Sunday, September 24, 2017

Dream a Little Dream, Revisited

I wrote about this last year, but I need to revisit it.   Anxiety dreams.  Zoo work anxiety dreams.

I AM STILL HAVING THEM.  I haven't been in the field for almost a year.  Do any other former zoo keeps have this problem??

Right? RIGHT???

I think it's safe to say that zookeepers probably have among the most colorful dreams of any profession.  And the anxiety dreams are even weirder.  Just when you think you're safe at home, decompressing from your job and drifting into a delicious, deep sleep....BOOM.  Your brain suddenly creates an elaborate story involving elements such as: flying animals (who do not fly), bizarre accidents, and gates that just will not lock no matter what you do.

You guys, I STILL have dreams about my dolphin trainer days.  Not just like, tra la la la, here I am swimming with dolphins like I used to, but full-blown "OH MY GOD I AM GOING TO GET FIRED AND I WILL THINK THAT WAY UNTIL I WAKE UP" or "WHERE AM I  EXACTLY" kind of dreams.

I'm sure many of you have your own list of cycling zoo nightmares, but here are some of my usuals that still happen to this day:

1.  Being late and/or forgetting what day I am supposed to work

This is why I'm a cat person

AHHHH this one happens to me still, maybe once a week.  ONCE A FRIGGIN WEEK, people.

I have had one (1) anxiety dream about being late to my internship, but guess what?  The reason I was late to my internship in this dream was because I THOUGHT I was supposed to be at Marineland (Florida), so I stopped at Publix, but I couldn't find the food I wanted in there, because for some reason they only sold bolts of cloth (??), so I left, got in my car and realized that I was late to my job at Marineland.  Except, my phone was blowing up from my lab internship mentor, wondering where I was.

But other than that one dream about the lab, all the other late-dreams are about Marineland, Florida.  I have no clue why it is just that facility.

Maybe cuz their dolphins are awesome?

Usually, I oversleep, wake up in a panic, and struggle to get in my car.  I can never, ever, ever use my cell phone properly in these dreams.  I try to call.  I try to text.  But I keep pounding in the wrong number, no matter how hard I try.  Or I can't turn my phone on. 

OR, like two nights ago, I had a dream that I showed up to work as a new hire, but in a relatively realistic context.  I'm not "new" in terms of experienced, but Marineland lets me come back for a period of time to help out.   And I forget what day or shift I am, so I show up (or don't) at the wrong time.   I am always somehow scheduled to stay really late, like well into the evening hours, and that's usually when the dream takes a bizarre turn and suddenly I am flying around, or realize I can breathe underwater. 

2.  Suddenly finding myself in a habitat I am not supposed to be in

Oh well, guess I'll just have to swim with dolphins

There I am, hanging out at Marineland, or Gulfarium, or National Aquarium, or Miami Seaquarium (this has never occurred at Clearwater, for some reason) and BOOM.  I am in the water with dolphins or sea lions.  But I am not supposed to.  It's after hours, or I just fell in.  The dolphins never pull me in or anything, it's just that somehow, I end up there.

This type of dream usually goes one of two ways.  The slightly-less nerve-wracking one is where I am suddenly in the water for whatever reason, and I just swim with the dolphins (also where I realize I can breathe underwater, which is AMAZING) and think about how great it is that I can hide from the rest of the staff.  They always try to get me out, but they never can.  I know I will be fired, but I don't care.

Or, I get in, and it's with the animals who are basically like, "GET OUT OF MY HOUSE" and it gets really scary (you guys know what I mean).  When I get out, I have to go explain to people what happened, which is when I get fired.

3.  Having to do a swim program without knowing anything about WTF is going on

But the hat looks good, so.....

This usually happens in the same dream as what I've already written above.  A few nights ago, I had a dream where I went back to work at Marineland.   I walk in on my first day, and suddenly I have five minutes to suit up and do an immersion program with the dolphins.  I'm freaking out.  I don't remember the SDs, I don't know half of the animals, and I am just terrified. 

Aaaaaand usually I just wind up passing my guests off to another trainer, and start swimming with the dolphins.  Or I'll just fly away.   You know, the normal dream things.

4.  Being in a facility that is a bizarre combination of all of the other places I have worked

You're welcome
National Aquarium has appeared to me in the following ways:

a. As a rectangular pool surrounded by stadium seating in the middle of Ohio
b. As the Shedd Aquarium except, it was still in Baltimore
c. With a hidden penguin exhibit
d. As a mashup of Clearwater Marine Aquarium and NAIB

Brookfield Zoo always has underwater passage ways and hidden exhibits.  I've never worked there, but I still have dreams I work there all the time.  My favorite version of this dream is the dolphin elevator that takes the animals to whatever hidden exhibits they want to go, so we can hardly find them.

Clearwater Marine Aquarium has a lot of bizarrely-shaped dolphin pools and  a giant basement filled with turtle habitats and vending machines.


Marineland stays the same

Okay, where is this? I NEED IT

All of my Gulfarium dreams involve a totally unrecognizable space and I am usually fighting with someone (human). Or I'm calling them to tell them I have quit because I forgot I had to work at Marineland.  Last night, I saw the Gulfarium team outside of Marineland letting their penguins surf in the waves of the Atlantic.

A book vending machine.  A BOOK vending machine. 

5.  Animals that turn into people, or other animals

I never know

This usually happens with one of the loves of my life, Tocoi.  One minute, she's a dolphin.  The next, she's a bird perched on my shoulder.  The next, she's some random person that doesn't talk.   But the entire time, I feel this is just how Tocoi is.

6.  Animals who have passed away suddenly coming back to life

I'm gonna need to visit this vending machine after writing this section

Ugh.  This one really makes me sad.  It happens to me a lot with my cat, Andi.  But it's happened with some of the other animals I've worked with.

Every time I see them, I am shocked, because I know they have died.  But magically, they are alive again.  Or, I think I've traveled back in time and I dread going watching them die again.  I hate, hate, hate this dream.

7.  My work uniform is extremely small

It makes me want to hug you forever

Last but not least, this one.  THIS ONE.  This one happens in basically ALL of the aforementioned dream types.  I show up (usually to Marineland again, for cryin' out loud) and all of my uniforms are missing so I have to go through the communal uniform pile and everything is tiny tiny tiny.  Or, my uniforms are just extremely small.

Like, belly-shirt.  I spend half of the dream trying to put my rashguard on (which, as we know, is pretty true to real life).   Just forget about the shorts.  I have to Porky Pig it, which is really embarrassing but I was late to my shift, so I just have to deal.

All you need is a bowtie and a jacket.  Pants are not necessary

I guess anxiety dreams just really dig themselves into the deepest parts of your subconscious mind, especially when they deal with a part of your life that you dedicated so much of your time and emotional energy.  I just figured I'd get over the lame "I'm going to be fired" parts of the dream and just have a jolly time doing the fun stuff. 

You guys gave me some great work anxiety dreams after last year's post on this topic, and I'd love to hear more.  I especially want to hear from you former-keeps; what dreams keep haunting you?

Sunday, September 17, 2017

Holy Hurricanes, Batman

Whoa, you guys.  Mother Nature has been real active.  So much so, that I feel like a giant blobby blob.  She's out there twirling around at 83598mph, pulling up trees from their roots, flattening houses, and I'm sitting here slumped in my chair wondering where my next cheese fix is going to come from.

Okay, never from a can.

I don't mean to make light of the really scary hurricanes we've seen hit so many places over the past few weeks.  They destroyed lives and livelihoods.  They caused a tremendous amount of damage, especially in places like Houston, Puerto Rico, Haiti and Barbuda. 

There are literally ten zillion (plus or minus) things we could focus on when it comes to penning a blog on hurricanes.  But I want to focus on zoos.  And I want to focus on the positives.  You know why? Because I think we have to sort through some of the dark stuff in order to feel like what we (or rather, those of you who weathered the storms) are doing is important and recognized.

Here are some of the amazing things that I thought came out of the last two hurricane hits from a zoo perspective:

1) The animals came first, without unnecessary risk to humans

Saving some stranded animals at Texas Zoo, nbd

There is a fine line between putting someone in a horrendously dangerous situation just to say you are trying to keep an eye on the animals, and having a skeleton crew stay behind to handle the aftermath of the storm with proper safety precautions in place.  That is probably going to look different, depending on what facility you're at. 

For those of you who do not work in zoos or aquariums, severe weather often requires zookeepers to balance their own safety with their ability to help out during (or really, after) a storm.  That's because no one may be able to get there to help out (you know, tornadoes, hurricanes, and blizzards tend to slow traffic down a little).  Having people live at the zoo ensures that you have qualified, trustworthy people to at LEAST feed the animals and make emergency repairs if possible when it's safe to do so.

If my boss is a crocodile, I will do whatever she effing says

But that's the thing.  You don't "HAVE" to do that.  You could just lock up the zoo and drive away, to evacuate or hunker down in your own house.  You could let fate decide what happens to the critters.  But so many of you didn't.  You knew that when you signed on to take care of animals for a living, you signed on to be there with them, through thick and then. 

I think it was very evident for both hurricanes Harvey and Irma how much people did to make sure EVERYONE was safe.  That is awesome :)  Unsurprising, but still awesome.

2) Six Degrees of Separation and Lots of Love

We don't need no sign!

Dude.  My Facebook was BLOWING UP with storm updates, and 98% of those updates had to do with animals and zoos.  People from across the country were using all of their social networking skills to find out how people were doing.  Honestly, that was the first time I have really experienced something like that to that degree.  I literally had nothing else on my Facebook feed except people saying "THE ANIMALS ARE OKAY", or "ZOO STAFF ARE OKAY" or "HAS ANYONE HEARD FROM XYZ FACILITY? ARE THEY OKAY?"  

I think we were all up late each night, waiting to hear news from the facilities we may never even have stepped foot in, but feel sick not knowing if everyone was okay.

DRC letting first responders meet their amazing dolphins

AND AND AND, the facilities who had a lot of damage (e.g. lost medical supplies, structural damage that has closed down operations indefinitely, etc), they are receiving a lot of love from the rest of us through their GoFundMe-esque type crowdfunding sites.  Not everyone has something to give, but it is really amazing to see people who make $9 an hour find something to give to help.

What a family :)

3) All The Enrichment Fodder You Could Ever Want

In the next few months, we want to see Harvey and Irma-inspired EEDs

This idea actually came from one of the most hilarious, amazing trainers in our community, Meaghan Everything-I-Say-Is-Hilarious.  But you guys, think about it.

Branches.  Branches everywhere.  THINK OF THE ENRICHMENT POSSIBILITIES.  Now that's making lemonade out of lemons.  

4) The Evident Dedication

Island Dolphin Care staff (plus a director) being awesome

Okay, I kind of touched on this in the first part, but I want to shout out to two specific things I have noticed.

FIRST, from my perspective, I have not heard one zookeeper in either hurricane that experienced a direct hit say ANYTHING about how "dedicated" they are.  They have stayed totally focused on the tasks at hand: the animals and rebuilding.  It's another obvious piece of evidence to support what so many of us know: we do this for the animals, not for the glamor.  We don't need to brag or complain, unless we are bragging FOR our animals.  I mean, I get it...if you go through a traumatizing experience where you didn't sleep for three days straight and wondered what the hell was going to happen, I think you earned a right to be like, "Hi, I'm a badass."

Zoo Miami

But it says a lot that you guys didn't.  Wow. 

SECOND, there were a lot of you who did not stay behind at your facility.  I hope you don't think that means you are any less brave, dedicated, or passionate.  It's okay if you weren't scheduled.  It's okay if you had reasons that meant you had to evacuate.  This is a very complicated situation, and no one needs to judge you.  You know why?  Because the team that stuck it out in the storm is just the beginning.  It's what happens NOW that relies so heavily on your ENTIRE team.  The worst of the storm lasted hours at your zoo or aquarium, and it was scary and crazy.  But the process of rebuilding is going to take months, and it's going to take the same emotional strength it would to hunker down in a hurricane or blizzard or alien abduction.  So stop feeling guilty.  Stop it! RIGHT NOW.


I don't know what the rest of this hurricane season will bring.  I don't know how long it will take for you zookeeps in the paths of these crazy storms to get back to normal.  But I know that it shows your true and beautiful colors. 

Here are some of the relief fund pages I could find:

Houston Zoo's hurricane relief page (for both Houston Zoo employees and the AZA fund)
The Texas Zoo

 Clearwater Marine Aquarium
Dolphin Research Center

Dolphins Plus Marine Mammal Responder

Naples Zoo

Zoo Miami

Please feel free to suggest additions to this list; I'll update it as quickly as I can!


Sunday, September 3, 2017

What IS A Dolphin? The Idealist vs Pragmatist

I just started my second (and final) year of my master’s program in forensic science.  One of the classes I’m taking is called Foundations of Criminal Justice, which is deliciously philosophical.  And believe it or not friends, I have found some interesting parallels in the marine mammal world with some of the stuff I have been reading in my textbook.

This is my life right now

In the second chapter, the author writes about idealists versus pragmatists, and how they would develop and implement aspects of the criminal justice system.  But the thing is guys, the author used an animal to illustrate the difference between the two perspectives.  And I realized HOLY CRAP THIS IS IT.  THIS EXPLAINS THE MAIN DISSONANCE BETWEEN THE GENERAL PUBLIC AND THE REST OF US.
So let's just not pay attention

To put it bluntly, idealists tend to develop an idea about something without much (or any) legitimate facts/evidence to support it.  Their goals are led by what they believe is the right or wrong ways to view/do things.  Pragmatists take a scholarly approach, letting the evidence and systematic observation of events or data develop and flesh out the goal.  So I'm reading this and then boom, suddenly I read how an idealist sees a dog (heroic, loyal, Rin Tin Tin) versus a pragmatist (something that pees in the house and eats all of your cupcakes).  And it is basically exactly like how most people see dolphins.
Dog-shaming is definitely an exercise in pragmatism

I could focus all my energy on school and really hone my understanding of this concept through the lens of my next chosen field, but I decided it would be better off in a blog. 

Here are some major idealist (read: most of the general public, including myself before I became a dolphin trainer) concepts of dolphins, and the pragmatist (zookeeper) response.  Bold is idealist, normal font is pragmatist.

Dolphins live in tropical waters that are also 78,000 feet deep
This is especially directed at obnoxious ARAs
Wrong.  Raise your hand if you have told someone about dolphins living in cold water and they look at you like you just ate someone else’s toenails.  I’ve encountered this when talking to guests about where they can go whale-watching in New England and geek out on the chance that they will see either Atlantic white-sided or white-beaked dolphins and they are like, “Uh, you moron, dolphins don’t live in cold water.”
Or these guys, who can ONLY live in cold water

The other bizarre part of this is that some idealists (myself included!) are shocked to learn that in many cases, warm water dolphins live in pretty shallow water, because that is where the fish are.  Until I moved to Florida, I thought all fish lived in deep water because like…you know, the bigger the fish tank the better or something.  

Dolphins will save drowning or distressed swimmers
Don't count on dolphins helping you

Okay, this may have happened once or twice.  Maybe.  But most of the time, if you get into trouble, dolphins will just sit underwater and laugh at you.  Or think, “Wow, that sucks.  Not my problem.”  Sounds a little familiar. 

Dolphins are gentle creatures who live in peaceful societies


Plants don’t even live in peaceful societies.  Next question.

Dolphins are extremely intelligent and are friendly towards people

Yeah, those of us who know dolphins know that they are individuals whose intelligence and friendliness exist on a pretty broad spectrum.  

But the fact is, there are Jerk Dolphins out there.  Usually, they are the insanely smart ones.  They WILL steal your iPad.  They WILL bite your toes.  They WILL zoom into one of your guest’s um, male nether region.  They will dismantle hardware in the habitat and hide all the pieces so you freak out for hours trying to locate them while the guilty dolphins look at your and laugh and laugh and laugh and laugh

Dolphins are the only animals other than humans who have sex for pleasure

I admit, I bought into it when I thought that dolphins were somehow “higher” than other animals (and when I thought that there was such a linear ladder of intellectual and behavioral complexity in animals, silly me).   However, sex should feel good for at least one party in sexually-reproducing animals, otherwise it wouldn’t happen.

It’s not like a horse suddenly gets this idea in her head, “Oh, I can just magically tell I am ovulating.  Better find a genetically-fit stallion so we can copulate and contribute another data point to the Selfish Gene Hypothesis.”  No.  Like the rest of us (dolphins included), the chick horse is like, “I NEED A MAN.  THAT GORGEOUS ONE OVER THERE.  GET OVER HERE AND DO GOOD WORK, SIR.”

...and zookeepers are over here like....

Dolphins do use sex as a social tool more than some other animals, but they are not the only ones to do so (bonobos and gold diggers are classic examples).  

All dolphins want to do is play
World domination is serious

No.  Sometimes they want to eat.  Sometimes, they want to sleep.  Other times, they sit around and plot the demise of humans (spoiler: they are well on their way).  

I've worked with a couple of dolphins who were just business-oriented, both in and out of sessions.  They would play once in a while, but for the most part they were basically like Dwight Schrute.

Most of us have idealist viewpoints on many subjects, and that is not a bad thing.  I don’t really think it’s a good idea to be firmly in one camp or the other.  And it is easy to move from one to the other, especially when it comes to an understanding of animals and what they are like as a species AND as individuals. I definitely learned a lot more about dolphins after actually working with them, despite all that I had read and studied. 

And while I am poking fun at the generalized, incorrect myths of dolphins people believe, I also realize that you know what?  That's how our brains work, until we get new information to assimilate into our understanding.   In the case of understanding animals,  the job of a zookeeper is to provide accurate information to our guests who may think that all dolphins are nice, or that rattlesnakes are evil, or whatever misconceptions they have about their generalized idea of whatever species.  Having an “idealist” concept of an animal doesn’t mean you are dumb.  It just means you get to learn some more cool facts, and have an even BETTER appreciation for that critter!

Sunday, August 27, 2017

LOLing: Guaranteed When You're A Zookeeper

Ahhh I am so sorry I missed last week.  I was on vacation in the middle of the northwoods (awesome!) but that also entailed a 16 hour road trip with a two year old to get there and then to get home.  After 5,007 rounds of Five Little Monkeys Jumping On The Bed, I forgot what time/year/planet it was.

Here I was on Sunday night

Also, there has been a lot of sadness in our community lately.  So today's blog is light.

Yesterday, I heard an interview on NPR with an author who wrote a novel exploring the concept of “BFF”.  She talked about how as kids, our relationship with our BFF is fairly non-verbal; we just play and have lots and lots of belly laughs.  As we approach middle school, this starts to change, leading into an adulthood where we may or may not have a BFF….and if we do, it isn’t the same as when we were young kids.

She specifically talked about the concept of laughter, and how in her experience, she just doesn’t have the daily gut-aching uncontrollable laughing fits she did as a kid with her group of friends.  That really made me think about zookeeping.

I think as animal care professionals, we are very lucky in the BFF department.  

Okay, I know that some of you work at places with tense or even hostile work environments.  Sometimes, our field has a lot left to be desired in terms of professionalism with staff management.  But generally speaking, even with people we really do not get along with personally, we share a very deeply-rooted passion that labeled us total PsychoNerds in primary school.

I mean admit it, guys.  If I told you that in fourth grade, I did an “extra credit” report on killer whales…, I just out of nowhere asked Mrs. Dusa if I could do a report and presentation on killer whales…..and the class just stared at me like my face was roughly sculpted out of diarrhea, you would probably say, “OH MY GOD I HAD THE SAME EXPERIENCE IN THIRD GRADE ON MY HOOFSTOCK OF THE AFRICAN PLAINS REPORT.”
I don't even have ONE :(

Or how about all of the books we checked out at the library when we were kids? How we would walk in and the librarians would wilt in dread as we perused their pitiful Dolphin (or Whatever Animal You Are Obsessed With) section, frustrated that we uhhhhh already read all of those books in like a week, and when will Walden Elementary curate their cetacean reading to meet the standards of my needs?!

Then we get our first zoo job or internship, and realize that every single person on the staff is basically a PsychoNerd just like us.  In fact, your insane devotion to animal species X is completely normal.  It is not even mentioned.  In fact, in the dolphin world, some places avoid the label as “Dolphin Hugger” like hepatitis (but the most fun, well-managed dolphin places usually are total dolphin huggers and don’t deny it!).  You just show up to work like any ol’ job, hang out with your Favorite Critters, and then go home and eat whatever scraps you could afford at the grocery store and/or Big Lots.

God can't they just call it underwear?! Seriously.

So the type of relationship you form with your coworkers is really special…even with those you wouldn’t necessarily consider a friend outside of work.  And if you are a part of a really great team, I know that you probably laugh your proverbial balls off on a daily basis.

So what makes us laugh so heartily?  Well, obviously the animals do hilarious things.  Like the time Chubby, an older dolphin with a heart of gold and a brain of a dandelion, sat up IN FRONT OF HIS OWN SHADOW like that shadow was his trainer.  Like, this dude just popped up at a perimeter wall, saw his shadow, opened his mouth in anticipation of snacks, and started offering behaviors.  Lots of us were doubled-over laughing on that one.

Cute AND confusing

Or realizing that the drain in the otter exhibit (you know, the one that takes the toxic-waste-otter-leavings to some other god foresaken place) is completely blocked and there is otter crap building up and smelling and attracting fire ants?  And you try everything to unblock the drain, but the problem is the exhibit is not well-designed from a maintenance perspective so you can’t actually get to where the problem is…….

…..and then you discover the otters have been stuffing rocks, like zillions of freaking rocks from god knows where…..into the drain.  And when everything is unclogged and cleaned, you can laugh (and boy, we did).
The most scientifically accurate meme of an otter, right here for YOUR viewing pleasure

Wait wait wait, how about when during a sea lion show, when the narrator wasn’t talking and the audience was dead quiet, one of the sea lions released the wettest fart known to man, almost taking down her trainer with the odor that can only originate from the deepest, darkest bowels of pinnipeds?
True story, cows broke into a woman's home and enjoyed themselves

But we deal with ridiculous stuff that most people at most jobs would never even fathom.  How about when I was doing an interaction program and random tampons started floating in the water?  Or when I caused the entire two-story wetsuit-hanging shelving system to collapse?  

You guys can probably spit out a ton of stories of when you and your coworkers had laughing fits that made you want to throw up.  That is one of the most special things about our kind of job.  It is something to remember when you are working with someone who maybe isn’t your favorite.  Or when you are going through a tough time with whatever you’re dealing with at work.  There are valid reasons to be frustrated or angry sometimes, but it is never a bad thing to remind yourself that, in spite of how crazy we can make each other, our coworkers are literally laughing their asses off with you.  Routinely.  That is pretty. Darn. Lucky.