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!

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