Sunday, July 31, 2016

The Indoor Zookeeper

It's been almost six months since I moved to my new job in Baltimore.  This new job has provided me a lot of new experiences and I thought it was high time I shared some of those with you all.

The most significant change is.........

............I WORK INSIDE.

Cue the heavenly choral music

Some of you reading this are probably like, "Uh, so?"

But most of you are probably seething with envy.  If you're not, you're in your favorite season right now and can't possibly imagine taking care of animals indoors while the sun is shining gloriously.  Just wait until winter, when you're cold and wet and in a wetsuit and there is steam rising off of your body and your hair is frozen into actual ice and -

Sorry, I'm being mean.  I'm gloating a little bit.

Nice hat.

The truth is, I DO miss working outside.  It's really fun to be out in my favorite seasons (hot), get a killer tan, bleached blond hair, and just be at the mercy of ol' Mother Nature.*  But there are some massive cons to working outdoors...and some serious perks to my comfy, cozy situation now.  Today, I want to share these thoughts with all of you.

Reasons Why Working Inside Is Awesome

1. Weather? What Weather?

You're right, that's what I meant.

Listen, weather is great and everything.  But after 10 years of being dragged through rain, snow, water spouts, cold fronts and lightning-caused-wildfires, I'm perfectly happy working in my 75 degree Fahrenheit climate-controlled work environment, staring out at massive thunderstorms approaching or, eventually, snow falling from the sky. 

We all do

No longer do I have to wonder if my skin will slip off of my body because I've been in a drenched wetsuit, standing in the pouring rain with little to no shelter for 9 hours.  No longer do I have to wonder why I feel searing pain in my hands that I thought were numb with cold.  I no longer experience the sickening panic I felt every time I had to work outdoors with lightning striking all around me.  

You know what? Let's just do the dolphin show.  We'll be fine.

2. Insect Pals 

Do you see what I see?

Sorry, outdoor colleagues.  I know what you're dealing with.

Fire ants.



Yellow Jackets.

Fire ants invoke pure rage in me.  Mosquitos are annoying.  And yellow jackets are known triggers of psychotic breaks.   Noseeums were probably used as a form of torture during the Spanish Inquisition when pulling someone's arms off wasn't working.  

You know what the worst insect life I've encountered so far is? 

Fruit flies.  Yeah, those little friendly slow-flies that just want to break bread with you.  

Fruit Fly: Oh, hello human! Might I share that Krispy Kreme donut with you?
Me: But of course, because you won't drink my blood.

3. No More Sunburn


Especially lip sunburn, which for me was the seasonal sign that spring had sprung.  My lips, no matter how much sunscreen I put on them, would sizzle like a bratwurst and then cause me excruciating pain every time I had anything to, you know, eat. 

4. Thermoregulation

Look into her eyes

I haven't shivered uncontrollably since stepping foot into National Aquarium.  Oh, I'll get a chill every now and then.  But I've never stared at a dolphin habitat and thought, "It's okay, you can do this" as I steeled myself for misery and pain in freezing weather.

I haven't had sunscreeny sweat drip into my eyes and burn them out of my skull.  Why? Because I don't really need to sweat.  Because, you know, I'm inside.


An actual photo of me

EVERYTHING SMELLS SO GOOD INSIDE.  No Red Tide!  When I leave our amphitheater area, I walk into a public thoroughfare that smells like the glorious food sold in the cafe.  Pretzels, pizza, fries.  Oh my.  Outdoors, smells like this get diluted.  Indoors, they are right in my happy, happy face.

Reasons Why Working Outside Is Awesome

1. The Spirituality of The Outdoors

Well, you're dumb

Being outdoors is good for us.  It connects you to nature, which all of us could use.  I've seen wild dolphins, manatees, sea turtles, sharks, Northern right whale calves rolling in the surf.....being in nature is incredible.  There is nothing like it.  

2. Fresh Air For Everyone

The best work view ever

The smell of salty air, the ocean, or whatever the season's blooming flowers happen to be waft in the breeze.  It makes you feel good to be alive.   The animals, who have adapted (like us) to be outdoors, can be in their element.  

(But so can the noseeums).

3. I Don't Look As Old (For Now...)

That could've been me.

My hair is super blond.  My skin is tan.  I look 10 years younger, because you can't see my white hair or any of my skin's imperfections.  I love how I look when I've worked outside for a while.  Will I say that when I'm 40? Ehhhhh. 

So you see, there are obviously pros to both situations.  Most of what I've written is, per usual, slathered with a healthy dose of humor.  I actually think when it comes down to it, I prefer working outside (if only we could get the concentrated pizza smell to linger outside like it does inside....).  But there are a lot of reasons why I think it's a nice break to be indoors.  

What about you, fellow readers?  Tell me your biggest pros/cons of working in or outdoors!

* Who is basically a jerk

Sunday, July 24, 2016

The Appreciated, Appreciative Zookeeper

Today marks the end of Zookeeper Week.


Oh no!!

I shouldn't complain.  It's pretty awesome we get an entire week of appreciation.  Some professions only get a day.  Others...nothing at all.

And frankly, we get a lot of personal satisfaction from working at zoos and aquariums who put their animals first.  But like any career, there are times it feels like a job.  There are times we feel unappreciated.  This Appreciation Week is a good shot in the arm, but also a reminder that we get to do some really, really cool and meaningful stuff.

But what are some of the challenges that typically leave us feeling unappreciated?  Usually, it doesn't have to do with the animals.  In fact, interacting with animals is the highlight of our day*.  But a lot of our job takes us away from happy animal encounters and into situations that make us wonder if maybe we should just sort packages for UPS.

Um.  Is there a Target Stabilizer Appreciation Week?

Here is an honest look at the top four things I think make us zookeepers feel unappreciated...followed by five antidotes that we can all use!

1.  Aggressive visitors

My new life motto

Problem: Part of our job (er, a large part for some of us) is interacting with guests.  As I've mentioned before, one of the most soul-crushing experiences we have is when we talk to someone who either thinks they know more than us and/or are completely disgusted by the work we do.  They believe that the care we provide our animals and the companies we work for are moral-less, evil places and they do not hold back. 

Meanwhile, they have no idea what we have sacrificed to get the position we have.  They don't know the family time we've missed to help one of our animals, vacations cut short, and our hearts broken over sad but usually perfectly natural reasons our animals pass away.  We work hard emotionally and physically to put our animals first AND THEN be fantastic stewards of customer service.  

I think we've all stood in the 100 degree summer days with sweat dripping down our butt cracks and our heads splitting open because of the heat, all the while smiling as a guest tells us how horrid we are for making tons of money off of the suffering of animals.  Meanwhile, all we can think about is a combination of "WTF are you talking about" and "Okay, after this I have to do another round of feeds, do my records, and check in with my intern."

"Explain to me again why you paid to come into a zoo you hate?"

Or in the winter, when you're cleaning exhibits and your hands hurt so badly there isn't even a word to describe it because they are about 0.0001 seconds away from frostbite, and your boogers are frozen all the way up to your brain, and you hear someone telling you how lazy you are because "look at how dirty the enclosures are".  

Solution: Remember that those awfully mean people are a) not very common and b) dealing with stuff that has nothing to do with the awesome work you do.  Challenge yourself to cancel out the ridiculous visitor by finding a super cool one...because you know your zoo is full of those.  Even though the last thing you want to do at that point is talk to another human being, we know how incredible it is to connect with a guest.  So cancel that jerk face out!! 

2.  Sick animals


Problem:  An animal you love so much is sick.  Maybe they are an animal that you can easily handle and diagnose.  Maybe it's an animal who is too dangerous to easily handle, or one who is really huge. Maybe it's an animal we don't know that much about from a veterinary standpoint. 

No matter what the situation, it is a majorly heart-breaking situation to deal with a sick family member, no matter what species he or she is. 

Let's add on top of this the fact that in most cases, the animals get sick suddenly and/or at really already-stressful times.  Is it Christmas Day and you are all finishing up your tasks, looking forward to going home to celebrate what's left of the holiday?  Well, that's a great time for a sea lion to go into respiratory distress.

Perfect timing

As zookeepers, we not only have to make sure we provide perfect care for any sick animals, but we have to make sure we don't slack one iota with the other guys.  You might be riddled with anxiety over a touch-and-go situation with a beloved chimpanzee, but you can't forget about the others in the colony. 

Not only that, but if we are not in a position of authority, we often do not have much of a say in what happens with the treatment of that animal.  That's not a bad thing, but it is challenging.   On the flip side, those of you in management know the tremendous pressure to make the right decisions in critically serious situations.  No matter where you are on the totem pole, you're experiencing a crazy level of stress....on top of simply worrying about how the animal feels and if he or she will get better.

Solution:  You can't prevent all illnesses.  But we can control things that can control illnesses.  We can make sure our protocols are as close to perfect as possible, and that we are following them diligently.  We can control how we communicate to the people who make the decisions, because good communication is critical to proper medical care.  We can learn from medical situations without allowing our ego to get in the way so that we improve the changes of preventing the situation again.

There, there

But as I said, prevention isn't always possible.  If we could stop aging, I think we would!  And no matter what the reason an animal is ill, the best thing to remember is that you are doing your absolute best.  That is always enough, even though it rarely feels like it.  You being there for that animal, for dedicating your time and headspace, for doing what your role is in ensuring that animal is as comfortable as possible....that is the BEST thing to do.  You are lucky enough to be there to comfort an animal a lot of people have only seen on TV.  That is very, very special. 

3.  Always being on call

Preach.  Also, Boromir is wise. 

Problem:  We know when we sign on for this career path that we will never work normal hours.  Even our super high-up managers, who have the 9-5, Monday through Friday jobs are never really Monday through Friday people.  They shoulder the weight of serious responsibility.  If something insane happens with the animals under their care, they are working 26 days in a row. 

We also ADORE the animals in our care.  So being on call is a labor of love.  But... is really, really tough.  Just because we are passionate about our role as animal caregivers doesn't mean that our life outside of the aquarium or zoo isn't important.  We have our companion animals, human kids, family members, social lives or our favorite books.  We have vacations, weddings, or visits with special friends.

There is no "off" as a zookeeper.  Each weekend uninterrupted by work is a gift.  And while we sacrifice our time knowing that an animal is in need, it isn't uncommon for us to feel (and it's okay to admit this, guys) unappreciated when we are called in.  Isn't our mental sanity sacred, especially in a job with as much emotional equity involved as ours?  Do the REAL 9-5ers understand that we are always a phone call away from working extra?  And that being called in is not usually for a happy occasion?

Solution:  Remind yourself of two things: 1) your animals rely 100% on you and your team for all of their care.  That is a very, very heavy responsibility.  They need you...and that is really special.  And 2) Your mental health is also really special.  Balance your time.  Don't burn out, but don't be the one who always says they can't come in.   Yes, you signed up for this.  You signed up to be one of the lucky few who can say they worked 80 hours a week to watch a dolphin be born, or to comfort an aging giraffe in her final moments.  

We should all just cuddle and make each other feel happy

If you're a manager, ask yourself the same question.  Some situations are pretty black and white, but others are not.  The best teams I've worked on were with bosses who appreciated the value in well-rested, happy keepers.  They never abused the "on-call" policy.  When they call us in, we know it's critical.  And we know that for the most part, our personal time is respected.  

4.  Poor pay/benefits


Problem:  Uh oh.  Did I disturb the hornet's nest on this?  I mean this very respectfully, but it is definitely a good idea for us to talk openly on this situation.

Zoos and aquariums are not money-making machines in the vast majority of cases.  We know that.  None of us get into this job so we can be the next Rich Kid of Instagram.  We are paid in the love we get from the animals, the conservation messages we spread, and the work we do to better the lives of animals both in our care and out in the wild. 

But c'mon, we do feel unappreciated when we are made to feel replaceable.  When we want to dedicate the rest of our lives to our careers, but have a family to support...and we can't make ends meet.

No, sorry.

I know some of us work for really incredible places.  We are not rich, but we are paid well.  Our benefits are pretty darn good.  We are really, really lucky.  But you know what?  Our facilities know we are worth it.  And maybe they pay us really low wages, but they do other things for us to show us how much they value much they appreciate us.  It's not just about the number on a paycheck.

But some of us work for places that make us feel as though we aren't valuable members of a team.  They may even tell us point blank that we are replaceable, because there are a million other people lined up for our job.  We know that our field is competitive.  But we are not replaceable as individuals.  We give our lives to our profession in every sense of the word.  We are covered in poop, we perform hard labor, we live in constant anxiety that we did or didn't do something that might result in an animal getting less-than-perfect care.   We sometimes get yelled at by the general public, or in our time off when people find out what we do for a living.   

Solution:  For those of us working in a place who really show they care about us, be grateful.  Learn. Maybe one day you will be in a position to make those kinds of decisions for a team; follow the good example of your employer.   And if you're already part of that decision making process in a reputable facility, THANK YOU for taking such great care of us and showing us you appreciate us.

You've been warned 

For those of us working in a place that could use some improvement in this arena, remind yourself that YOU are not replaceable.  You are a unique, valuable member of your team as long as you are always learning, keeping your ego at bay and you put the animals first.  Your position might be filled if you left, but YOU will not be replicated.  While you can't necessarily control how much you make or how much your benefits are, you can control the quality of work you do.  There may come a time when you move on to a place that treats you the way you feel you deserve.  But no matter what, keep doing your best for the animals.  

And if you are someone who has influence over those decisions, please reconsider.  Look at the amazing things that happen when a dedicated team is appreciated.  They stay longer at your facility, they create new leaders, their new and innovative ideas improve the quality of life for the animals AND the financial situation of your institution.  Your leads/seniors spend less time training new employees and more time developing blossoming or seasoned ones.  Happy keepers = happy animals.  And please, never ever say that your team members are replaceable. 

What's the bottom line though?

No matter what, the ANIMALS appreciate you.  Always.  

Side note: who wants to open a sanctuary with me for rescued farm animals?

An honest, empathetic, and intellectually curious zookeeper will always have a huge fan club in their animals.  There is nothing more special than to have the trust of the animals in your care.  And for those of you who work with animals who may not have this capability (liiiiiiike jelly keepers, or insect keepers), you are more noble still.  You dedicate your time, heart, and sanity for creatures who may not know you even exist.  And yet, you still give them the best life possible.  That is AWESOME.

This week, Facebook exploded with Zookeeper Appreciation mojo.  WE appreciate each other.  We have each others' backs.  I'm so proud to be a member of this community.  We may experience tough times, but we always have each other for support and encouragement.

Happy Zookeeper Appreciate Week today and all the other days of the year!


* Closely followed by lunch**
** Closely followed by random snacks

Sunday, July 17, 2016

Signal Boost: Emo Animal People (Gabrielle Harris)

Last night, I saw an amazing blog written by an incredible person.  Some of you already know her, but for those of you who don't, let me tell you a little about her.

Gabrielle Harris is an inspirational leader in the marine mammal community.  She is a shining example of an experienced animal caretaker in a leadership position who has never lost sight of the animals' emotional welfare.  She is a conservationalist, serving the needs of animals both in aquariums and in the wild.  If you've been to an IMATA conference, you've probably seen some of her amazing presentations.  Oh, and she paints like this:


You have to check out her blog, Touching Animal Souls.  Even better, get her book.

But today, I had to share with you her latest post.  Many of us have probably experienced someone telling us to bottle up our emotions when it came to working with animals, especially in a crisis.  This is especially true as you make your way up the ladder.  

THANK YOU, Gabrielle.  Thank you for addressing this issue so gracefully.  And thank you for letting me share your latest blog entry!

Emo Animal People

What provides liberty to do our jobs as animal trainers?  The difference between what is required and what the professional industry expects, is real.  When we are employed as animal keepers, we are told to leave emotion out of the equation.  Or we are criticised for being too emotional.  Our careers are halted because we feel too much.

Heck, many of us don't even want to go further.  We just want to work with the animals.  Also, there are some really good animal people out there who also make exceptional managers - and why?  Because they not afraid to feel.

Problem.  Promoted animal managers manage intuitively.  Doing what they do and ensuring that stuff gets done - because the welfare of the animals is the cause.  More than that, intuition is well developed in a good animal trainer.  So they know how to feel what needs doing.  And this does not seem to be the accepted management technique.  So we are sent on management courses...  To put us in a box and teach us to fall in line.  Stop feeling.

Scientifically it is not possible to be intuitive unless you feel.

In the normal run of the mill management circles there are strict rules. 
Rule number 1:  Be objective - at all costs.
Rule number 2:  Don't let emotions cloud your judgement.

Funny story that.  Because you cannot know whether emotions are clouding your judgement unless you are feeling them and recognising them consciously.  And if you don't allow yourself to feel them, you will loose touch.  Not only with the people you are managing - but sadly, also with the animals you care about.

Because as any true scientist will tell you - the ability to be completely objective is impossible.

In truth - rules rob us of our ability to be true.  Because we give ourselves away to rules and no longer make sound judgements.  We use rules to control, so cannot feel anything except whether we are winning or losing.  Competition sets in and our egos take over.

There is a better way.  Just feel.  This keeps you conscious.  and helps you to see what needs doing.  I long for the management lesson that animals teach - that it is okay to feel.  Just be conscious.  And work on that ability.  To the point where you can truly see - so when you feel, it is just guidance as opposed to a reaction.If we have learned anything as animal trainers, it is this.  Because when we are being guided we are able to move through our communication with the animals that we care about.  And the reason why we do - because we care about them.

This is a picture of one of my greatest teachers.  Her name is Frodo.  Frodo's rule - feel and be right here, or go play in the traffic.  What an honour to know and be taught by her.  Over and over.  Just when I think I have learned the lesson I sit in front of her and realise again that I am distracted from her when she looks at me sideways and backs away.

The ultimate Zen master(-:  Just feel...  And for her - the feeling is BIG LOVE AND RESPECT!

Sunday, July 10, 2016

Humans Suck, Let's Become Something Else

Okay people, what is going on.

Is this real life?

Humans kill other humans, I know that.  I know that's happened for tens of thousands of years.  But the thing is, it's depressing.  Unnecessary.  Cruel.  No matter how much "smarter" we get as a species, we still kill for the same stupid reasons that have nothing to do with self-defense.  What is the solution to this problem?

I've heard a lot of people say that humans are the "only" animals who kill for reasons unrelated to their survival.  Well, that's not really true.  We know that animal species who are pretty much ballers in their ecosystem have their own group of Giant Buttheads (herein referred to as: GBs).  GBs murder or harm others just cuz.   Populations of bottlenose dolphin kill harbor porpoises and Atlantic spotted dolphins with no discernible "reason".  Scientists call this surplus killing, and it's been documented in zooplankton, wolves, lions, hyenas, raccoons, house cats. 


So we're basically all guilty of harboring GBs among our respective species.  Most of us are pretty cool, and that made me realize that hey, you know what?  Even though there is no perfectly peaceful animal species out there, I'm sure there are some that are better than others. 

I've decided to use my Extremely Scientific Brain to come up with a Highly Scientific Test to assess which species of animals humans out to emulate in order to significantly reduce our murderous tendencies and just like, be chill.   Here we go.

The scale is as such: 1 (least) and 10 (most).  At the end, I total up the ratings given, ADD the number of beneficial qualities and SUBTRACT the unfortunate qualities.  When all is said and done, the animal with the HIGHEST score is the winner. 

Bottlenose Dolphin

Let's turn into dolp- OH MY GOD WHAT
Level of Chillness: 6
Level of Intelligence: 10
Level of Cuteness: 10

Beneficial Qualities: poop just goes away, gets to live in the ocean all the time, eats best quality sushi, understands how important family is, generally empathetic to the needs of others (+5)

Unfortunate Qualities: doesn't sleep for more than a few minutes at a time, capable of killing adorable animals for no reason, no thumbs ( - 3)

Total: 28

California Sea Lion

Gerald got no problems

Level of Chillness: 10
Level of Intelligence: 10
Level of Cuteness: 10

Beneficial Qualities: takes lots of naps, super playful and graceful in water, very adept on land, vibrissae are awesome, get to swim with dolphins and whales, get to jump off of really high rocks, has the best dry fur, eats sashimi all day, doesn't really care who sleeps on top of whom (+ 9)

Unfortunate Qualities: sleeps in own poop, babies are starving, gets cancer easily, gets eaten by sharks and orcas, sometimes you get yelled at by other sea lions (-5)

Total: 35

Yellow-Naped Amazon

*poops pants*
Level of Chillness: 1
Level of Intelligence: 10
Level of Cuteness:

Beneficial Qualities: super smart, gorgeous, long-lived, can fly, best diet ever, can poop anywhere and never have to deal with it ( + 6)

Unfortunate Qualities: has no problem biting, scared of everything, crops are weird, everything eats you, you can die just by being looked at wrong ( - 5)

Total: 22

Fire Ant


Level of aggression: 60
Level of intelligence: 1
Level of cuteness: - 87,000

Peaceful Qualities: lives in a feminist colony (+1)

Unfortunate Qualities: stings anything within 10 miles of nest, no friends, will not make friends with other fire ants from other colonies, always waging war, stings (-5)

Total: - 86,430

African Penguin

We'd look good as penguins

Level of chillness: 5
Level of intelligence: 9
Level of cuteness: 10

Beneficial Qualities: pair bonds are strong, cares very much for young, known to adopt orphaned chicks, swims really well, adorable, lives in large colonies, feet make a cool fwap fwap fwap sound (+ 7)

Unfortunate Qualities: vile poop, poop that gets all over feet and butt, molting, beaks that shred flesh, can be very aggressive with other birds, jealous, gets eaten by everything ( -7)

Total: 24


Near, far, wherever you are....

Level of chillness: 2
Level of intelligence: 9
Level of cuteness: 10

Beneficial Qualities: gets to live in trees, eats delicious foods, celebrities spontaneously cry just by looking at you (+3)

Unfortunate Qualities: relatively solo critters, can be extremely aggressive, you have to do a lot of traveling just to poop, your habitat is disappearing at an alarming rate (-4)

Total: 21

WINNER: California Sea Lion (34 points)

Let the transformation begin!

That's it.  Let's all be like sea lions.  Yeah, we will be covered in our own poop.  Yeah, the males of our species will spend about a month talking really loudly while they try to lure the ladies*.  Maybe there will be a little fighting.  But for the most part, we'll just find some kick ass waterfront property and take long, luxurious naps all over each other.

We get really neat flippers that make us do the coolest things ever in the water, and we can just hang out with a humpback whale if we really want. 

We'll hunt together, nap together, raise our pups together, AND have the best view.  AND we are all adorable.  No killing, no over-the-top fighting, just a bunch of sea blobs loving life together (except when sharks are trying to eat you, but nothing in life is perfect). 

I'm definitely open to putting other animal species through the rigorous test I've devised here, so feel free to expand our search.  Because I'm just about done with being a human being!  At least until we all decide to be good to one another. 

* But if you went to college, you have already experienced this

Sunday, July 3, 2016

The Hardest Topic For Animal Caretakers

I have a problem.  And I know that the first step towards a solution is to admit that I have a problem.

Okay.  Here it is:

I cannot, under any circumstance, walk into a book store without buying at least three books. 

The diagram of my life

Please tell me that many of you have this tendency.  Please tell me that many of you wince at the number on the register as you purchase 700lbs of Must Have reading material but it still doesn't stop you from buying them, even if that means you can't afford to buy groceries later and/or pay your electric bill on time.

Last week, I went to Barnes and Noble and bought a bunch of books on training, one on killer whales, and one that is totally sinking me into a pit of despair, but making me think a lot.

The book is about caring for animals as they are dying.  :(  The topics include palliative care, hospice, and euthanasia.

Oh no.....not this awful topic

I hate talking about euthanasia.  Or just about animals passing away in general.  I'd rather not think about it...almost like if I don't take the time to think about it, then it won't happen.  And even though it's a really sad topic, and none of us want to face it, that's precisely why I bought the book.  And precisely why we are going to talk about it in this blog today.

Whether you're talking about companion or non-domesticated animals, in many cases they live long lives.  Many species of wild animals (marine mammals included) have a much easier time reaching or surpassing their average life expectancy.  Since all of us animal lovers always want More Time with our animal friends, this lengthened life span is awesome.  But, it has a price.

I swear I will break up the sadness with cute animal memes

Many of us care for (or have cared for) geriatric animals.  We know what a labor of love it is to care for an old guy or gal, and it's even more intense when that critter has a terminal illness. Or, when a young animal gets a diagnosis like that, that's an entirely different sort of pain.  Regardless of the situation, old or young, it is awful, it rips your heart out....and that's just thinking about losing them.  Add onto that the question of whether it's up to you (or your management) to euthanize or allow a "natural" death, and you've got a quagmire of lots of sads.

If you're thinking of skipping reading this blog now that *%#( just got real, please don't.  Because this is the sort of thing we need to talk about.

Let's just lean on each other to get through this

In my personal experience, I thought about this a lot when I was at a facility that had a number of very old sea lions (25+ years).  Both in the wild and in human care, it is very common for California sea lions to get cancer.  They can live with it for a while (and in aquariums, top notch veterinary care can successfully treat many forms of cancer), but eventually it catches up with them. 

All but one of the sea lions I cared for who passed away had terminal cancer.  Some we knew about, others were so badass that they partied hard right up until the end...and we only found out during the necropsy what was going on.  The one who did not have cancer had another age-related, terminal condition. 

Within three years, our team had to face the dreaded topic of euthanasia multiple times. 

We're gonna need a lot of comfort food to talk about this

I had a really thoughtful conversation with one of the trainers (we'll call her the Cat Whisperer, because she totally is one) about differing philosophies about choosing when and how an animal will die.  We were watching one of the sea lions who we knew was not going to pull through his medical condition.  And we talked about The Right Time....when the hell is it?  When is the "right" time to end the suffering of someone you love?

In fact, everyone on the team had valid, thoughtful questions about this.  And many of us had different answers.  Imagine being the veterinarian and manager who has to make the final decision.  You're not only shouldering the weight of taking an animal's life, but your team probably has totally different opinions about IF or WHEN it should occur. 

So why don't we talk about this more?  We ought to.  I don't just mean in the moment.  In my experience, veterinarians and managers always had respectful, thoughtful discussions with the staff when it become evident an animal was facing the end of his or her life. 

I'm talking about when it's not a pressing matter.  I'm talking about how we raise new animal care professionals to think about end-of-life care, or assessing quality of life.  I think it's valuable to treat this extremely delicate but critical part of our responsibility as keepers as a part of our development.  


One of the things that plagues me is thinking....what if I made a decision (or contributed to a decision-making process) that results in an animal dying when in fact, they would've healed?  What if they would choose to keep living?  That seriously torments me.  My cat was put down almost eight years ago, and I still wonder if I betrayed her trust.  She had end stage renal failure, couldn't eat, couldn't walk.....but I still wonder if she had the choice, would she have preferred to go on her own?  What if she could've had a few more days of love from her family? Yes, I trusted the vet.  He was amazing.  But my brain still tortures me.

With the sea lions, I secretly wished they would painlessly pass away in their sleep.  No one wanted to make the decision, because that question of "Is This The Right Thing To Do" sticks in your head and around your heart and never leaves.  No matter who is reassuring you.

When we have companion animals at home, the decision isn't easier per se, but it's definitely simpler.  The only people involved in the decision making process are: you, the vet, and other human family members.  In a zoo or aquarium, you're dealing with a LOT more people.  And unless you are a vet or part of management, you don't have control over the final decision.  It feels out of your hands, which is a really emotionally challenging thing if you disagree.

If you wanna cry like I do, just look at this snake with a  little top hat for a while.

That's why I really think it's valuable to have uncomfortable conversations (if you're not already, that is) because it ultimately means the best possible care for our animals.  Many of us are beyond the "euthanize them because they're old" mentality.  We are now providing palliative and in some cases, end-of-life care to our senior citizens.  In some cases, we are in uncharted waters as more and more species reach ages we've never had experience with, or observed in the wild. 

Worse yet, some of us feel that we can't show emotion or say how we really feel about this sort of situation.  Some of us may feel that it's "not allowed."  I think that as long as everyone is being respectful, open-minded, and they are genuinely coming from a place where the animal's best interests are always kept as number one priority, it's necessary for people to emote.  Cry, talk, get quiet....whatever. 

Smile! This axolotl loves you.

I know some zoos have quality of life protocol.  I think that's really helpful, provided it really considers the individual animal and it's coming purely from a loving, respectful place.  A friend of mine outlined her zoo's quality of life watch, something that is not a final decision, but is a way to outline when to start talking about when an animal is suffering.  This quality of life watch is personalized for each individual animal, not generalized to the species or grouping.  It takes into consideration the opinions of the entire team. It seems like a really great (albeit sad), respectful system.

But not all of us work for a place that has such a system.  

Let's honestly talk about our personal feelings on death if we don't already.  Do we even agree with euthanasia?  If we do, when is it "time"?  What does "quality of life" mean to us?  What do we think it means for the animals?  And when we share these thoughts in this discussion, we must keep an open mind.  We can't judge.  I think we'll all see no matter how we feel about this topic, our opinions are rooted firmly in a deep love and respect for the animals as individuals. 

The more we keep quiet and avoid this topic, the harder it is on your staff.  The harder it is for them to grow into leaders and make a decision, and incorporate their teammates into what it's like to care for animals at the end of their lives. 

I'm so sorry to make this blog on such a dreary topic!  But let's create something good from it.  We can lean on each other, we can learn from each other.  And ultimately, it's all for the animals!

Phew.  Glad that's over.