Sunday, June 25, 2017

Let's Get Some Shoes

Something happened to me a few days ago that inspired this week’s blog (with a little encouragement from Suzanne Smith...thank you!).  This event was both puzzling and frustrating, but it lead to some really great memories as I thought about which ones to populate this entry with. 
So what happened?  Well, someone stole my flip flops.

Yeah. You read that right.

The last couple of months I have been swimming laps a lot at the Y.  It’s felt AMAZING to get back in the water, even though it’s filled with a bunch of primates and not the animals I am used to seeing.  Regardless, it feels like coming home every time I slip into the water.

My routine involves a hot shower afterwards with temperatures nearing those found commonly on the surface of the sun, followed by a lazy walk back to my car (er, after I get dressed).  By the time I am done with my workout and shower, I’ve got such a delicious runner’s high that nothing can get me down.  That is, until Thursday when I realized my flip flops were missing.

Aaaaaand they're gone

Like, what the eff.  I don’t really think someone maliciously yoinked my shoes, but they were the only pair in the area AND they are pretty uh, worn.  They’re Sanuk yoga mat sandals, so they do a fantastic job at keeping my feet comfortable as well as soaking up all of the sweat and god-knows-what-else they routinely encounter from both my feet, and the substrate they walk on.  When I was moving from Fort Walton Beach to Baltimore, I furthered added to the uniqueness of said sandals by stepping enthusiastically on a gigantic, rusty nail sticking through a board (Home Alone style, people).  Not only was there a gigantic hole in the sole of that flip flop, but it absorbed a healthy amount of blood.  

Still, someone walked off with my skids, leaving me to walk barefoot out of the Y’s locker room like some kind of sopping wet hippie.   I felt sad.  I loved those shoes, because it’s hard to find shoes that are comfortable and last you a while through thick and thin. And you know what? Our work shoes are often like that.

Momma said they'd take me anyway-er

As a trainer, I worked within several different shoe worlds.  In some places, we were issued Tevas that could only be worn in animal areas. This was fortunate, because it meant it took longer for them to smell because we could not wear them all the time.  All other areas required white tennis shoes.  This was unfortunate because they smelled roughly 3 seconds after first wear, because it was in Miami where no quasi-sane person voluntarily dons close-toed shoes. Miami

At two other facilities, I got to wear flip flops or go barefoot. At two others, I wore close-toed boots for some or all of my day.  In all jobs, my shoes were tortured in unforgivable ways. But the flip flops? Those took the brunt of the beating.

The reason for this was because of the type of sandals one needs in order to work in an wet environment with big (dolphins, sea lions, seals) and/or potentially aggressive animals (otters, penguins).  Not only did they need to give you a good grip, they also needed to handle large amounts of fluids, not limited to salt water.  Bleach, chlorhexidine, Roccal, betadine, Bully or Comet, bird poop, otter poop and pee, sea lion poop/pee/molasses tar mouth stuff from hell, fish blood and oil, your own sweat, sunscreen, and -if you were lucky- the tears of tourists you caught red-handed breaking into an exhibit.

Check out those flip flops.  They broke one month later.

So your flip flops needed to be able to interact with many different matrices of liquid or semi-liquid substances AND still stay on your feet AND still keep you upright.  They also needed to dry quickly, so you didn’t come back to work the next morning, step into your flip flops and experience the foamy squish so many of us know and love.

And, because I really love all of you readers, I will not go into detail about how those shoes smelled.  Mostly because I am already throwing up on my keyboard.   BUT! Now that I am entering the world of forensic science, I wonder how like, if it’s worth suggesting that part of the proficiency test for serology and trace chemistry examiners is to take a marine mammal trainer’s shoes (preferably flip flops or absorbent water shoes) and decide what the hell is in them. 

I mean, would they have been able to tell that my black Sanuk’s were exposed to a delightful misting of semi-gaseous sea lion diarrhea?  Or how about when Dapper the penguin bit me directly on my lip and sliced it open, letting blood pour down my shirt and onto my shoes?  

I don’t know….but maybe I can use that as my thesis project this next year.

Oh, let me just mention how difficult it is to even find good work shoes nowadays.  Has anyone else noticed that the trend to produce cheaper and cheaper stuff has resulted in....

.....PLASTIC soles?

Uh, thanks for pretending to make those sandals slip-proof by slapping a nice-looking tread design on the bottom.  But try walking in those POS's on a sea lion deck and you're going down.

See ya later bye

So when you find a good source of work shoes that:

1) Do not smell
2) Maintain you in an upright position at most or all times
3) Do not remove the skin on your feet in uneven slices, one second at a time
4) Remain in tact for greater or equal to 8 weeks

Then you know you have in your possession, the single most precious object that suddenly makes Gollum seem rational.

So maybe it is this lingering feeling of Special Shoes It Took Forever To Find that made me so upset that my Sanuks went missing.   Even though I don't clean pinniped habitats for a living anymore, I still feel the raw emotion of a good pair of flip flops suddenly being no more.

Anyways, it sure would’ve felt more satisfying had someone stolen one of the many pairs of shoes I’ve worn in my dolphin trainer career, knowing that at some point the thief would’ve wondered why their front hallway (or wherever they keep their footwear) smelled like a pile of dead bodies.  Or why mushrooms are growing out of the hole in the sole.


How about you guys?  Let’s hear your best/worst work shoe stories!

Sunday, June 18, 2017

Have A Good Time, All Of The Time

At the very end of the glorious movie This Is Spinal Tap, the keyboardist Viv Savaged says, "Have a good time, all of the time.  That's my philosophy, Marty." 

Your philosophy goes to eleven.
That quote pops into my head frequently, especially when working with animals.  In fact, the other day at my forensics internship, some of the higher-ups stopped me to comment on my dolphin sleeve.  They asked what my inspiration was for it, and I told them that my former career was in marine mammal training.  Their response? “OH that must be such a fun job!”

I know that as zookeepers, we tend to be wary of how the general public sees us.  We do a job that appears to basically amount to what most people do on their weekends: hang out with their dogs, snuggle with their cats, send their parrots to attack their enemies, etc.  The point is, it looks like a lot of fun to do our job.  So much so, that we are often met with offensive lines of questioning dealing with our academic background (e.g. “Your job is not a real career”).  As a result, we have our own internal script regarding how professional our job is, the journey we took to get to where we are, AND the intense physical and emotional labor that frankly, not everyone can do.

Uh.  Yeah I'm gonna need a lot more than 50k to do that.

But there is another aspect to the zookeeping field that people don't tend to see until they've actually done it.  It can be boring.  It can be frustrating.  It is extremely repetitive in a lot of ways.  And you don't have the option of cutting corners, unless you’re a butthead who forgot that you're 100% responsible for the well-being of the animals in your care.  Zookeeping can, and does for many of us, become a “job”.

I wrote about this situation before, giving suggestions on how I have gotten through moments where I felt totally unmotivated (and here is an amazing guest writer who wrote about something similar!).  But I want to focus on one aspect of it that I feel sometimes gets forgotten or (worse) frowned upon, depending on your training philosophy.  

One of the aspects of a marine mammal training job is learning what motivates each individual animal, and using that to reinforce whatever you’re training or maintaining.  Somewhere along the timeline of operant conditioning of marine mammals, we as a field became oddly fixated on “primary” reinforcement as food.  An entire diet is used for the main reward for behavior.  In and of itself, this is fine as long as we are careful to not use its absence to correct or “motivate” animals to do something.**

Listen to MJ!

Technically, primary reinforcement as defined by its original definer B.F. Skinner as something that directly rewards the behavior it follows.  Secondary reinforcement is something that reinforces a behavior because it signals a primary reinforcer will be delivered.   But as dolphin trainers, we saw that as primary = food.  While that may be true for some animals (good LORD I have my fair share of stories of lunch box dolphins), that is not, in my opinion, an accurate interpretation of the definition.

Primary reinforcement can also be defined as “unconditioned” reinforcers.  That….can seriously be anything.  I worked with animals who were not food-motivated…including calves who were still nursing but would do anything for ice cubes and back rubs.  Some animals learn on their own how much fun certain toys are, without pairing it with a primary reinforcer.  Is a favorite toy of an animal a secondary reinforcer if it was never paired with primary? No.   It’s a primary.

This young man has tons of primaries. 

Dolphins ESPECIALLY are easily trained with non-food rewards.  I’ve worked with sea lion pups who had a faster learning rate and longer retention rate when frisbees were used as rewards versus big ass herring (which they chewed on and sometimes refused).  I know a lot of you reading this are nodding your heads in agreement.  

So why, when we get to the point in our job where we hit our first wall, is the first thing to go the BEST part of our job?  Why do we fall into the misled belief that our job is to chuck prescribed amounts of fish at gaping mouths in order to get through our show, interaction, or husbandry session?  Why are we looking at the clock as it inches towards the end of our shift?

There are a lot of complicated reasons why we get disillusioned, bored, or frustrated with our jobs.  But you know what? The animals in our care can’t know that.  They can’t receive less attention because of it.  And the easiest way to deal with this? PLAY.  PLAY. 

Have a good time, all of the time.

The fastest way I got out of a funk was to refocus my efforts on learning what the animals in my care actually dug.  Not what I thought they did, not what I was taught previously.  I used my background in behavioral analysis to understand that, if I am just limply flopping a basketball to a dolphin four inches from her face because I’m “using secondaries to be variable”, then I’m doing a major disservice to myself and (more importantly) the animal.  What if I try new things? Does this dolphin get PSYCHED when I hurl a football as far as I can?  Does this dolphin get extremely focused when I hide toys around the habitat?  If the answer was yes, then I knew what my reinforcement was. 

Plus, when I was playing with animals, I looked GREAT in photos

Most of the animals I’ve worked with (and with five facilities under my belt, I have had the honor of knowing many critters) LOVED. TO. PLAY.  It wasn’t the same with each of them, but it was very challenging to find an animal who did not become more attentive and motivated when I just effing played with them.  I kept my behavioral rules in place, I did not sacrifice my job as a trainer to be predictable and fair.  But I tossed aside the bizarrely dry concepts of food motivation and allegedly “scientific” behavioral interpretation (hint: it was not scientific assessment, just more anthropomorphic assumptions) and found more motivated animals, more consistent behavior, AND a happier trainer.

Life's too short and training's not as effective to not REALLY play :)

PLAY with your animals, guys.  You won’t regret it.  What is SO amazing about all of you is that you guys are super smart, you know your animals and the goals you have to achieve, so you know how to interpret this advice (if you find it valuable, of course).  Do your animals a favor and actually be variable.  Do your animals a favor and listen (er…watch) to what they are saying when you use a reinforcer.   Simply, have FUN.  You don’t owe anyone else an explanation about why you’re having fun in your job.  You earned your position, you work your balls off, you spend more time with your work family than your own, you are in school debt for a degree you needed for the “little summer job” you’ve made your career, and your main responsibility is to provide the highest quality of life to the animals you are lucky enough to care for.  HAVE FUN AND PLAY.  :)

* As an aside, one of the many overlaps I've discovered about dolphin training and forensic science is that my higher ups at my internship totally understand how public perception differs from how the job actually is.  Everyone thinks being a “CSI” is really just wearing sexy clothes and solving crimes in 45 minutes, so anyone involved with actual forensic science can probably relate to the plight of zookeepers in this way.

** If you are still doing this, STOP IT. 

Sunday, June 11, 2017

Reality Bites

Animals bite.

With aaaarms wide open

It's a fact of life that most people who share their lives with animals (professionally or as companions) will get bit by an animal.  As zookeepers, we spend a measurable portion of our guest interactions sharing this fact with people who appear to be surprised that the animals we care for bite...even in the case of top predators. 

What baffles me about the question is that people get bit by their pets all the time.  But what isn't so surprising is that I think many of us kind of cover up this fact when it happens.  We are okay talking about the theoreticals (e.g. "Well any animal with a mouth can bite") but when it REALLY happens, especially to US, it feels like The Worst Thing Ever.    

It was you

When people's pets bite, it's usually chalked up to an accident.  And sometimes, that is accurate.  Maybe you held a dog treat in a weird way, and as your ancient, sweet golden retriever goes to take it from your hand, her one remaining tooth grazes your fingernail or something.  Sometimes, your pet definitely bites you.  Like, a sun conure flies at your face and chews on your neck.  But you still call it an accident, or you sweep that story under the rug.  And then you roll up the rug, and throw it into a tar pit and light the entire thing on fire.

Sometimes, we professional animal people do the same thing.  Despite what animal rights extremists say, we don't usually "cover" anything up because we want to lie to the public.  Granted, I know that is sometimes the case, but not commonly.  Most of us are more than happy to talk to guests about the safety precautions we take when working with exotic animals....if only to discourage our guests from trying to interact with these animals in the wild, should they come across them.

No, most of us just feel really SAD when we get bit.  And mortified.  And insecure.


This extends to other forms of aggression, like pushing, fluking, charging, grabbing, whatever.  When an animal we think we have a great relationship with suddenly hurts us (or tries) the only reason we wouldn't want to talk about it is because....we are real sad.

For me, the best example of this was with Alvin, an old dude bottlenose dolphin I worked with at Marineland.  Alvin was one of my favorite animals.  He was in his mid 40s and if you didn't really work to get to know him, he was the archetypal Old Man that is ubiquitous in social mammals, humans included.  You know, totally crusty, only has two emotions ("Pissed" and "GIRRRRLS"), and doesn't give a crap that you exist.

He got multi-species action

BUT, there was something about this guy that I really liked.  And as I got to know him, I realized that he had a few things he really dug.  He liked footballs and pool noodles, especially if you got really into playing with them, not the limp-wristed, cursory play we sometimes fall into when we use toys as reinforcement (I mean come on, PLAY, people!).   He started soliciting attention outside of session, and I just fell completely in love.

Occasionally, our old boys would do shallow-water interactions.  They were pretty much the masters of the pool side encounters, but their long and varied history with water work provided some unique challenges when introducing guests in the water (namely, they had no interest in just sitting still with a bunch of tourists).  By the time I worked there, the boys were pretty good at shallow-water programs, but still did them sparingly since they didn't really seem to dig them as much as the girls and younger guys.

Look at that handsome stud in the center.  This was in the mid-80s

So okay, we wind up with three calves born at the same time.  Awesome, right? YES.  But not so awesome when you're an interaction facility, and the calves are born in June which is just at the beginning of an insanely busy summer season.  That meant we needed to rotate the boys through to shallow-water programs more than we typically would, so the other non-mom dolphins wouldn't have to do all the programs for three months.

I took Alvin a lot during that time.  And I was having fun.  I thought Alvin was, too.  There were toys.  There was new training.  The guests had fun, and I had fun.  Alvin was going nuts for his footballs.  So I started doing some new things.  I started swimming alongside him in the water (I was still on a ledge).  He seemed to be really into that....I chalked it up to his old show days.   He became very attentive and solicited more tactile.  His behavior became crisper when I used the swim-alongs as reinforcement. 

Everything is cool when you do swim-alongs

And then one day, at the end of a program as I sent my guests walking out of the habitat, I floated in hip-deep water and let my feet float towards Alvin.  I was talking to the guests as they ascended up the zero entry beach, letting them know I would be right behind them and where they could put their life jackets.  As I turned back to Alvin, BAM.  He rushed at me and grabbed my left calf with his mouth, chomped down, and pulled his jaw down the length of my leg.  After he let go, he stared at me with his head under the water.  I don't even remember now what I did, but I got out and saw a giant rake mark down my leg.  His teeth were very worn down, so it was a very superficial injury.  Had his teeth been sharp, that would've been gnarly.

But what hurt most? My feelings.  I know there are trainers out there moaning right now, and shame on you.  We say we spend so much of our time cultivating relationships with the animals under our care, and yet we deny the very normal emotions that come along with that, in good times and in bad.

Maybe I should just quit and become a forensic scientist

I thought I was completely wrong about my rapport with Alvin.  Why would he do that to me? I thought we had something special.  But if we did, he would never have bit me. If I was a good trainer, that wouldn't have happened.  I couldn't hide what happened, because I had a moral and ethical obligation to tell the rest of the team what happened.  But I was totally embarrassed.  This would just prove that the connection I felt with Alvin was all in my head.

But you know what? No. 

I looked back at what I had done that session and leading up to his aggressive act.  I got cocky.  I took my attention away from him, meaning I couldn't read his body language, or any precursors where he might have told me, "Cat, STOP.  I don't like this."  I just let my feet float up in his face, turned myself away from a longer period of time than I normally would, and ignored him.  I don't know what was going on in his head, but I do know that how I acted that day was not consistent whatsoever with how I normally interacted with him.

Preach, Kurt.

Several weeks later, he had more aggressive incidents with a few other trainers....and come to find out, he had lost a significant amount of vision in one eye.  This vision loss was severe and while dolphins do not need their eyesight to do their dolphin thing, it was not an easy change to deal with, especially when none of the trainers were aware of it until it was visually obvious.

I realized how selfish I was being.  First, it isn't all about ME when an animal bites.  Are there things that I did or didn't do that contribute to that? Yes.  Sometimes, those things are 99% of the reason why an animal aggresses.  Other times, I am just in the wrong place at the wrong time.  Second, aggression is communication.  It is the last effort to convey a really serious (at least in the animal's mind) problem.  That might mean you as a trainer are not listening.  It also might mean the animal has experienced something so out of their comfort zone that they are not using their normal, rational brain.  Third, aggression is almost always a two-way street.  The animal bite you, yes, but you played a role in that, big or small. 

Lastly, my relationship with Alvin placed me in a prime spot for aggression.  How?

Think about it.  Who in your life hurts you the most?  Who are you the most comfortable around, where you say things that you wouldn't necessarily say to others?

Alvin telling me all of his deepest secrets, which mostly had to do with lady dolphins

The people you have close relationships with are on the front lines of aggression, passive or active.  And there is no difference with animals.

Don't get me wrong, I understand there are situations where an animal will aggress on caretakers who they don't know well.   What I'm saying is, when an animal with whom you have a close relationship bites you or charges you, it doesn't mean your relationship is worthless.  It means you need to reassess what you have been doing and be honest about if it is working or not.  It means you need to not make excuses for the animal and take the aggression seriously, for consistency sake.  Sometimes, it might mean that what you were doing was NOT good for that particular animal.

Also, please understand that I am not diminishing the seriousness of these situations.  I am in no way encouraging people to get excited about being bitten or pushed or charged, nor do I think it is something we should be light-hearted about.  Aggression is not fun, and it is something we strive to eliminate, and it can be extremely dangerous.  Even when it isn't dire, it is something that embarrasses and scares us. Setting aside really bad aggression (like, threatening life and limb), getting superficially hurt by an animal is a message, if you listen to what the animal is saying.  It is a gift if you can set aside that primal reaction of humiliation, defensiveness, or broken heartedness.  It is an opportunity, just like the drop down drag out fights you have among your loved ones, to learn from one another.  That is what intimacy is.  It is seeing each other in your very best and very worst, and accepting all of it. 


In closing, biting needs to be taken seriously from a safety and behavioral perspective.  But in most cases, it does not automatically mean you are insane for thinking you have a good relationship with an animal.  In fact, having a good relationship doesn't mean you will never get usually means the opposite*.

* Unless you work with otters, whose personalities suddenly freeze and recede deep within themselves, leaving nothing but pure physical otterness that will express itself via horrific biting.  

Sunday, June 4, 2017

Life After Zookeeping, Part 1

Last week, I went to the Maryland Zoo.  That was a significant trip for a few reasons:


1.  It was my first time to the zoo since I moved here over a year ago
2.  It was the first time my daughter could actually identify the animals and gave s*** about them
3.  It was the first time I've been to a zoo or aquarium since I left the field in October

It's the last point I want to make this week's blog about.

I remember long before I got into the field, I read the book Lads Before The Wind by Karen Pryor.  It quickly became one of my favorites, but there was one part that really bothered me.  It's when she talks about returning to Sea Life Park after she left, seeing the animals she spent so much time with, and concluding that she really didn't miss them that much. 

How. Is. That. Even. Possible.

It struck fear in my heart then, and for the entire duration of my career.  I couldn't understand how anyone could not instantly weep at the thought of leaving the animals they love so much.  Now, as I progressed through my career, I learned that every keeper has their own, personal way of processing their emotions when it came to leaving the animals in their life.  So I am not in any way saying that the only appropriate response is to ugly cry.

But what I struggled with was how someone could leave not just the animals, but the field in general, and not be totally wrecked.  Worse, what if you left the field and just became apathetic?  Like you look fondly back at parts of your career, but overall you don't really care.

No arguments here, Wednesday.

My decision to switch careers was one that was made over several years.  The new path was distilled over many, many oscillations of insecurity and confidence regarding my future in the marine mammal community.  When I made the choice, it was something I knew was right....but it was still fraught with anxiety.

My style of dealing with heartbreak is usually to just completely cut off whatever it is that is hurting me.  So I basically avoided zoological institutions, because I was afraid I would either feel like I was totally shattered at not being directly connected to animals and the zoo world, or (again WORSE) that I would just be like, "Oh, I don't miss this at all."

Enter Maryland Zoo.  I was terrified, and I don't think anyone knew that even as we walked through the gates. 

Maryland Zoo is GORGEOUS.  It is surrounded by incredibly lush forest, its layout takes you through winding paths of towering trees.  The exhibits are amazing, from an animal care/wellness perspective but also from an educational and conservation standpoint.  It is one of the best zoos I have gone to.  Its overall design and layout were enough to distract me for a while from my insecurity.

This photo from Trip Advisor shows the awesome walk to the exhibits

But then we got to the African penguin habitat (OH MY GOD. Amazzzzzzzing), and things changed.  I saw a few penguins molting, looking like physical representations (or blobs) of crabbiness.  I heard their hilarious "wooohhhhh" calls, smelled a smell that used to knock me backwards when I worked at Gulfarium, and -as my daughter pointed out with much delight- watched the penguins poop ("poot" if you're my 2 year old) in the water.  My kid went nuts.  And I said without thinking, "Hey, mom used to work with this type of penguin!"

Suddenly, I noticed a penguin that looked a lot like one of the ladies I used to care for (Zeut, for anyone reading this who knows the Gulfarium flock).  The combination of speaking allowed the since-past part of my life with marine animals with seeing a penguin who reminded me of another one made me suddenly really sad.  

You know what it felt like? It felt like a break up, a few months or whatever afterwards, where someone brings up the name of your ex and you think you're over him/her but you quickly realize that there is still a noticeable pang in your heart.  You have a feeling like, you know it's okay that it is over, but at the same time it feels like you are missing something really important.  You don't feel whole.

What relief!

It also feels like you are no longer a part of this amazing society anymore.  Do any other former keepers feel this way?  Like duh, obviously you're not actually employed by a zoo or aquarium, but that unspoken connection between zoo folk only seems to be reserved for people actively in the field (not a criticism, just an observation about my own feelings on the subject).  And it isn't because people who are still in zoo jobs make you feel that way.  It's just something that happens in your own brain.
Man, this entry is getting a little heavy.  The good news is, my trip to the Maryland Zoo did not go downhill from that point.  I mean, I saw a baby giraffe.  It is medically impossible to feel sad when you see a giraffe cafe.  But I also got to overhear some pretty great guest comments.  These were made even better by the fact that the zoo was having its Brew At The Zoo event, so some of these people had imbibed malted adult beverages.  I am pleased to share with you some of these quotes.

Overheard by the grizzly and polar bear exhibits

"Remember the guy who feel in the polar bear exhibit? He was drunk or something and he fell in and the bear ate him. I think.  Or he escaped.  The man, not the bear.  Maybe I am making it up."

I...don't know.

An exchange between two very drunk people watching two spurred tortoises uh, doing what tortoises do best

Man: Doesn't this remind you of something?
Woman: The tortoise and the hare!
Man: No. Something else
Woman: Oh...oh! 
Man: Like...Jordis? No. Uh...
Woman: OH! Jordan and Cher!!!
Man: No....oh!! Jack and Diane!


A woman who basically appeared at every exhibit we were at (could not establish her level of sobriety) uttered the following nonsense in a very calm, matter-of-fact tone: 

At the penguin habitat

"I wish they would like let the penguins fight each other like for mates.  So they could tear each other up."

At the cheetah exhibit

"I wish they would like put a rabbit in there and let them tear it up."

Okay, just go away.

These moments of levity, the awesome exhibits and general cool vibe of the zoo definitely helped me process my not-so-great feelings.  Maryland Zoo guys are doing a great job, at least from my perspective.

The thing is, I do really miss working with the animals I've come to know and love.  I also miss a lot of humans currently in or long since retired.  Despite this, I am still really excited about my new direction.  It feels like it was the right time to jump off.  And I am okay.  I am happy, even though I still feel a hole in my heart where the animals were. 
For all former keepers (or anyone seriously considering switching careers), what has your experience been?