Sunday, June 26, 2016

My Professional Failures: Baby Edition

I've been so lucky in my career for so many reasons.  One of my favorites has to do with seeing the birth of a dolphin.


Dolphin babies are. so. cute.  Not only that, it's an incredible experience to watch the process of birth of an animal who spends her entire life in the water....and then has to raise a baby, and nurse the baby, and make sure he/she doesn't get into any shenanigans. 

I was thinking a lot about the many dolphin births I've witnessed, the last one being a young'un over at Gulfarium who's now over a year old.  In fact, my own young'in is turning one TODAY!  So I've been reflecting a lot on the incredible memories I have of so many wonderful babies, human and dolphin alike.

More babies means more birthdays which means MORE CAKE

Aaaaaaaaaaand that brought up one of those "OMFG I JUST ENDED MY CAREER" mistakes I've made.  And it happened to be for the first ever dolphin birth I'd witnessed.  Join me on this trip down memory lane.

While in Miami, I never got the chance to witness an actual birth, but I did get to observe newborn calves.  It was awesome!! It was the first time I'd ever seen a dolphin that tiny.  Because I was an apprentice trainer, a lot of my time was spent on obs shifts watching for nursing, breathing, and other mom/calf behaviors. I was super lucky because I not only observed baby bottlenose dolphins, but an adorable Pacific white-sided dolphin calf too (I wrote about her in this blog).

Baby Ohana!

For the most part, it wasn't easy to watch a dolphin be born in some of the habitats.  Some were natural lagoons, others were manmade habitats without underwater viewing windows.  So for us newbie trainers, we'd basically walk in for our fish prep shift and be told, "By the way, so-and-so had her calf!"

After going through this process four times, I felt I had a pretty good hang of the whole New Dolphin Baby routine.  For my purposes, it went something like this:

1. I come into work, and find out that baby is born
2. I spend 8 to 10 hours watching the baby do its baby thing
3. I spend a lot of money on McDonalds to stay awake for the overnight shifts
4. I listen to a lot of Earth Wind and Fire when it wasn't necessary to listen for breaths
Rinse and repeat.

Thank you, gentlemen, for being a part of my early career calf-obs experience

When I left Miami and went to another facility, three of the dolphins were pregnant.  Everyone was psyched ('d be weird not to be).  I thought, "Alright! I can do this! I know what to expect." 

As the months passed and the due dates drew closer, we started having obs on the preggos.  This was a little different than my previous experience, but I thought WOW.  I could be the person who gets to see the birth!!! THIS IS THE BEST.

Getting those pre-parturition shifts are like the McDonalds Monopoly pieces. You get a million chances to win big, but it like never happens.  And such as the case with me.  Three pregnant dolphins, lots of overnight shifts, and no action. 

I don't even eat McDonalds anymore, but I will buy all the fries in order to win (which....I never have).

I was exhausted.  We all were.  We'd been doing these obs shifts for a while, and while they were in the animals' best interest, we were starting to get tired.  I was especially wiped out, because I need a nap every 45 minutes for optimal performance (side note to current boss: let's talk about my napping schedule). 

On a day like any other, I went home and showered.  My husband (then boyfriend) at the time invited me to his house at the beach and of course I was like YES.  I drove over there and we had a lovely picnic dinner on a gorgeous beach, fished, watched the sunset, and then walked back to his house.

I fell asleep immediately. 

Let me tell you about what happens when I sleep.  I basically die.  In the morning, I'm like a phoenix, reborn from the ashes.  There is very little that can wake me up from my intense sleep.  Here is a short list:

1. I am done sleeping


I've slept through:

1. Alarms
2.. Fire alarms

3. Actual fires
4. Bombs*
5. Up to two liters of water being poured on me

Some kind of Master Switch is shut down in my head when I go to bed, and that's just how it is.  And so it was on that very night. 

Hint: check my pulse

I woke up 10 delicious hours later and went to check my phone to see what time it was and saw:

* 29 missed calls
* 37 text messages

These numbers are not exaggerated.

The texts all said something like, "CAT WHERE ARE YOU" or "FLUKES OUT CAT OMG WHERE ARE YOU".  All from coworkers.  Samesies with the phone calls.


My blood drained from my face and I felt my heart sink into my stomach. The calls and texts started coming in at around 2:30/3am.  It was now 6:30am.  For sure, the calf had been born, and I missed it. 

I frantically got dressed and blasted through the door.  As I leapt into my car, I got another text saying, "CAT WHERE ARE YOU?? SHE'S STILL IN LABOR!"

It was the longest 20 minutes of my life as I hurdled down the highway. I screeched into a parking spot, tore out of the car and ran as fast as I could into the building.  When I got to the underwater viewing windows, I ran into 20+ exhausted trainers, educators and volunteers.  They looked weary; they'd been up since 2am and had been intensely peering into the massive habitat to make sure they didn't miss a moment of the birth.

BAHAHAHAHA this doesn't really belong here but I LOVE IT SO I HAD TO SHARE IT

And here I come, pleading with everyone to believe me that I didn't hear my phone, yes it was on the loudest setting, yes I sleep like the dead, isn't anyone concerned that I could literally have my face ripped off in my sleep and I wouldn't know until the next day?  And as this is happening, not ten minutes after I got there, out comes the baby; the first dolphin I ever saw born.

Meanwhile, everyone else has been up for hours waiting for this to happen.  And here I come, completely rested on 10 glorious hours of sleep and I didn't have to wait hardly at all. 

I thought I'd be fired.

Or whenever the dolphin is about to be born

I mean, it was part of my job responsibilities to be present for births, especially if we needed to intervene in a medical emergency.  Kidding aside about my brain powering down at night, I knew what had happened was really, really bad.  I should've found a way to be more alert.  How could anyone trust me now?  I knew my career was over.

Luckily, my bosses were understanding and humored my relentless apologies.  Even more luckily, this event burned itself into my brain so now I can't even fall asleep when I know a dolphin birth is imminent (turns out, their temp drops 2 degrees within 24 hours of labor, which gave me plenty of warning, and plenty of insomnia).  I've witnessed 9 dolphin births in the last 11 years, and I remember each one vividly.  A little sleepless night here or there is worth it. 

She was so worth it!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Sunday, June 19, 2016

A Proud National Aquariumer

Okay! Well, it's certainly been an um, eventful week since we last saw each other.

Um I have no idea.

I found myself getting really gloomy, especially in light of the three Orlando tragedies, the double murder in Paris, and the murder in London.  Holy. Cow. 

The horrific loss of life reported to us in such a short period of time made me feel like, is there good in the world anymore?  Where has it gone?

Oh, here it is.

Of course, there are plenty of great people in the world, doing great things.  I feel like I needed to take a moment to breathe a little, and look at the good things happening around me (on top of the incredible acts of kindness people portrayed in response to the aforementioned events).

Amidst all of this, National Aquarium released information about a new project we are in the beginning planning stages of for our 8 bottlenose dolphins.  Some of you reached out to me and asked me how I felt about it, or my opinion. 

Look, there is a LOT of research left to do, many decisions to be made.  So all I can say right now is that I am proud to work at National Aquarium, because as I thought about all of the wonderful things surrounding me, many of them had to do with where I work.  And so, the two seemingly-separate things merged together into something I wanted to share with all of you.

Reasons Why I Love Working At National Aquarium (and they'll probably sound familiar....because you probably feel the same way about where you work!)

1) The Animals Come First

They rule all. 

And not just the dolphins.  Every animal matters, to the point where we will cancel and refund programs last minute if it's in the animals' best interest.  Animal caretakers are allowed to say, "No, the animals aren't ready" without worrying about someone telling them they have to make it work.  

Ego is secondary to the needs of our critters.  If we don't know the answer to something, we have no problem asking someone else's opinion.  We drop everything to attend to an animal who isn't feeling well, or who needs extra attention behaviorally.  We look at the animals holistically, understanding their individuality merged with the natural history of their species. 

2) The Vets Play With The Dolphins

Here's another photo of a cute dolphin looking in a mirror.

We've got a great animal health team.  On top of the fantastic care all of our animals receive, there's an extra special reason why the vets and techs are so awesome.

It's not uncommon to see one of our incredible vets build their relationship with one of the dolphins.  During my interview, I watched our most experienced vet enrich the dolphins outside of session.  Since my employment a few months ago, I've seen both vets and techs participate in training sessions that have nothing to do with husbandry.  Another great example of holistic care!

3) There Are Toys. Everywhere.

But they don't come to life.

I have seriously never seen so many EEDs in one place in my life.  I am never wanting for a toy or some sort of object with which to entertain the dolphins.  Our enrichment coordinator takes her job very seriously and it shows.  We have enrichment volunteers whose sole job is come up with different ways to entice the attention of the animals in our department. 

4) We Have Work-Life Balance

Don't we all.

My boss is so good at encouraging people to have a life outside of work.  We are always here for the animals, but if there is a special event happening in our lives (or the lives of family or friends), there is a lot of leniency in our schedules.  Our management does an incredible job balancing who is needed at work to make sure the dolphins get everything they need without question and people being able to enjoy their personal lives.

Did I mention we get a ton of paid time off?

5) We Live Our Mission

A turtle release from a few days ago!

National Aquarium is all about conservation and spreading awareness about the plight of our oceans and the Chesapeake watershed.  While we have amazing conservation projects (animal rescue, research, habitat restoration, etc. etc.), and focus on community outreach, there are even more reasons why I love working here.

First, our restaurant/food court serves food that is locally and/or humanely sourced.  We occasionally have invasive species of fish on the menu, which really blew me away when I first visited.  All the food is freshly made and tastes REAL good.  Oh my god, let me tell you about these brownies we have.  Well, blondies.  Chocolate chip blondie base with OREOS IN THE MIDDLE.  It is taking everything in me right now not to run down to the cafĂ© and get like 10 of these things. 

Second, every full time staff member gets not only a ton of PTO, but one paid day off to do a conservation project of their choice.  THAT IS FREAKING AWESOME.  You can volunteer in other departments too, including the conservation and rescue ones.

6) Opinions Are Allowed

But it counts!

We are treated like valuable members of a team.  Our voices, knowledge, and opinions are not shot down immediately when they differ.  Respectfully-presented ideas and questions are met with respectful answers.  There is no "Our Way OR ELSE" vibe around here.  

This is one of my favorite points, because I feel like this place really understands that in order to best solve a problem or develop a project, you have to understand differing viewpoints and experience.  This culture is fostered both internally and externally, which means I'm always learning new things and feel comfortable sharing my feelings, too.

6) A Hilarious And Dedicated Team

Sloths on our arms, puffins on our heads, and the Indominus Rex "That Guy-ing" our photo.

I work with some really passionate people.  We have team builders and goofy staff photos.  We get to train dolphins all day, because we only have three or four presentations a day. We spend like half our day working on husbandry goals, the other half training new behaviors, participating in research (like testing out a new ECG technology, and cognition research tied to innovation behaviors).

But we are also hilarious.  We have this giant communication board, half of which is dedicated to weird stuff we say.  Here are my favorites from the last few months:

"These are my day one pants."

"Should I give her the piece with the butt hole?"

"I just need to stick my finger in there and feel around to make some room."

"You're my criteria"

"Oh, it's just some ovaries in the drain.  I'll grab them!"

"I just have to deal with the feces."

"It's too much to flush."

For the faint of heart, most of these quotes were said about fish.

ALSO.  One of our coworkers makes incredible cakes.  And she makes them for everyone's birthday, based on what they like and what their personality is.  Behold:

Paleo-friendly banana "ice cream" cake with delicious dark chocolate icing. 

Pretzel cake for a pretzel-lovin' trainer

Humpback whale cake (POUND CAKE OMG).  This chick needs to open a bakery.

7) The Dolphins

How can you not love these faces?

I know it's not a great photo, but I don't have many pics yet of the girls all together!

It's not hard to see why I'm happy to be a part of the National Aquarium team.  By no means am I implying that other zoos/aquariums don't have the same components listed's just a list of some of the main reasons why I'm proud to work here. 

Why do you love where you work?  Let's get a good list going; maybe we'll swap some ideas to make our facilities even better than they already are!

Sunday, June 12, 2016

Did That Come Off Wrong?

As zoo professionals, many of us (all of us?) have dealt with our share of animal rights extremeist questions.  I could probably write a Russian novel-length blog about AR extremeism, using real-life examples from my own career path.  And it'd all probably be stuff you've heard before.

Comrades in the service industry, unite!

But! I had a different thought the other day.  Within a two-day period, I got some variation of the question, "Is this [habitat] the only place the dolphins have to swim?" like 6 times.  And it wasn't asked in a curious way, but instead in an accusatory, borderline disgusted way. 

Uh, yeah.

Before I get too into this topic, I feel it's worthwhile to listen to people on "opposing" sides.  I'm not really into the idea of being lumped into a group.  Unless that group is eating donuts.  BUT.  I think as animal care professionals, we should always be looking for ways to improve the standards of care we provide our animals.  So sometimes, the animal rights people (the non-extremeists) raise interesting points, or ones that are worth considering.          

But I'm talking about the super rude, super uneducated, super LET ME YELL AT YOU WITHOUT OFFERING ANY CONSTRUCTIVE SOLUTIONS kind of statements/questions. 

Humans seem to love to "punish" other humans they deem as wrong or misguided.  They do so by using rude, inflammatory language loaded with lots of yucky emotion. I admit, it's hard when you're really passionate about something to calm down and think about a better way of communicating your viewpoint (or, in many cases, calm down enough to actively listen to the other "side").

Side note: I'm concerned that someone took the time to snap a photo of this

However, I think I've discovered a Checks-and-Balances method to help us all (no matter what our opinions are) know if what we're saying is okay, or if it's just ridiculously rude and unproductive.

When you're ready to explode, or "educate" with a healthy dosage of snark (Snarducate?), ask yourself this question:

"If I asked this question in a boring, everyday context, would people think I was a total a*#hole?"

Here are some examples to help you understand what I'm talking about.

1. "Is This The Entire Habitat For These Animals?!?!?!?!?!?!?!??!?!?!?!?!?!?!? Do you think this is enough space, like really? Really??"


Imagine your best friend is coming over to your one bedroom apartment.  She told you you've just GOT to meet her new roommate, who is really cool, smart, and funny.  You decide it'll be great to have the two of them hang out at your place.  When you hear a knock on the door, this is what ensues:

You: Hey guys! Come on in!

Best Friend: Thanks! Hey this is my friend Cool Roommate

Cool Roommate: Um, is this seriously where you live?

You: Uh, yes?

Cool Roommate: Wow.  Like, this is it? You don't have any more space? It is way too small for humans.  We are going to be so cramped in here.  If we don't get along, there will be no place for me to get away from you without being really rude.  Plus, our species evolved in open spaces; we are made to walk or jog for miles a day.  You can barely take three steps before you reach the opposite end of the living room.  So really, you really think this is an appropriate living space?

You: *cries*

See? If the question you ask would be horribly rude in a human context, rephrase your question.

This is not just a tiny studio apartment.  This is a BALLER (and tiny) studio apartment.

Suggestions for alternate questions:
- What are the spatial requirements for [insert species name here]
- The animals seem happy and healthy, but are there plans to make a larger/more naturalistic habitat?  How does a zoo go about doing that?

You don't have to agree with habitat structure or size, and it's always worth discussing how to better improve exhibit design.  But no one gains anything from head-bashing.

2. "I Feel Bad For Those Dolphins Having To Eat Dead Fish"


This is trickier, because humans can be totally snobby about food (but you still sound like a jerk doing it, no matter how perfect you believe your eating habits are).

Imagine you're at a restaurant, eating a sandwich....

Rude Stranger: Oh wow, I feel really bad for you.

You: Why?

Rude Stranger: You're eating a sandwich made from ingredients you didn't grow and harvest yourself.  Thousands of years ago, you would've had to make your own bread, grow your own vegetables and greens.  Your true nature would've been expressed.  This is so sad, seeing you eat that sandwich.  I bet that bread even has gluten in it.  Is it because you don't care about your health? Or because you're lazy?

You: *cries*

Guess I'll just start eating chipmunks or other wild foods

C'mon.  Truly reputable zoological institutions research appropriate food for the animals in their care.  It's an evolving science, but a science nonetheless.  Many of us have given up our natural tendency to hunt our own food.  We eat Twinkies, so....

Suggestions for alternate questions:
- What do these animals eat in the wild?
- What species of fish/types of food do you feed these dolphins here? Why did you choose them?

3. "You're Doing Something Different?  What You're Really Saying Is That We SUCK."

Not exactly.

This is something that we in the zoo community are guilty of asking each other, when someone chooses to go out on a limb to do something different. (I can't only poke fun at AR extremists.  It's good for us to turn our eye inwards sometimes!)

I know this makes us all a little uncomfortable, or even mad.  But it's smart of us to face our changing field with an open-mind, educated opinions, and a clear, kind way of communicating our ideas, questions, and concerns. 

I feel that the aforementioned subject head is a variation on a common theme I've observed (and even felt, at times) in our community.  We feel we are under attack, we are standing up for our practices and standards of if we go ahead and do something different, doesn't that mean we're insinuating that what we had been doing previously was wrong?

No!! Don't be offended! I come in peace!

But let's look at this through the boring, everyday context.

You're hanging out with a good friend when someone you both knew ten years ago walks past you.  This person isn't on Facebook, and when you both first see her you immediately notice her hair and personal style are drastically different than you last remember.  She looks good, even though the look is really unusual.   You and your friend start talking:

You: OH MY GOD!!! Did you see her? We haven't seen her in like 10 years!

Friend: I know!  Did you see her hair? What was she thinking? 

You:   I don't know, but I think it looks fabulous on her. I think that's a really great style.

Friend: Seriously? So what, the rest of us who dress normally have bad style?

You:, I meant -

BFF:  Because if you like my her look now, that means you don't like mine

You: Wait, no I -

BFF: Whatever, I always knew you were a jerk.

I'll drink to that

There are so many wonderful ways to do things, and so many ways we can all improve.  There is no reason to automatically take it personally.  So what if someone is letting their elephants roam around their zoo at night, and your zoo isn't?  So what if an aquarium isn't doing shows, and your aquarium is?  As long as we are all striving to provide the best care for animals, and we are always looking to do better and better and better (which, remember, doesn't mean you're doing badly), that's what matters.

Suggestions for alternate questions:
- Wow, what an innovative idea.  What are the core concepts of this project?
- What inspired this idea?

You can apply all sorts of questions to this concept.  This is especially difficult when we communicate through social media, because we aren't face-to-face.  But still, whether you're saying it or typing it, if you think you'd look like a giant D-bag if the question were in a human to human context, reconsider. We animal lovers accomplish amazing things when we work together and make calm, educated commentary.

Sunday, June 5, 2016

Oil & Water: Zookeeping & Math

It is currently 5:45am as I write this, which is either:

a. A very deliberate, artistic intention
b. A direct consequence of procrastination
c. All of the above

Wait a second, it's never too early for noms.

Our profession as animal caretakers often means we are up super early the majority of our waking life.  Morning prep is a necessarily, arduous and often ritualistic experience in which we usually prepare diets, clean habitats, and ready any necessary animal or guest-related items/tasks before our zoo or aquarium opens.  

Throughout the day, we basically repeat a lot of the same duties, although not necessarily as concentrated as our morning routine.  Nonetheless, many of these required items mean one, terrible thing:

We have to do….oh god, I can’t even write it.




  1. HATE. MATH. So much.  

This ire is even more intense at 5:45am, when I am basically 1/7th awake and wondering why I ever voluntarily got out of bed.  If my math teachers (from any level) could see me standing slump-shouldered, mouth wide open, squinting at a digital scale trying to figure out what 2.39 + 0.75 is, they would be filled with an eternal and hopeless emptiness as they realized none of their educational attempts have taken root in this 32 year old brain.

Early morning addition, especially with a scale that is hard to zero PLUS it takes forever (and let me tell you, I’m all about food prep getting done throughly but quickly because it usually means second breakfast is sooner rather than later), is a #%^@ing MENSA exercise for me.  Especially fractions/decimals in quarter increments.  

Here’s an example of how bad this is, because you might think I’m exaggerating (which I NEVER do).  


The other day during fish prep, I saw I had to weigh out 1.25 pounds of finger mullet.  The scale, which wasn’t zeroed, said something like 1.38.  I stared at that scale, wondering if it would take me longer to zero it or to add it.  I decided on the latter, and then tried to just add it up old school in my tired, 20% charged brain.  There was a lot of blinking and head-shaking as I realized I was too dumb and tired to use this method.  So then I thought, if I had quarters (as in, the currency), how much money would I have?  And there began a long, winding and convoluted journey through the land of absolutely bizarre mathematics that resulted in me just zeroing the scale because I was frustrated and pretty sure my hair was about to catch on fire from the mental friction produced.

Call me Mrs. Gumby

However, mornings are not totally to blame for this deficiency in arithmetic.  I have failed immensely at simple adding and subtraction during all waking hours.  I have to quadruple check my work.  It’s stressful. 

The animals are totally work this stress, but I’ll be honest: modern technology has been a total godsend to people like me.  Calculators, computers, and excel formulas that automatically calculate whatever you want….these are a few of my favorite things.  

Let’s take Excel for example.  Say I’m using a document that requires I add up daily food amounts for each dolphin, breaking a set amount of fish into different training/feeding sessions.  If Cat’s brain were solely responsible for this task, it would take me about 7 months with all the double-checking and corrections (3 hours would be dedicated to staring). 

But only when it's working

But with Excel!! Oh! I can just type in whatever amount I want of herring, capelin, mullet, mackerel or squid, and it adds up what I’ve just added at the bottom where I can clearly see it.  No math is involved, except for the occasional check (which I do just because I’ve seen 2001 and know that computers can be real cranky sometimes).  

The problem with this is, as you may have already predicted, when Excel has a phase where it is staring vacantly, slobbering on itself while it tries to calculate a simple addition problem, my entire universe implodes.

The other day, I wrote up our daily dolphin feeding schedule which is basically a super organized excel file that breaks down not just their daily base, but how much of each fish (in pounds) they get at each feeding session.  All of the food totals neatly add up at the bottom.  No math.  No hassle.  Just efficient daily management decisions.


Fast forward to the end of the day, when we are totaling food amounts on the animals’ daily records. 

“Hey,” World Traveler* says. “I think Jade got 2lbs extra of capelin.”

Maybe it was Jade that messed up the spreadsheet!

We looked at the diet sheet, confused.  Jade’s total amount was correct on the spreadsheet.  But sure enough, technology had misled us.  The deceiving number at the bottom of the capelin column for Jade did not, for some reason, count one of her buckets.  

As World Traveler moved through all 8 dolphins’ records, she discovered piecemeal that almost everyone had gotten 1-3 pounds extra food.  And in each case, it was due to the mysterious Row That Did Not Compute.  Any food amounts in this row were automatically eliminated.


Technology really let me down.  I’m just a poor girl from the Chicago ‘burbs with a math comprehension level on par with a cashew.  Gone are the days of blissful data input of dolphin diets without actually adding numbers up in my head.  I relied on an application, one I thought was infallible, for addition.  And it failed.  

World Traveler and Jazzercise (you might remember her from this blog) and I took a few minutes to discuss our shared concern over our growing dependence on technology to do everything from parallel parking, locking your house from hundreds of miles away with your cell phone, and addition.  What is the world coming to?  Can’t we go back to a simpler time when we relied on our glorious humanness to get done what was needed done?  

No.  No we can’t, at least not as long as I’m around.  Because math.  Math and morning, math and evening, math and Cat: none of these combinations add up to anything that makes sense.  So, let’s keep up the advancement of mathematic technology.  But one that never makes mistakes, please. 

* World Traveler is a trainer who worked in England with pinnipeds and took full advantage of living in the EU.