Sunday, July 30, 2017

Photo Evidence, Zoos, and YOU

You guys, I just realized something.

I know that I have never really been firmly in the "All Zoos Are Good Zoos" camp, and I have also never been in the anti-zoo camp, either.  But generally speaking, I am pro-zoo/aquarium, provided the animals' well-being is truly the first priority, and not just a talking point we throw out to our guests.

I also like to think that I am a critical thinker in most scenarios, except at most mealtimes.  Like, some people lose their inhibitions after a certain amount of alcohol is consumed, but pretty much the sight of mac and cheese renders me completely unable to process any further external stimuli.

But I digress.  In many instances, I try to take what I read with a grain of salt, even if I am of the same opinion as the author.  I am definitely not perfect at this, but I actively try.  I also feel like I am a pretty introspective person, come hell or high water.  I could do a 593-part blog series on my character flaws and still have content to write. 

So imagine my terror and surprise when I read the most recent "Check Out These Photos Of Sad Animals In Zoos" articles, thinking I would see the same-old images, and feel the same-old "yeah but..." feelings.  Except, this time, I had a totally different reaction.

Unfortunately, I realized that my entire life has been a lie.  What I thought was real, well, isn't.  In fact, as I read the article, images in my OWN life popped into my mind and I wondered, "My GOD, have I been blind to the Truth all of this time?"

Let me show you what I mean.

I thought my daughter was a human being.  But here is irrefutable photographic evidence that she is actually a candy corn.  HOW COULD I BE SO BLIND.  

Some of these Truths are not necessarily bad.  Some of them are pretty cool.  The more I searched through the photos of my life, the more I found.

Did you know I was a Ghostbuster?

Photo. Proof.

And that I am married to Chris Hemsworth?
He is the luckiest.

Oh! Oh and that I killed one of my previous coworkers?

Far right.  I'm a homicidal maniac.

I was in the Russian ballet for a while.

GOD I look good in a tiara.

Okay, let's be serious for a second.  This anti-zooish article I am talking about has some photos of things I think we would all agree are not really best practices.  Like the image of a gray seal with balloons around his exhibit?  F-

But the point of the article obviously focuses the reader's attention on a very slim perspective.  There are a lot of what I think are helpful positions on this topic, even if they are contrary to what many of us would agree with.  There are a few great rebuttals to this article, so I won't go into more depth on this topic.  But there is one photo I wanted to point out.

This is Jo-Anne McArthur's photo of a giraffe in a German zoo, located next to an Ikea.
It's hard to reason that, ideally, a captive giraffe would have nothing but savannah to look at in his/her top-notch zoo exhibit.  Or, like other fantastic zoos without limitless funds, have a great exhibit surrounded by native trees.  But the fact is, animals in the wild encounter manmade shenanigans all the time....and usually in a sinister setting.   That is not to say that one should change their opinion based on ONE photo, but I think all of us animal lovers (pro-zoo or not) could agree that there is a serious need for conservation outreach....the majority of which happens in zoos.

The famous (infamous?) photo of wild orcas with a delightful industrial backdrop

Many of us know that the facilities we work at or support do literally everything possible to ensure the animals under our care live happy, healthy lives.   Many of us get really upset when we see articles showing unfavorable aspects of our (well, now YOUR) livelihood and life's work. 

But instead of just rebutting the article, or sharing it on Facebook, we can't stop there.  We also can't immediately reject these kinds of opinions, because there is an element of truth to them in some situations.  We are concerned with animal rights activists taking hold of our field and destroying it.  But I think many of us also know that not all zoos are created equally.  Some of us work in places that we know needs change, but are too afraid (or exhausted) to bring up our ideas. 

Use the negative press as a catalyst for debate amongst OURSELVES.  We do not need to be united on every aspect; we need the freedom to engage in thoughtful critique of our animal management methodologies, exhibit design, training philosophy, and staff development.  The places that do some or all of these things well often have a lot to contribute.  The places that do not have these things well-organized often are chalk full of passionate, intelligent zookeepers just bursting at the seams to implement some amazingly positive change.  We are already pro-zoo, but that doesn't mean we are anti-change.  Talk to each other.

Whoa. Got a little heavy there, didn't it? 

Let's leave it on some more AMAZING and NEVER BEFORE SEEN photographs that will just totally turn your world upside-down.

You're welcome.

Sunday, July 23, 2017

Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Days: Part 1

There are a number of causes of Bad Days At Work, even for a seemingly glamorous job like a zookeeper.


Okay, please tell me why it's okay to refer to septic systems as honey pots (hint: "irony" is not an acceptable answer)

The general public probably thinks our bad days entail at least one of the following components:

  1. Poop
  2. Getting a light sunburn
  3. Animal deaths
  4. Not getting licked (or whatever behavioral sign of affection innate to the animal in your care) enough

But really, the only item on that list that really makes a horrendous day is #3, which is not what I am going to focus on in today’s blog.

No, I am going to focus on those really horrible, no good, bad days that pop up out of nowhere and rain chaos and sorrow DESPITE nobody being really sick or dying. 
*raises hand*

In fact, let’s revisit a list of potential Bad Day contributors.  I would like to amend it slighty.  Bad Days for me consist of:

  1. Getting poop directly in facial orifices (yes, I had to specify)
  2. Scuba diving in three feet of stagnant water that is filled with dolphin poop and algae and has not been filtered or otherwise moved in THREE DAYS OH GOD I AM ALREADY BARFING JUST THINKING ABOUT IT
  3. Lip sunburn.  It’s a thing.  And it’s a thing that haunts your every meal for months
  4. Animal deaths, obviously :(
  5. Getting bitten, fluked, charged, or taken on a lengthy Tour Of The Underwater Drains by a sea mammal larger and smarter than me
  6. Fire ants.
  7. Fire ants trapped in my bathing suit
  8. Being in relatively unsafe conditions, like getting wrapped in a net underwater that resulted in someone’s finger being pulled off
  9. Bringing a really dumb lunch

The list goes on.
Sad, sad little lunch

But one of the the worst non-animal-related days of my animal career was at the very beginning.  And I'm writing about it now, because I think you'll get a laugh, AND I am no longer in the field, AND I am pretty sure the statute of limitations will cover any unintentionally illegal component of this story.  

This day was the day I Almost Killed A Bunch Of People With Scuba Tanks. 

When I was at my first place of employment, I had the pleasure of wielding a “pickup truck” during fish delivery in the mornings.  I say wielding because to use the verb “drive” in this context is entirely misleading.  Also, this vehicle was, in a previous life (roughly 29 zillion years ago) a pickup truck.  By the time I encountered it, it was basically a pile of rusted metal on four-ish wheels that ran on Black Magic and an engine trying to die .
Oh! Here it is!

My department was responsible for removing frozen flats of fish from the thaw room and delivering it to every marine mammal department in the park.  This meant loading thousands of pounds of frozen fish into the bed of this Death Truck and somehow, through consistent religious practice, getting it to move from points A to B to C and D without losing too many parts and/or lives.

Because this event happened early in the morning before the park opened, and it was not operated on any actual roads, the task of handling the truck was done with light-hearted humor and a mixture of terror that you would get thrown into the steering wheel because the driver seat did not actually fix into one position.  It slid forwards and backwards with little outside force, but I was not a physicist and figured this was an old truck and/or a poltergeist was involved.

We oft joked about what it would be like to drive The Truck on the real road.  Yes, the driver seat slid like a rowing machine.  Yes, there were no side view mirrors.  The brakes didn't always work when you thought they would (such as when you hit the brake pedal).  The engine made a noise akin to a wolverine being skinned alive but generally did what you asked it too, like drive 5 mph.  I mean, I think it was 5mph, because the speedometer didn't work.  But the best part about this glorious vehicle was its tail gate fell off when it was met with force from three or more atoms moving against any part of it.
Yeah.  If you sold five of these fish house trucks, you still couldn't afford a footlong sub at Subway.

The tail gate issue was not a huge deal during fish truck delivery, because you drove really slowly with the fish boxes piled in the back.  But we all wondered, what would happen if you drove this truck at highway speed?  

And then, I found out.

My then-boss asked me to take empty scuba cylinders to a dive shop a few minutes away from the aquarium, and then return with several filled ones.  They asked me to do this with a coworker of mine (who shall herein be referred to as Famous Coworker, since he knew every celebrity and was on the Real World several years later) , who had been at the park roughly 8 months longer than me and had done this before.  

Long story short, when we asked 1) how many tanks we were to be transporting and 2) HOW we would get them there, we were met with these answers (in corresponding order):

  1. I don’t know, maybe 10?
  2. The fish house truck

Oh, but they were.

We both stood in stunned silence.  This was not the type of workplace where you could easily share your grievances, but we figured we heard wrong.  Surely, there must be another truck.  One that is fit for highway travel.  One that has a speedometer or mirrors or something.

Nope, nope, nope.  It was The Truck.  And they saw no reason not to take it, they just said to drive it slow (the highway we needed to take was…um, a highway). Plus, they reasoned, it wasn't very far.

Famous Coworker offered to drive his new truck, since it had enough room.  No, no, our boss insisted. The fish truck was fine, they used it last week for this purpose and everything was fine.  Just DO IT.

Now I know what you reasonable people are thinking.  WHY, oh WHY didn't you just assert yourselves?  Why would you voluntarily get into such a terrible Death Car knowing that it was a huge safety risk?  I can only say, I was 22, terrified of most management, and believed I wouldn't knowingly be asked to do something really unsafe.

So off Famous Coworker and I go, to pick up the tanks.  We chuckled while pooing our pants the first time the tail gate fell off at the security booth as we loaded up the tanks.  We had nothing to secure them with, but were instructed by senior staff to just stack them “real tight” in the bed of the truck.  We had just the right number to wedge them into a sort of pyramid (the tanks were on their sides, because you know, for safety), and we were given a few cinder blocks to keep them in place, just to be Extra Safe.
This is slightly more safe than what we had going for us

I had to drive (another long story), so I drove at about 7mm per hour (yes, millimeters) through the parking lot.  My heart was pounding in my chest as I turned out of the parking lot onto the busy highway that would take us to the dive shop.  I would’ve put the hazards on, because I was driving so slowly and was just convinced at any minute, the tail gate would fall off.  But you know, those hazard lights didn’t work!  What an adventure!

However, we made it to the dive shop a couple of miles away without any drama.  We unloaded the empties, and began grabbing the full tanks.  We realized quickly that there were a different number of tanks we would be bringing back…which meant they would not fit tightly together in the bed of the truck.  Famous Coworker and I worked hard to figure out how to secure the tanks, but at least three of them would roll around a little between cinder blocks.  Still, the dive shop worker told us we should just drive “kinda slow” but that we would be okay.
A visual mantra for marine mammal trainers everywhere

So we get into the truck.  I slowly make a wide loop in the dive shop parking lot, preparing for a left-hand turn onto a highway which has a 45mph speed limit but a common speed of roughly E=MC2.  I figured that if something bad was going to happen, it would happen in that turn.   I gripped the steering wheel tightly, bracing myself for the front seat to do its slidey thing and praying that the brakes would work if I needed.  I took a deep breath, eased my foot onto the accelerator, turned the steering wheel and….

….turned successfully (albeit very, very slowly) onto the highway.  I drove maddeningly slow about 3/4ths of the way back to the aquarium, all without incident.  Then, I saw the turn lane back into the aquarium parking lot up ahead.  I wanted to get into the left left earlier than I normally would, because I didn't want to make any sudden stops or accelerate too quickly if I waited too long to make the turn.  I especially didn't want to bust a U.  

I got into the left lane, silently apologizing to the cars that would quickly approach me and probably curse me and several generations of my family for operating a vehicle at speeds that are almost legally allowable for justifiable homicide.   

We were inching along, the turn lane now in sight, and

****Trigger warning for Dive Safety Officers: you will have a heart attack if you read any further*******







Swearing is necessary for this

The tanks are scattered and bouncing and rolling everywhere and I start to stop right where I am but before the car stops Famous Coworker lets out this banshee death scream and he is out the door running across a HIGHWAY towards these bouncing, FULL scuba tanks, and he is still screaming and I am also screaming and I am pretty sure someone is going to die.

I get out of the car and yell some swear words as I run towards some tanks, running on pure adrenaline and stupidity, and help Famous Coworker pick them up, help reattach the tail gate (we had had plenty of practice with that) and then we get back into the truck and stare at each other.

“We are going to get fired,” Famous Coworker said.

I don't even remember what I said, if anything.  I was pissed.  I was terrified.  We could’ve killed someone.

As I pull into the park, I see one of the park operations managers standing near the back entrance, waving us down, red in the face.  He yelled at us for spilling scuba tanks on the highway.  I yelled at him for not having a proper vehicle to pick up tanks, like actually YELLED, and then I drove away before he could speak.
Arnold gets it

We unloaded the tanks, several of them hissing now, trying to alert whoever (??) would be in charge of making sure they didn't explode.  I unloaded my anger and fear to everyone I could find, boss or not, unable to contain myself.  The only response I really remember was hearing from another senior person that they were surprised I was allowed to take the fish house truck on the highway, because the same thing happened to other trainers a few weeks ago, but it happened to them in a parking lot.

This was the first time in my life I totally understood the phrase “spitting mad”.  I was pissed at myself for not standing up for what I KNEW was a bad idea.  I was pissed at my bosses, and their bosses.  I literally could not do anything except breathe occasionally and wonder why, in this heightened state of ire, I was literally producing 39 times the amount of saliva I normally do.  Swallowing was the only task I could focus on, because otherwise I would’ve just drooled all over myself which made me think people might not take me seriously and/or would just have me euthanized.

The experience was definitely a lesson learned; safety takes priority, no matter how intimidated you are ( if the intimation is real, OR if it’s just in your head).  I am really relieved that nobody was hurt, and that I was lucky enough to just take away from it a crazy story and a life lesson.  And also I have somehow avoided prison.

Sunday, July 16, 2017

To The Maryland Zoo Team

Oh, Maryland Zoo people....I am so sorry.


For those of you who don't know, Maryland Zoo has had two giraffe births within the past few months.  The latest, a male named Julius, was born on June 15th.  What happened afterwards is a story that so many of us have experienced, but have a lot of trouble not only processing internally, but expressing to people who have no idea what it is like to care for animals in this way.

Our critics often take opportunities where animals are ill, injured, or dying to rake us over the coals.  Most people, even those who do not necessarily support zoos or aquariums, are decent human beings who do NOT leave heartless, cruel Facebook comments about these situations.  However, it is the small minority of thoughtless people who make what is already an incomprehensible loss into a horrendous nightmare.

What a great idea! Everyone is doing it!

In the case of the little giraffe calf, his story played out in a way I think many of this blog’s readers will relate to.  He was born to a loving, doting mother but for whatever reason, Julius did not nurse successfully.  This is not an unusual situation in both captive and wild mammals, especially with mammals whose childhoods are long investments of maternal care. 

When nursing doesn't go as planned in these animals, animal care professionals must weigh their options on how to proceed.  Some facilities choose to let nature take its course, which is of course what happens….in nature.  That is not “good” or “bad”.  Nature is what nature is, it does not care one way or the other how the story ends.  And some well-respected zoological communities feel that it is in the animals’ best interest to experience life as naturally as possible, which might result in a hands-off approach when a baby is failing to thrive. 

Brookfield Zoo staff helping a newborn dolphin

Some facilities choose to intervene if it is a) safe for the humans involved (remember, many of these animals are massive, not to mention mom is not necessarily going to think rationally when someone comes in and messes with her baby who is struggling) and b) in the best interest of the baby him/herself.  Some babies, like bottlenose dolphins, are extremely fragile when they are first born.  They can literally have a heart attack if they get super scared.  Their mom and/or other family members may freak out if something outside of their experience happens after the calf is born, like a pool dropping or attempting to handle their calf (which is why it is so awesome that some marine mammal facilities teach their dolphin moms to do husbandry-related behaviors that entail scenarios commonly encountered in intervening with a neonatal calf).  Big dolphins freaking out around brand new babies can result in fatal injuries to the baby.  

So it isn't an easy decision to make with large mammals, because there are a lot of factors to consider on top of what the baby him/herself is going through medically.  

Once a decision is made to intervene, everyone remotely involved with the department is usually scheduled for some grueling Waffle House shifts.  Waffle House shifts.  You know, because the only place that you can guarantee will be open to feed you no matter what time you get off, no matter what you are wearing, no matter what you smell like, is good ol' Waffle House.

Some places will recruit help from other animal departments, or ask for volunteers depending on how the facility is organized.  This might mean you work 12 hour shifts.  Maybe you work your normal eight or ten hour day, and then come into work in the middle of the night for a few hours, then get up a few hours later to do it again.  Chances are, your weekends and vacation plans are cancelled.   Your life becomes work and sleeping (where and when you can) and little else for the indefinite future.

Your life is one big Waffle House shift

Why is this? Well, in general, most critical cases require consistent medical treatment.  Medication courses may have to be given at certain times through the day and night.  For example, I worked with a dolphin who had an abscess on her lung.  The course of her antibiotics required a 24 hour feeding schedule for many, many weeks that needed to be strictly adhered to, because lung infections are not easy to treat (and she made a fully recovery, so happy ending to that story!).  Other types of medical therapies may require multiple treatments within a 24 hour period, too.  Continuous observation is usually a part of this as well, which means an alert staff member or two is watching the animal for any changes in behavior.  Try staying awake in the middle of the night for 8 to 12 hour shifts never taking your eyes off the animal in your care, unless you have to use the bathroom.  

But when a baby needs critical care, this requires even more effort.  Even if the baby is 100% healthy, her or she needs to eat regularly…more than an adult or juvenile would.  Human moms know what I’m talking about.  Infants and babies in many non-precocial mammal species go through a period I like to call The Red Zone where they basically eat, sleep, and poop in 2 to 4 hour cycles, pausing not a wink for their moms/dads/guardians to catch up.  If a giraffe isn't able to nurse properly from mom, then humans take over mom’s role. 

MD Zoo staff bottle feed Julius

Feeding a baby in this way is not as easy as it seems in the movies, either.  You don't just provide a bottle, snuggle with the baby as he or she feeds lazily in your arms, and then upload all your adorable selfies to your Insta account.  No.  You have to MAKE the formula (oh my GOD and if it’s a dolphin calf, there is usually some amount of fish oil involved which gets everywhere and you will never, ever smell like a human being again, sorry).  You have to account for every calorie; this is not just a simple “dump the powder into the water and shake shake shake and eyeball the amount eaten” situation.  Every. Calorie. Counts.  You make the formula, you pour it into whatever feeding device you’re going to us, and then you triple-check the amount before, during, and after each feeding.

This is an insanely emotionally challenging time for EVERYONE involved, human and animal alike.  Baby animals in critical condition brings its own sort of emotional torment, because it isn't uncommon for them to start to really rely on their human caregivers for all of the other needs he/she would be getting from mom, (or in alloparenting species,o ther members of the herd/pod/pride/whatever).  Social mammals NEED social contact, and not just for touchy-feely reasons.  Loving physical contact paired with creating a sense of security has a direct impact on healthy development.  If baby is surrounded by loving human caregivers, baby will start relying on those caregivers (in full or in part) to provide that contact and security.


So now you have a critically ill baby, who relies on YOU 100% for every need he/she has.  No worthy keeper takes this responsibility lightly.  Most of us fall head over heels in love and toss our life’s plans aside as we work ourselves to death to try to help this little life.  After only a couple of days, the only way we can get through our day is the time we spend with the animals.  But when we get downtime, we fall into tortured sleep filled with nightmares or we pass out into a restless state of unconsciousness until we return back to work, hopeful that the tides have turned in the baby’s favor.

It is an indescribable feeling to see a baby who was previously not doing well suddenly turn the corner and flourish.  Life slowly gets back to “normal”.  Everyone is happy.

But sometimes, the baby is too good for this world.  Such was the case with Julius.  It is especially hard when you know that they are not going to get better, especially when it is a long, slow road to that fate.

<3 <3 <3

So now I'm going to directly address all of you who worked with this little calf….but to anyone reading this who has been through a similar situation, this applies to you, too.

Maryland Zoo team Julius peeps, you are amazing.  I mean, it’s amazing enough that you did literally EVERYTHING remotely possible for that little guy.  Not only did you do everything you could for Julius, you set an example for how this kind of situation should be treated.  Keeping the wellness of Julius as your North Star, you balanced his needs with the possibilities available.  Not only that, you kept the public aware of what you were doing.  They got a look into what it takes to provide that level of care to a wild animal calf.  I mean, people in my forensics lab were talking about it with a tremendous amount of respect and concern.  

I know what it is like to watch a baby move in the wrong direction.  I know how heart-wrenching that is, especially when you start to second-guess decisions you have made, or ones you may have to make.  THEN, no matter how hard you try to cement yourself to the soulless comments about Julius and zoos and what you do for a living, you still somehow read or hear a comment that frays your last nerve and breaks you down, when you've been barely holding on. 

Look at this incredible group of people!

But listen to me.  All that matters is what you did for Julius, no matter what role you played.  Here is what he needed: Love, security, basic physical needs met, and medical treatment.  Here is what you gave him: Love, security, basic physical needs met, and medical treatment. 

The experience that little giraffe calf had is impossible to know for sure, but logically let’s think about this.  Even if he didn’t feel well or physically comfortable as his health declined, all of his needs were met.  He did not have to spend a moment afraid.  He did not have to spend a moment unloved.  We know that is not often the case in animals in the wild in similar situations.  

The emotional torment you guys experienced with him, and are dealing with now in a different way, is NOT what he experienced.  If Julius gets to fill out a survey in the afterlife about his time on earth, his “Additional comment” section would probably say something like, “I got lots of love and I was basically a social media giant.  Would recommend.”

And I agree with this review!

No matter what your internal conversation is with how everyone played out, or how hard it is to read media coverage and see the disgusting comments below the articles….that does not change the fact that Julius lived and died, fully and completely loved.  THAT is why you guys get up each morning.  If you feel unappreciated, know that I bet Julius and his mom appreciated what you did.   Know that the awful comments you're reading are just words typed quickly on a keyboard....which is NOTHING compared to the weight of the work you did to care for an animal in his greatest time of need.

Know that the rest of us in the zoo field appreciated what you did.  We stand in solidarity with you. 

A giraffe, a dolphin, a lemur, a caiman…I don't care what animal you care for, we know that they all deserve to feel secure and loved, in whatever way they perceive those things.  It is never easy to provide that in medically critical situations, and yet time and again we do it.  We know our hearts will be ripped out, that we may have nightmares about it for years to come, but those consequences do not stop us from being there 100% for animals who not only NEED that level of care, but DESERVE IT.

Thinking of you, Maryland Zoo. 

Rest in peace, little guy.

Sunday, July 9, 2017

Zookeeper Pregnancy - Morning Sickness

I swear to god this is not your typical pregnancy/morning sickness blog post.
Morpheus always knows

Not that there is anything wrong with so-called Mommy Blogging. In fact, there are some great ones out there, so I am told.  But the people who write that share at least three of the following qualities:

1) They have kids
2) They use coasters religiously and appropriately
3) They grow all of their own food with one hand (the other hand is usually doing something crafty)
4) They take perfectly artistic photos of everyday goings-on (such as pooping) that make it look like a utopian paradise
5) Their clothes match

I meet precisely one criterion in that list (hint, it is not number 5).  Even though I do have a kid, and I am 31 years older than said child, I feel like I am still in seventh grade.  This is a quality about my mindset that has not changed.  The only reason I have any business being a mom is because I am a professional applied behavior analyst.  But for that, my progeny and I would eat donuts three times a day and wear the same rainbow-themed clothes while binge-watching Sci-Fi and/or Pixar movies.
Um. Exhibit A.

I also didn't really have what you would call a magical experience with being knocked up; if I have an inner fertility goddess, she is currently snoring on a proverbial couch with Cheetos covering her Rubenesque body.

BUT.  I found it a really interesting experience as a marine mammal caregiver.  I spent a lot of time in my 11 year career around pregnant dolphins and their calves.  I had never seen labor and delivery of a human being, but I had seen it over 10 times in bottlenose dolphins.  I have been around way more pregnant dolphins than pregnant humans. 
Like this one! Roxy was pregnant with the love of my life in this photo

Here’s a thing I noticed and eventually became really annoyed by: our quickly-made conclusions about how different Animals Have It than humans.  For example, most of the pregnant dolphins I knew got “morning sickness” (aka The Worst Feeling Ever Other Than Scooping Out Your Eyeballs With A Small Spoon), but that was treated like it was some kind of anomaly.  When the dolphins would sit uncomfortably in front of us, barely eat, and refuse behaviors, our Training Brains couldn’t seem to wrap our minds around this.  Yeah, HUMANS got morning sickness, but these dolphins were ANIMALS.  Animals are tough.  They don’t show their emotions in ways humans are used to.  They don’t write Mommy Blogs and talk about Dolphin-Based Morning Sickness Remedies (THANK GOD).
I'm crying

But the majority of trainers I have worked with always talked about how that made no sense….placental mammal pregnancy involves many of the same principles, including sudden and dramatic changes in ratios of certain hormones.  The first trimester of pregnancy is essentially your body going WTF JUST HAPPENED and scrambling to support this small parasite(s).  The placenta, which eventually takes over most of the life support, doesn’t play that role until  later.  That means the mom’s body needs to support the little blobby blob* with chemicals like gonadotropin and progesterone.  It is likely that one or some of these hormones in their pregnancy-level amounts causes some really unfortunate GI side-effects.

When you have a dolphin who loves to eat no matter what is going on, you know something is up when she suddenly looks squinty-eyed, sluggish, inattentive, and like she would rather swallow bits of glass than eat whatever you have in your bucket.  Of course, the standard course of action is to take blood and gastric samples to ensure something is NOT actually wrong, so once you rule out illness, you got yourself a lady friend with morning sickness. 

In my experience, six weeks into carrying Blessed Life (while I was on a solo vaca to Central California to geek out on whale-watching for 10 days), I felt the most nauseous I have ever been.  Ever.  Like, even when I had an intestinal parasite for two weeks and could not eat and wound up in the hospital.  It was seriously terrible.  The only thing I could eat was sushi and fried or grilled squid.

Guys and gals (especially those of you who have never been pregnant), I would not wish the all-consuming, intense nausea I experienced on anyone (some world dictators are exempt from this statement).  Nothing I did could take my mind off of how sick I felt.  The advice I got was the wise but totally ineffective long-view kind, where people tell you how it’ll all be worth it (okay, it was) or how you should just think of this tiny little life growing inside of you (hint: photos of embryos are not great remedies for wanting to puke your guts out), but all you want to do is spend the rest of your life in the fetal position (ha ha, see what I did there).
 I need to re-do this vacation. Better yet, I need to move out there!

I spent most of my vacation in bed, miserable.  When I got back to work, I had to tell my boss that a) I was pregnant and b) there was no way in hell I could go on a sea lion transport because I would basically just vom the entire time.  Then I had to work.  Like normal.  I was on my feet for most of the day, in the heat, around the saltwater, around dead fish, penguin and otter poop, and I had my supervisory duties.  And I had to pretend nothing was going on.  I have no idea how well I pulled this off, I just know that there were many times I walked into our medical lab when no one was in there and flopped over the counters, hoping no one would come in.

It was there, on the cold countertops, that I really felt bad for my previous interactions with newly pregnant dolphins.  We had two dolphins who were preggo at the same time as me, but they were well past their sickness stage.  Even though I figured they experienced some kind of nausea/fatigue early on, and tried to be sensitive, I still fell into trainer-mode, where if they refused a well-established exercise behavior I would ask again after an LRS because….that is what we do.

But as I drooled on my uniform, my stomach turning in knots, I realized what a butthead I had been.  If THIS is what those lady dolphins experienced, I deserved to be kicked in the face.  If someone came into that lab and said, “Hey Cat, go do your normal workout right now” or “Hey Cat, walk five steps”, I would be like OVER MY DEAD BODY. 

Now, luckily, any misguided decisions I made regarding which behaviors I asked pregnant dolphins to do was usually met with refusal or avoidance.  That is, the girls would say OVER MY DEAD BODY in their own dolphin way.  That is how true positive reinforcement training SHOULD work, with the animals feeling perfectly comfortable saying no without any fear of deprivation of what they need to be happy and healthy.
Plus, you wind up with a cute baby

But still, I felt like a butthead.

And, I'm just gonna say it, but dudes don’t get it.  Especially in our field, where a) most of us are chicks but b) most of our bosses are male.  You are expected to work 99.9% of the time (you better be filling out records while you’re pooping on company time) because there is so much to do and the animals depend on you, it is a big deal to suddenly lose a trainer at ANY level (because seriously guys, we are all passionate and therefore very valuable no matter what level we are).  I think women are more empathetic to this thing, even if they haven't been pregnant…because periods**.  Female reproductive systems do really weird and usually uncomfortable things, even when they are perfectly normal.

But dudes? If you think we are just whining about morning sickness, I have a fun and educational activity for you to try.
Drink Dran-O, just enough to prevent massive organ failure.  And just when you think you are going to die, go to work and pretend like nothing is wrong.  (Side note: this also works for our “monthly visitor” experience, except you can just slice a relatively high-pressure, non-vital artery in your pelvic region).

Anyways, my lesson?  Even though I thought I was giving the animals the benefit of the doubt without sacrificing predictable training principles, it took me actually going through the experience to really understand.  That was just MY experience, it is probably different for most of you out there. 

And you know what? If I'm wrong, if dolphins really do NOT experience morning sickness and just have a secret Sisterhood pact to all refuse behaviors and pick at their food in the first four months of their pregnancy, then I would rather bring them extra comfort than try to make their situation more uncomfortable.  After all, our main job is to put the animals and their wellness first.  The show, interaction, or session takes second priority to the well-being of our animals.

Tell me your experience, keepers with human babies!

* Actual developmental term

** Need I say more, ladies?