We answered a calling. 

Still, I'm simultaneously impressed and terrified at how my personal work world is shrinking.  Thanks to this blog, I feel like I've gotten to know so many incredible animal care professionals.  Some of you I've not yet met in person, but I still love that I get to learn from people all over the world who work with all different species of animals.

Um, true story.  I googled "my friends are cool" and this is what popped up.  You're welcome.

When you're new and starting out in this job, you hear it all the time: "Everyone knows do your best."  It sounds like an overblown threat, until you get a few years under your belt and you realize that no, it's no threat.  It's simple fact.

Being the best animal trainer or zookeeper or veterinarian doesn't really get you your choicest jobs.  Being good at what you do, but also being a good person who people enjoy working with (no matter what level you are) is what gets you where you want to go.  If you do your best while being a good person, that world travels quickly.  You may not even realize your praises are being sung, but trust's happening. 

Okay, so you guys all probably know this already.  Blah blah blah, people know people. 

But what about the animals we care for?

Wait, HOW do I know you again?

Our world is also very small when it comes to the animals we know and love.  My experience with sea lions and dolphins have proven this, and it makes me so excited each time I have a "It's A Small World" moment.  Let me give you some examples.

Foster is an 8 year old dolphin living at my current facility.  He was born here to his mother Jade (remember that name).  Foster's dad is Sebastian, a dolphin who is at the last place I worked, the Gulfarium.  I got to know Sebastian pretty well in the three years I worked with him.  Foster's brother, Chopper (remember him from these blogs about stuffing toys under the docks?) looks JUST LIKE FOSTER.  When I first saw Foster, I thought, "OMG he looks so much like Chop" and then my boss told me who his dad was.  I couldn't believe it.  WHAT A SMALL WORLD.

Chopper (up top)

Foster (up top)

But wait, the rabbit hole goes deeper.

Sebastian used to live at SeaWorld Florida, where he was born.  When I was interviewing at Gulfarium several years ago, I brought my husband Russ (a former marine mammal trainer) with me.  

As we peered through the windows in the dolphin habitat, Russ was like, "Wow, that big dolphin looks a lot like a dolphin I used to work with at Sea World named Sebastian."

"Dude," I said.  "That IS Sebastian."


He freaked out. It had been ten years since he'd seen this dolphin. He told me stories of Sebastian's trouble-making side.  He told me of his tendency to "pout"....floating off at the surface with his head facing a wall and responding to NOTHING when he didn't want to do something.  I saw that behavior more than once when I started working at Gulfarium, and couldn't help but chuckle at how Russ had experienced that first.

But wait, there's more! 

Remember Jade? Foster's mom? forward several years.  Russ and I took our daughter to the aquarium I work at now just a couple weeks after I started.  We were sitting in the stands before a training session started.  The narrator talked about Jade, at which point Russ says, "Jade....I used to work with a Jade at SeaWorld!"

"Dude," I said.  "Jade is FROM SeaWorld."

Here's Jade with ANOTHER former SeaWorld trainer!

Commence second freak-out moment.  Russ had worked with both Sebastian and Jade when he was at SeaWorld.  He knew her when she was only like four years old, and was so excited to see her now as an adult.  

What's so cool about our Small World pertaining to both humans and non-humans is you learn a lot about long-lived animals that you may have never known before.  When you work with animals who live longer than your career at one zoo or aquarium will likely last, there is so much mystery behind the history of the animals in your care. 

I worked with a sea lion named Patty (she got her own MF blog entry that you should totally read if you haven't already).  Patty was 31 years old and was the sassiest lady (of any species, humans included) I've ever known.  When I got to know her, she had semi-retired from shows and interactions and lived with other older sea dogs.  The most veteran staff there had worked with her for over ten years, which was awesome because they could teach us newer trainers more about her history.

Patty (age 31 in this pic) with a trainer she actually liked (hint: not me)

But what about where Patty came from?  What was she like as a young lady?  Nobody knew. Until....

...we shrank our world a little more by inviting some keepers from Cleveland Zoo to watch our sea lion sessions.  They were there as part of a penguin transport, but one of the keepers had decades of sea lion experience starting at Sea World Ohio and at Cleveland Zoo.  We thought he could give us some insight with some of the behavioral issues we were having with some of our animals.  He gave us some great ideas, but as we were talking we mentioned Patty's name.

His face lit up.  He knew Patty.  In fact, he'd worked with her when she was at Sea World Ohio (I had no clue she'd ever lived there).  He told us that she had a pup that she nursed for....get this....SEVEN YEARS.  Just another example of Patty doing precisely what she wants, when she wanted, regardless of the biological rules that govern us.  

Patty, probably 20 years younger.

Talking about Patty with someone who knew her in another life was so special for everyone involved.  It forged a friendship between staff at two facilities that may never have known each other.  Had we not wanted to shrink our world and invite constructive feedback on our training sessions, we probably would never have mentioned Patty. 

So while this field is small for us all, it still takes a little bit of extra effort to broaden your network.  There is nothing better than a small world when it includes a lot of people with different ideas and experiences but a similar passion.  Keep making those connections, through animals of all taxa!

Sunday, May 8, 2016

Trans-species Mother's Day!

Happy Mother's Day to all the moms!!

Well, all the moms who care for their young.  Cuz I mean, that's a lot of hard work, and some species have totally opted out of that.  No judgments here.  As they say, "to each taxa her own" (or something). 

Cuckoo bird moms probably shouldn't celebrate mother's day

I've been lucky enough to see many dolphins being born, and raised by a mom or grandma. Those of you who have seen an animal be born and grow up under the loving and watchful eye of a mom or close relative know how incredibly special the experience is.  There is something really, really powerful about new life.

Animal care professionals get to see motherhood in a very different light.  And there are a lot of different opinions on the matter regarding how similar the human experience is to those of other child-rearing species.  Knowing that this blog is my opinion, and that while I do know a bit about this chosen field, I am not some super duper doctor with a Nobel prize or anything, I'm going to share with you the similarities between my experience as a mom and what I've seen in dolphins.

1. Morning sickness is the pits

You take that back!!!!!!

Like, really.  Most of the dolphins I've known go through a period of wonky inappetance a few weeks after they get pregnant.   Hormones is hormones.  Lots of progesterone makes your GI tract slow down and that makes most animals feel like Pukey McPukeypants.

I definitely sympathized with dolphins who went through their first trimester turning up their nose* to fish in some sessions, or refusing to do behaviors and generally looking uncomfortable.  And then I experienced it for myself and OH MY GOD IT IS AWFUL.  I've never experienced nausea like that before.  I spent three months in bed binge-watching Chopped as a distraction (side note: do not watched Chopped if you want to feel less nauseous). 


I tried looking up photos of what the baby looked like at 6 weeks, thinking that would cheer me up. 

"Oh, this overwhelming desire to turn my guts inside out will be WORTH it because LOOK AT THAT PRECIOUS FACE!" turned into, "Uhhhhhhh this kid looks like a kidney with black spots" which led to more nausea.

There is nothing that alleviates this except time, and your body not producing progesterone and letting the task up to the placenta to do that.  Ew.  So cut your lady animals some slack if they're all weird in the early stages of pregnancy.

2.  Babies moving around is cool and then it becomes terrifying

Aww look at you, you little miracle, you!

One of my favorite stages of dolphin pregnancy is right towards the end of their second trimester, when you can feel the baby moving.  I just love, love, love that.  I don't know why.  I've never been like a baby freak either.  In fact, until I had my own kid, I was terrified of babies and basically pretended they didn't exist until they could poop in the toilet consistency and/or could hold a job.

But baby animals moving around in their mom's tummies?  LOVE.  Guests felt the same way; in interactive programs, the participants would always beam when they got a chance to feel a dolphin calf tumble around inside their mom.  It was another special way to connect people to the animals we love and want to protect.

Me with a preggo dolphin!

However, as the pregnancy progressed towards later stages, the dolphins started acting really uncomfortable.  They'd lie there, twitching at each calf movement, eyes squinty, as if bracing for the next impact of the growing life inside of them.   This must really suck for dolphins, because of the whole rostrum thing.  I've seen fetal dolphin rostrums pushing through their mothers' sides more than once.  

If dolphins had facial expressions

When I started feeling my kid moving around, it was super cool until she got huge, and started kicking various vital organs (of mine, not hers).  What got me through the most uncomfortable stages of the third trimester was knowing that dolphin moms had it worse than me: I didn't ever have to worry about a bony rostrum jabbing me in the spleen. 

3. Labor is....

In an itty bitty living space

Long? Intense? Incredible? Painful? It's different for everyone.  

We often say that dolphins have a "short" labor, but we really only start the timer when we see flukes just starting to stick out of well.  Obviously, labor begins long before the flukes are out.  The kid has to get down there, and that takes a lot of labor.  But dolphins have no facial expressions, and they just keep swimming.  Maybe they do some crunching or arching, but for the most part they seem basically unaffected.  Maybe inside their heads they're like, "AHHHHHHHHHHH!" or "Wow, how miraculous is this thing that is called childbirth."  

But for me, I thought it was nuts how strong my body was.  And then it made me pissed, because if I could do what amounted to endless crunches for 60 hours I'd definitely have an 8 pack, right? WRONGGGG  

Or I could always photoshop those in

4. You will kill someone if they touch your newborn baby


Okay listen, there is a crazy shift in hormones when you give birth.  You're laughing one minute, and crying the next.   I've experienced mood swings this serious twice: once when I watched Stepmom, the second is when I finished the most delicious bowl of mac and cheese I've ever had.  

I'm crying

We know as zookeepers that one of the most dangerous times to interfere with a female animal is when she's got babies...especially just-born ones.  No one would be surprised if you got seriously injured (or worse) if you gave a new mom any notion that you were a threat to her baby.  Obviously, some moms are more chill than others.  Some mellow out more when they get older.  But I can totally relate to that almost uncontrollable feeling that you will literally rip someone into 67,000 pieces with your bare hands if they do anything that could hurt your kid.

5. You are really, really tired.  Like, no, I'm serious.  Babies take sleep and make it disappear, never to be seen again.  


....but dolphin moms don't sleep AT ALL for a month after their calf is born, so I have no right to complain.

6. Being a mom is really awesome

Yes, mommy wants the coldest one.

Yes, it's a lot of work.  Your brain has been re-wired, because that is what makes you want to take care of a defenseless little thing that a) increases the chance of you getting eaten and b) requires every nanosecond of your time.  They are cute, and your brain is built to love them fiercely....whether you're a human or a dolphin or an elephant, etc. 

Brand new baby dolphin and her grandma!

Love is a biochemical situation, responding to environmental stimuli.  That doesn't make it any less special.  Or spiritual.  It's a mechanism that allows our species to experience one of the most amazing things in the entire world.  It's what makes me giddy right now, sitting at my work computer and thinking about going home and seeing my daughter smile (while farting, probably). 

Fun fact: "Duckface" is actually "poo face". 

Watching dolphin moms teach their babies how to play with toys, how to navigate their habitats, how to interact with other dolphins...and eventually, when they are older, how to  raise their own babies, is one of the coolest things I've ever witnessed.  

And now that I'm beginning my journey as a mom, teaching my kid to do things (like walk, or vacuum), it's even more special.  I don't care how much of it is instinct.  It's still special. 

You don't have to be a mom to a human to be a mom.  I know many of you out there are moms to fur/feather/scale babies.  Not to mention the love and care we give the animals we know at work.  Today, wish ALL moms a happy mother's day, including the non-human ones!

*Rostrum, SORRY

Sunday, May 1, 2016

Happy Birthday y/n?

Birthdays are fun!  I love celebrating birthdays, not just my own.

A birthday many moons ago!

Animal care professionals have differing opinions about celebrating the birth*days of our animals.  Sometimes, we don't know the exact date of birth.  In many cases though, we are aware of our animal friends' birthdays.  And it's a time to have fun.

As far as we know, marking the passage of another year is a unique quality to humans.  At least, we are the showiest of all animals when it comes to rejoicing just because we made it through another year of life.  With many of our so-called "special human qualities" (you know, the ones that differentiate us from other animals) diminishing, we ought to pay homage to our ability to party.

Indeed, I will sir Algar. 

Some of us make a big deal about this day with our animals.  We have birthday-themed enrichment, maybe even a favorite or special food, we announce the Big Day to our guests, maybe even have a special event at our facility. 

As I've mentioned though, not all of us are big into bdays.  Some of us point that out, while it's fun for the humans, it's really anthropomorphic to encourage guests to think that the animals celebrate, not touchy-feelyness.

But my take on it is that celebrating an animal's birthday is not in and of itself "dangerously" anthropomorphic.  It is a unique way that humans mark an important event.  We feel it's a big deal in our lives (well, some of us do...more on that in a bit), and so we naturally extend this cheer towards those we love, regardless of their species.

Hatchday, birthday, it's all the same: a reason to party!

It's one thing to sacrifice the high-quality care we provide to animals in order to have a big bday bash.  For example, if you're playing super loud music and inviting a lot of potentially frightening stimuli to a shy, anxious animal, that's not a good idea.  But if you choose something tasteful and appropriate for that particular animal, why NOT mark an important milestone?


So WHY celebrate a birthday?

1. It's Another Way To Connect Visitors With Animals

Lots of people celebrating a special dolphin's birthday!

When it comes to guests, this is an easy way to forge a connection between them and the animals you already connect with.  I'm not saying that having a birthday party automatically means that an animal's life is suddenly worthy of interest, but most of our visitors are not animal-minded. Using a common, positive cultural action like celebrating a birthday is a great way to draw attention to the uniqueness of animals as individuals.  That is something we know our visitors respond very positively and strongly towards.  If they connect on a one-on-one level with an animal, they are that much more likely to care about their wild counterparts.

I mean, look at that cake.

Birthdays are great ways of showcasing really important times in the zoological community.  For example, Marineland of Florida was the home to Nellie.  She was the oldest dolphin of any species born in human care.  She passed away at 61 years old.  Sixty-one for a bottlenose dolphin is basically like a human getting to 110: it happens, but not very often.  

Her birthdays not only became important markers for the marine mammal care field, but also the community surrounding Marineland.   Everyone came out to celebrate Nellie's birthday: lots and lots of people loved and cared about her.  They realized how old dolphins could live.  And that realization opened up important conversations about helping the struggling populations of wild bottlenose dolphins along the Atlantic and Gulf coasts who are suffering massively from disease and starvation directly related to human activity.

You can blah blah blah at people for hours about the horrific effects of human pollution on dolphins.  You can post sad photos of dead wild dolphins.  But there is something more powerful about staring into the aging eyes of a 61 year old dolphin and thinking, "Shouldn't all bottlenose dolphins have the best chance at living to this ripe old age?"  or "Why can't all dolphins be like Nellie?"

2. In Our Human-Way, We Show Respect

If Chuck says so, you better listen.

No, our animals may not understand why the heck we are giving them an ice cake, or cupcakes made of jello, or an extra helping of mealworms.**  But as I've mentioned, celebrating birthdays is a very loving tradition in many human cultures.  If you're coming from a giving place, throwing an animal birthday party is one way we show the animals we care for respect.  We respect their right to be here.  We respect their individuality; they matter.

Even tortoises appreciate a good cupcake

By the way, that's not me saying that if you don't celebrate birthdays that you therefore don't respect your animal pals.  Everyone does this in their own way.  I'm simply showing how a very anthropomorphic/anthropocentric situation is not necessarily a gaudy, pointless gesture. 

It's also a way for our visitors to show respect, too.  We have repeat visitors, or people who have learned about certain animals at our respective zoos and aquariums.  People want to find a way to show how much they care for the animals we are lucky enough to know and love.  Birthday parties are an easy way for guests to do that....and that's really cool.

3. They're FUN

A paper bag? You shouldn't have!

Zoo peeps, WE. WORK. HARD.  We have great days, we have &%#*ing terrible days.  We have days where, no matter how much we love our jobs, we are TIRED.  We want to stay home when it's raining, or it's snowing, or it's 82359825 degrees outside.  Or when we are just exhausted and think we could use a long weekend. 

Our brains never, ever rest in our job.  It is so rewarding and wonderful, but sometimes you need to just cut loose a little and have a giant slice of cookie cake.

When we celebrate our animals' birthdays, we know we also tend to bring in treats for our team, too.  We aren't going to eat a squid-ice cake (I mean, you could but....), but we want to share in the classic birthday traditions of breaking bread (er cake?) as a means of marking a loved one's year of life.  So we bring in treats for ourselves.  We gorge.  We enjoy.  We take photos and post cute Facebook statues about the birthday boy or girl.  

Birthday om noms!

It's perfectly reasonable for us science-minded, super engaged zookeepers to set aside some time to fill our stomachs with crap.  The delicious kind, I mean. 

It builds camaraderie among our department, and hopefully others as well.  Zookeepers who have moved onto other facilities or careers can share memories of the animal, reaffirming the respect and love we have for them.  Birthdays unite zookeepers, too.

4. It Gives Us A Reason To Celebrate Our OWN Big Day

Born on the same day, get to celebrate birthdays together!! WIN!

What is it about marine mammal trainers that make them dread their birthday?  Zoo-people, does this happen in your world, too?

It's like once a trainer isn't 22 anymore, they freak out that they're "old".  I'm 32 and I still act like I'm 9.  I fully plan on never acting my age until I'm dead, at which point I'll still probably act like a kid in the afterlife because I'm still fuzzy on heavenly social rules. 

But seriously, we are all like "YAY! THIS IS GREAT!" as our animals get to be old, older, and super ancient.  But we as humans are really upset about this advancement in years.  WHY?  What are we worried about?


Here's something to remember, for those of you who hate celebrating your birthday because you're "old"":

1. You are already aging yourself faster than the average person doing the job you do.  So embrace it.

2. But.....your job keeps you mentally young.  You're doing something you're passionate about: you didn't get stuck in a job that's meaningless to you.  So mentally, you're staying young and fresh.

3. You're not old until you reach triple digits

4. The alternative to getting older is way sadder, and also there is less cake (I mean, I'm pretty sure)


So if you're going to toss extra fiddler crabs into your river otter exhibit for a birthday surprise, you better make sure you make your birthday lots of fun, too (or let your coworkers help).

Cross culturally/behavioral barriers.  Celebrate the birthdays of those you know, regardless of species.  Make it a special, special day for that individual (or individuals, in the cases of litters/clutches). 

What are your favorite zoo birthday memories (of your animals and your own work birthdays)?
* Or hatch days, for you non-mammalian lovers

** Although maybe they do, and they just play it cool because they don't want us to know they can understand everything we say and do