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!


  1. My most bizarre work dreams center around eels (which I work with, but creep me out) and system drains...

  2. So what's the difference between a dolphin's human form and person form?

  3. So what's the difference between a dolphin's human form and person form?

  4. I often staff an invertebrate 'touch pool' at my zoo's aquarium- a nightmare spot, even during the work day, as you are trapped for several hours with so many unsupervised children and spaced out adults trying to poke and puncture the delicate invertebrates! So it is certainly fodder for many a work dream- a popular one being that it's midnight and the zoo is closed yet there is still an endless stream of visitors coming through the line.