Sunday, April 30, 2017

Hi! I'm Back!


Oh god, it's been so long.  So first: I AM SO SORRY.

I'm on my knees! Or sitting in a swivel chair.  

Second, there's a reason I took a hiatus....and then continued to write and rewrite the next blog....and then procrastinated.

So first let me thank two dear friends who have been actively involved in marine mammal training for helping me get this latest blog out to the universe.  It was seriously like a gigantic poop that needed to come out, but just wouldn't no matter how many trips to the ol' W.C. it took. (Look, you are all zookeepers so I feel like you can handle this analogy.)

God that feels good

For those of you who don't know, I left the field to pursue the equally amazing field of forensic science.  Yes, I voluntarily put myself in FAFSA debt so I could hopefully one day be gainfully employed dealing with delicious science.  Mostly, I just wanted a lab coat and to use pipettes every day. 

Anyways, I've been working hard at getting my M.S. in forensic science.  I LOVE it but it has completely taken over my life.  And I've been doing a lot of thinking about the marine mammal community....what it was like to leave it, what it's like to be on the outside, and what overlap there'll be in my new chosen field with the old one.  There are a few things I want to talk about.

The pipe really drives it home

First, some of the reason why it took me so long to publish this blog is because - honestly- I was pretty angry.   Was it at animal rights activists?  Or did I turn anti-captivity?

Candy is dandy, but liquor is quicker.  ...but candy. 

No and no.  While there have been a few incidents that have really upset me that have had to do with animal rights extremists (Vancouver Aquarium, anyone?), the thing that really hurt me was the belief some of you had that I "went to the other side."  That sentiment started happening around the time I started at National Aquarium, and it seems like it kind of spiraled into a sad little story.

It doesn't have to be this way

So let's just make sure you all know, I am NOT anti-zoo.  You know what I am? I am pro-animal, like all of you.  I believe in the incredible work that many zoos and aquariums do.   Those are the places that put their animals first, and the ones who are willing to take feedback (no matter how critical) and use it to make themselves better.  That was something I thought I'd find at National Aquarium; they want to do something different for their animals.  And you know what? Their dolphins are AMAZING.  Their vet and training staff are some of the most dedicated I've ever seen, both towards the animals and towards the staff.  I thought it was a really cool idea to think about building a state of the art facility for the animals. 

Here's something really interesting I've come across since starting my new journey: the forensic science field -especially fingerprint and firearms comparison- has been pretty heavily scrutinized by not just the media, but institutions like the National Institute for Justice.  I mean, reading this stuff made me think, "Oh my god, the marine mammal community knows what this feels like."  It's the same song you guys know: a combination of smart people and people with strong opinions but with basically no real world experience make some pretty sweeping, damning statements about things they really don't seem to understand.

Because I has strongish feelings

But what's interested me the most in this parallel situation is not so much how the criticism (or its delivery...including documentaries, websites, official reports, etc.) is similar.  It's how drastically different the forensic science community handled (handles?) it as compared to the marine mammal community.

I love you guys, seriously.  But what we collectively are not doing very well is responding scientifically to our critics.  Yes, I know a handful of you have, which is awesome. But collectively, we still basically dig our heels in the sand and declare that we are the "experts"....without actually acting like experts in our response to our critics.

If you're super mad at that last paragraph, you're proving my point.  We have a really distracting emotional response to Blackfish, Ric O'Barry, or the disgruntled guest who thinks our dolphins should have bigger habitats.  We respond with buzz words, but not with empirical evidence.  Let's look at an example I encountered quite a bit at one of my former facilities.

When we were discussing building a larger habitat for the dolphins, who live in a 60 year old exhibit, these are actual replies we got from those who had the power to change the situation:

"There's no evidence supporting the notion that larger habitats are better for dolphins."

"Saying you want a bigger dolphin habitat is what an animal rights activist would say."

"Saying we need a better habitat means the one we have is not adequate, and it's plenty adequate.  It far exceeds the USDA requirements."

Look what we did to this poor pup

Sigh.  Okay.  Do you see the problem yet?  I know some of you do, because I've talked to you on the phone, via email, or in person about this issue.  And it seems to be pretty standard at most (not all!!) places.  And the problem seems to be a combination of the following:

1) Lots of newer generation trainers do not tend to agree with management in terms of ethics of habitats, treatment, and focus of their animal programs.

2) Saying there is no evidence supporting that larger habitats are better is....a circular argument.  There is no evidence because there is very little true research on this topic.  Guys, that doesn't count.  YES of course there are quantifiable facts we can share with the world; bottlenose dolphins tend to live well past their average life span in human care.  They reproduce very well.  That is a testament to great care, but it is not the same as saying we have "research" to prove our habitats are the best they can be.  

To be fair, we have cranked out a LOT of fantastic veterinary/physiological research.  We even have a good chunk of cognitive research out there, which is fantastic.  But we need more behavioral and "welfare" research.  We need to define how we scientifically define wellness, and then measure that within our various populations.  

Marry me.

You know what forensic science did when they got nailed on not having enough true research?  When a Obama's presidential committee said, "Uh, your science like, isn't valid and you don't have any research to prove it"?  They did research.   They said, "We really disagree with this statement, raaaahhh we are so mad!! WE ARE SO MAD WE ARE TOTALLY GONNA DO RESEARCH TO SHOW YOU!" and they did.  There was an EXPLOSION of research and publications.  And many of these institutions did not have a lot of funding.  They had to apply for grants, or do some magical things with their budgets.  They knew they had to make it happen not just for their critics, but for their field of discipline as well.

Let me tack on here that one common argument against conducting research in marine mammal facilities I've encountered a lot is that we don't have time in between shows and interactions.  I understand we have to make money to spend it on the animals. But that cannot be the end of the conversation. If we want to make our animal care the best it can be, and we call ourselves experts in a scientific field, we HAVE to make time for research. That means we have to get creative with our daily programming.  Other places have done this successfully, and there are a lot of really smart, creative people in this field.  If you are not interested in finding time to do research, then let people on your team who are motivated to do so find a way.  It is absolutely possible in most cases. 

Everything I've ever learned, I've learned from Will Ferrel movies

3) Wanting something NEW and "better" does not automatically mean you suck right now.  Change is a good thing.  Change is not giving in to animal rights activists.  It's being the zoological scientists we are and saying, "Hmm, this aspect of our care is going well.  But this one isn't.  Or it could be better."

Be like Rafiki. 

Lastly, I think it's important to be careful how we handle trainers and zookeepers who have these different ideas.   It's not as simple as "if you're not with us, you're against us."  SO many of you guys have told me that's how you feel it is.  Many of you have left jobs hoping to find a place that shares your morals when it comes to marine mammal care.  Many of you say you're sticking around where you work so you can work your way up the ladder to get into a position to change things.  Many of you bite your tongue because you don't want to be labeled as an animal rights activist.  I totally get that, because I've been in that position too.

For example, one of the biggest criticisms I heard about National Aquarium's decision?  That the dolphins would be put in sea-pens.  Sea pens.  Like, the kind they have at Dolphin Quest.  DRC.  The Navy.  Okay, are we sure that we don't like sea pens?


Wait, maybe we don't like animals going from a manmade environment to natural sea water.  How we will acclimatize the animals?  Um, why don't we ask those questions when we transport dolphins from similar conditions? From natural and/or outdoor habitats to indoor, manmade ones and vice versa? Guys, we do this ALL the time.   I've literally dumped a dolphin who made a transcontinental transport into a pool with two other male dolphins with zero acclimation.  He was fine.  The others were fine.  

What I'm saying is, we can't just freak out because a facility decides to try something different.  Our arguments become really emotional, and really hypocritical.  UNLESS.  Unless we say, "Hey, you know what, maybe if we're uncomfortable with transport protocol, we should collectively study this.  And you know what? Let's pair up with that place we're not totally in agreement with to work together to gather some information, swap some ideas." 

But not on Saturdays.

But we keep getting hung up on "letting the activists win" or "we have to stick together" and shut down new ideas.  Guys.  Stop.  The marine mammal community has got bigger goals to achieve.  We've got to look at our facilities and say, "Let's do some research" and "What's working really well here...and what's really NOT."  We have got to stop criticizing other facilities for stupid things like....maintaining natural social groups, phasing out shows, whatever.  Those facilities are not dolphin huggers or weaklings who caved to Blackfish.  Those facilities are managing their animals a) the way most zoos manage their natural situations and b) those facilities are cranking out some amazing research.  Let's not make fun of them.  What are they doing that is working?  It may not be exactly what you want to do, and that is okay.  What's even more okay is sharing info with each other without passing harsh, sophomoric judgment. 

Come on! Let's have some fun! Let's dream!!! What is YOUR dream facility? What kinds of things would you do there?  Start really asking yourself those questions, no matter what level you are.  And if you're in a managerial level, be open to new ideas.  Those are what make us BETTER.  They are not dangerous.  And let's do some RESEARCH guys!!! Get those training brains to work: if you love research, design some ideas.  If you hate the idea of research but love training, you've got endless opportunities to train some amazing behaviors.    Oh my god, there are so many incredible things you can do.  I know a lot of I can only imagine what you guys can do with a little support from your institution.

With a gif like Bill Murray, you know I'm serious. 

I've got some cool content coming up, and some interesting forensic-y stuff, too.  So this isn't the end of the Middle Flipper, it just needed a breather.  Thanks for sticking with me! I heart you guys, no matter if you agree with this blog :). Feel free to reach out to me if you need to talk, whether you're supportive of my opinion or you want to have a mature discussion exploring our different perspectives!