Sunday, September 25, 2016

Don't Rob A Zookeeper

Ugh.  I've had one hell of a week.

I don't want to go into too much detail, but basically, this incident that happened to me on Sunday involved the following components:

Hint: It did not involve Halloween donuts

a) a random dude
b) super early in the morning (like, before 6am) on a Sunday in the parking garage at work
c) a gun
d) I no longer have a phone

I was really freaked out by this whole thing and luckily, it only resulted in a stolen phone.  But as my extremely thoughtful and awesome coworkers pointed out, even in this incident there is some very Middle Flipper-worthy inspiration.

So let's talk about why animal caretakers are probably the worst people to rob or threaten.

1) We Have No Money


Cash? What cash?  Ha ha ha, is this some kind of joke?

How about a credit card? Are you sure you want this?  Because actually, if you take it right now, I might have some leverage to get some of the charges on there taken off.  Even though they're mine.  

True story: one of my coworkers said her credit card number was stolen online somehow, but all of the charges this criminal attempted to put on there all got declined, we are poor.

2) We Are Eerily Calm In HOLY SH&% Situations

Are we meditating? Or is our thumb being hacked off by a macaw?

Lookit, that's our job.  Is a sea lion chewing on my arm?  Yes.  But I....must....not...reinforce.................with...........................bloodcurdling scream...........

If you're a criminal looking for an armed robbery and get a cheap thrill out of seeing people freak out, DEFINITELY do not go after a zookeeper.   Personally, I've had a penguin bite me directly in the face, resulting in blood pouring out of my mouth.  In front of guests.  And had to pretend like nothing happened.  Try having a gigantic animal not let you get out of the water.  Zookeepers have endless stories that put them in the I Have No More Adrenaline To Give category.

3) Our Phones Are Broken

Things happen

Let me tell you about my (former) cell phone.

The screen was cracked from not one, but two woeful falls in my work locker room.  Then, I put it in a case (because you know, crack the screen once, shame on you, crack it twice, time to get a case and ponder if it was such a good idea to NOT get insurance).  I decide to get the screen fixed because it looks like a honey badger got a hold of it.

And that friend is me.

Here's where it gets good. To replace the screen, Apple needs to turn off some settings on the phone. Somehow, and I DO NOT KNOW HOW SO DO NOT ASK, I had three apple IDs on that thing.  My real Apple ID, then another one that was mysteriously half of my ID username, and then one belonging to my husband Russ.  And for some reason, the half ID and Russ' were the gatekeepers to settings that needed to be accessed in order for my screen to be replaced.  Nothing I did allowed me to get the right passwords for these IDs.  I tried everything.  I went to the Apple store, where they told me I'd have to call customer service for help.  I called them, explained this bizarre situation, to which they basically said I was effed.

So for months now, I've been walking around with a shattered screen with randomly-appearing notices asking me to input passwords to one of three Apple IDs.  But I've made do.

It'll be different this time

So when it got stolen, I looked into the eyes of my assailant as he held a gun at my head and actually had a small, tiny, tiny piece of me that was like, "Oh...honey" as I handed over my phone. 

May the odds be ever in your favor to hack into my phone

Even if our phones are destroyed, if criminals knew what our phones:

a) had on them (photos piles of otter poop, anyone? How about a nice dolphin penis pic?)

b) had on them (actual animal poop, traces of whatever food they eat, and any other small amounts of sacred fluids from our daily routine)....I don't think our phones would ever get stolen.  

In fact, we could probably use them as repellent, but only if the thieves really understand WTF was on there.

4) We Might Have A Crazy Animal Ready For Self Defense


You, pointing a gun at my.  Me, reaching into my glove compartment and......




Your screams are stifled by the blood pouring from your eyes as the penguin does what it has evolved over millions of years to do: destroy human faces. 

Or maybe..............

PARROT.  RIGHT AT YOUR NECK.  Justifiable homocide.


GIANT TARANTULA, Home-Alone style.

Works every time

See the thing is, you criminals have no idea what us zookeepers might have in our car.  Maybe we took someone home for extra special medical care.  Maybe we are going to an outreach event.  Maybe we like to travel with penguins in our car because the smell*.


So obviously, number 4 may not be entirely honest.  But what do those thugs know?  And hey, maybe we zookeepers can come up with a self-defense method that's not as controversial as guns, easier than pepper spray, and is cheap cheap cheap:

Cups of poo.  We all work with animals with the most disgusting poo.  Just carry around a Big Gulp of your smelliest, most mucosal poop and get ready to slosh it right after you hand over your empty wallet.  Or, if you're like me and only work with dolphins (whose poop is hard to collect in large enough quantities for this), there is nothing like a nice capelin sludge that's a few days ripe. 

Sigh.  Stay safe out there friends. 

* Okay, maybe not

Sunday, September 11, 2016

Dream A Little Dream

It's time we shed light on something that those of us in the zoo field have kept secret from the public for too long.   This topic is sensitive, but it perfectly illustrates how much we care about our animals.  Most of us don't make a lot of money, all of us work long hours and are not really "off" even when we're at home.  Some of us may work in an environment where we encounter animal rights extremists routinely, or in a place where we are considered "replaceable assets" (and you all know how I feel about that). 

We put up with a lot of uncomfortable situations in order to put the welfare of the animals in our care FIRST.  And why are we hiding the most obvious example of this from the world?  What am I talking about?

It's official.  This is my favorite photo on the internet.

Anxiety dreams. 

No wait, anxiety WORK dreams.

OMG I have had some insane work dreams and....I know all of you do too.  You think you're able to turn off your zookeeper mindset as soon as you walk through the door into your home, but you know you'll answer work emails and think about the animals.  So the moment you crawl into bed, close your eyes, and drift into that delicious state we know as sleep, you may believe that for the next several hours IN A ROW, you're going to be free from work.  Your brain can finally rest.

Fact: I lived in Florida for 11 years and I had so many bathroom dreams.

But then, when you least expect it, BAM.  Your brain turns on you.  It gathers all of your animal-related memories, your hopes, your fears, and a few random items that make absolutely no sense and mixes them together to form a volatile dream that will drain you of energy and force you to endure a resting heart rate of 200bpm, so you are basically ready to die when you wake up.


Let me give you a recent (personal) example.  Usually, National Aquarium offers dolphin encounters on Saturdays.  As some of you know, I've done dolphin encounters for basically my entire career, so there's really nothing I should feel anxiety about right?  WRONG.

For some reason on Friday night, my brain decided that it was Time To Freak Out.  I dreamed that I was at work (it looked nothing like our facility...sort of like a mashup of our place and Clearwater Marine Aquarium's indoor dolphin pools) and that one of the encounter guests showed up a day early to do the program.  I kept telling him we'd see him tomorrow, and he kept insisting he had to get in the water.

Then, boom.  During a training session, he just jumps in the water.  Immediately, my dream self tries to run through our SOP for water rescue with animals present, and I'm yelling and directing people and freaking out.  And then I jump in and scoop out this guest, and yell at him, and banish him from the aquarium.  But a guest services person was all like NO YOU CAN'T DO THAT IT'S BAD CUSTOMER SERVICE.  So I was all like FINE IF HE DOES IT ONE MORE TIME THEN HE'S GONE.


Well, then he jumps in again.  And if that wasn't terrible enough, he turned into a dolphin.

Yes, that's right.  He became that which he sought to encounter.  And pair swam with another dolphin. 

But I wasn't having it.  No, this was a massive safety concern.  So I waited until guest-turned-dolphin swam by the side of the pool and snatched his hairless body right out of the pool.  I held on to him, yelling victoriously as he kicked and kicked.  And then I woke up, in a giant puddle of sweat.

I shared this story with my coworkers, which sparked an entire conversation about anxiety zoo dreams.  Here are some of the highlights from that conversation, as well as others I've experienced or heard from some of you:

1) Nani (our oldest dolphin) got stuck on top of a giant waterfall that was in her habitat, which happened to be located at Hersey Park.

brb, just going to the waterfall for a sec

2) A marine park going out of business and draining all of its pools with the dolphins still in it.

3) Getting fired and/or being extremely late for a bizarre reason (this is a popular one).  Some of  my favorite reasons I've had include: I was in the wrong state, I kept driving around trying to find lunch and Red Bull but all of the stores were out...and once I went to Marineland even though I didn't work there anymore and found out that I actually was supposed to be working there, and had been on the schedule for weeks but was no-call, no-show, so I had to call Gulfarium and tell them I had to quit because I was oops, accidentally employed by another place.

Well I mean, Marineland has some great holiday parties.

4) A dolphin kept changing from human form to person form.

5) Doing waterwork for an interview at a show in a pool that is in front of thousands of people in the middle of a city with traffic rushing by

What's makes these dreams worse is that usually, your surroundings are nightmarishly unfamiliar.  It's very rare to have a dream where your environment is a perfect copy of what it is in real life.  Somehow, you know where you are, but it's completely wrong.  In one of my dreams, Brookfield Zoo's marine mammal area looked like a gigantic metal tube with portholes looking into the exhibits, and you had to feed the animals (and put all of their toys in) via these portholes. 

Where the hell am I?

I've dreamed that Clearwater Marine Aquarium was basically in the same building a pool at this place I visit in northern Wisconsin was, except much larger than the swimming pool (obviously) and all of the sea turtles were kept in a bizarre maze in the basement.

I don't know why these dreams happen, but they definitely show how much we think about the lives we've dedicated our own to.  There is no clock-in, clock-out lifestyle in our field.  We embrace the fun stuff, we embrace the sad stuff, we embrace the hard stuff, and then we sleep and embrace the freakish neural firings that remind us of our commitment to the animals we love so much.

Now! I want YOU to share your work anxiety dreams.  I'll bet there are some really good ones.  Share away!

Sunday, September 4, 2016

The Friday Factor in Animal Training

Aren't Fridays just the best?

Every. Time.

We animal care professionals know that the word “Friday” generally means The Day That Immediately Precedes Our Weekend Which Is Usually Not Really A Weekend.  That is to say, most of us work through the weekends (or at least one weekend day).  

Even though we love our jobs, we get the same Monday Blues anyone else does.  Because weekends are awesome.  Sleeping in is awesome*.  Doing whatever you want is awesome.  Eating junk food for 18 straight hours because everyone knows weekend food has no calories in it is awesome.

Every. Time.

What’s even tougher is that it feels like the rest of the world is on a Normal Schedule.  When you turn on the radio, there is usually reference to how close we all are to Normal Weekends.  Like, “Hey everybody, it’s HUMP DAY!” but really, it’s my Monday, so I’m all like bummed because everyone else listening to the radio knows their weekend is just around the corner, and mine is eons away.

Or when you’re in the store, and the cashier wishes you a happy weekend, but to you Saturday and Sunday means working 16 to 20 hours with Insane Summer Crowds, and you sort of want to cry until all of your water leaves your body and you are left a shriveled, desiccated shell.  

Again, our jobs are super awesome.  Once we are there, we love it.  

But when it’s that time, that glorious time, when you realize it’s Your Friday, some really profound things start to happen.  You get really happy.  It’s an impenetrable-sort of happy that is only destroyed if something absolutely terrible happens, but pretty much everything else is  meaningless.  Have a coworker driving you nuts? Have a grueling eight hours ahead of you?  No biggee, Friday Glow will protect you.

This feeling that your weekend is just on the horizon means you Can Do Anything.  You have so many Weekend Plans every Friday, don’t you?  The possibilities are endless, your soul is filled with hope.  You’re going to see that movie, go to the gym twice, catch up with an old friend and then feed all of the world’s starving children.  

And then.

The weekend comes.  And you spend it doing something profound such as: avoiding laundry. 

Before you know it, you’ve eaten 6 metric tons of Cheetos and watched every season of Walking Dead and it’s now Monday morning.  You accomplished literally none of the fun and/or productive things you’d planned just a couple of days earlier.


We need to carpe diem!  We need to follow through on our Weekend Dreams.  And you know what’s more insane? Those of us who train animals do the SAME thing with our animals as we do to our weekends.

What do I mean?

Okay, since I’m a marine mammal trainer, I’m going to use marine mammal training as an example.

When you start a session, you’ve got a full: bucket, basket of toys, brain of ideas.

Um, I choose you, little bread Picachu? 

Everything seems possible.  You’ve Got Plans for this session, oh boy, oh boy!  Your training session is like every Friday you’ve ever had. 

And then, your session starts.  The dolphin’s mood is sort of meh.  Or you realize your boot has a hole in the bottom, and now your socks are soaking wet.  Or another trainer is doing a really complicated medical behavior and has asked everyone else to keep their dolphins quiet.  Whatever the case may be, all of your Session Hopes have been dashed.  The thrill is gone.

So there you sit, haphazardly feeding boring behaviors with boring amounts of food, half-heartedly tossing toys out just because you realize you’re running out of food.  The session is a dud. The session is your wasted weekend.

To all of you I say, let us take back our weekends, figuratively and literally!  We work so hard.  We are physically and emotionally labored and exhausted.  We give up time with our families, we miss holidays, many of us live paycheck to paycheck.  We DESERVE a good weekend.  We and our animals DESERVE a fun training session as often as possible (how about like, every time?).

They deserve it!

No matter what it is that removes that hopeful, creative and energetic zest from your mind, find ways to rediscover it.  So often, what we hope will happen only happens when we WORK to get it.  It rarely just happens, especially in animal training.  Going through the motions is not enough. 

When I get like that, I try to come up with a game to play with the animal.  I’ll hide toys, teach them to wait while I toss them out, or mix up my reinforcement intervals.  Those are super easy to do, and make a big difference in your session because both of you have to pay attention to do it right.  I’ll give myself challenges in sessions where I’m feeling really uninspired, like not asking for certain behaviors I always ask for….because even that tiny change makes a big, happy difference to the animals.  I experiment with what games or toys the animals are into.  Even if it’s a big fail, it’s fun to try.  

So go see that movie.  Take a long bike ride.  Get a tattoo.  Play with your animals and leave each session so you and the animals are thinking, “THAT WAS SO FUN YESSSSSSSS.”

What about you guys?  What are some ways you inspire yourself during sessions and weekends?

* What is “sleeping in” again?