Sunday, July 2, 2017

The Middle Flipper Is...(Part 16)

…a dolphin who helps herself to her lunch.  And maybe other people’s lunches.

This has got to be something anyone training animals has experienced with any tangible reinforcer*.  I wrote about this a while back, featuring an amazing lady sea lion named Tina.  It may not surprise many people that animals who can easily move around the land occasionally pull some lightning-fast ninja moves and wind up with their face in a bucket, cooler, pouch, whatever.  

Also can we pause a moment to just acknowledge how STRONG Asian small-clawed otters are when they are using their tiny alien hands to grab their food bowls?  You’d need some kind of industrial-grade lever system and/or a nuclear bomb to loosen their grip before they are good and finished.  ASCOs are undoubtedly the masters of bucket-diving.

But I mean, their hands can be used for good, too.

BUT, perhaps the wild card of the Bucket Diving World Champions are dolphins.  Yeah.  

If you work with dolphins, you get it.  But if you don’t, you are probably sitting there wondering a) how stupid the trainers are for leaving buckets close enough to the edge of the water for a dolphin to nab OR b) you are trying to imagine how it is physically possible for a dolphin to let themselves into a closed container of food but your brain keeps flashing the THIS IS NOT POSSIBLE message.  So let me shed light onto both of these points.

People who work with dolphins tend to keep fish in one of two types of containers: stainless steel buckets, or Igloo-type coolers**.  Because dolphins are ginormous animals and eat a good amount, these containers usually contain around 3 to 10 pounds of fish, depending on the facility, the animal, and the type of session.  Many facilities feed lots of capelin, or smaller fish like mullet or the dreaded silversides (Godspeed to those of you feeding those little MFers).  

This is the feeling of gazing into a bucket full of silversides.  HOW MANY ARE IN THEREEEEE

What that means is there are like 67,000 fish in a bucket (plus or minus), not to mention lots of ice.  That means the buckets are pretty heavy and not easily wielded (although have you seen a dolphin trainer’s arms? STACKED).  Unlike animals whose training food requires something cute and simple like a little belt, or clip-on pouch, dolphin trainers do not typically move their buckets around as often as THEY themselves move.  You leave it somewhere, do your thing, and come back to it.  

And this is where the problems begin.

When I was at Marineland, Roxy was the known bucket-diver (I’m assuming she is still doing this).  Now, Roxy was not really a risk-taker when it came to helping herself to snacks.  That is to say, if you carelessly left your bucket/cooler on the edge of the habitat, she was going to come up a foot or so out of the water, use her rostrum to knock the bucket into a free spin resulting in it crashing into the water. 

Roxy (photo cred to Jess Aditays, an amazing human being with endless talent)

This is usually how dolphins (in my experience) take their buckets.  They see a perfect opportunity, and take it.  Usually, it spills a good amount of fish into the water (67,000ish) and the other dolphins zoom over and chow down, regardless of what else is going on.  This is annoying for a few reasons:

1) You have to figure out how much food each animal got, so you can get everyone’s daily diet back into equilibrium.  This is basically impossible unless you have really slow dolphins (ha ha!), or if there is less than three, because otherwise you basically have a maelstrom of marine mammal eating fish and there aren’t enough eyeballs in your head or neurons in your brain to keep track of that much stimuli.

2) Depending on what kind of session it is, or how long you have left in the session, you may have like zero snacks left over.  This really sucks in interaction programs, because you can’t get people out quickly.  You can barely get them out of the water for an emergency, like HEY THERE IS LIGHTNING AND ALSO THERE IS A SERIAL KILLER STANDING BEHIND YOU WITH A LOADED SHOTGUN SO GET OUT OF THE WATER RIGHT NOW.  And the guests are like “BUT I PAID TO SWIM WITH DOLPHINS”

3) It is yet another reminder of how stupid we are and how smart the dolphins are.

I've been looking for that everywhere!

So what do we do? Well, we have our obligatory Staff Meeting where we declare that Never Again Shall Roxy (or whoever) Steal The Bucket, and we come up with training plans and make a blood oath that we will not leave our buckets within one foot of the pools’ edges.  And Roxy just waits until we screw up, because SHE knows we will (but we humans are still in denial about this).   Sometimes, you get REAL smart, and you close the lid to your Coleman cooler nice and tight after every time you use it, so when Roxy knocks it in, she just gets a floating cube impenetrable to her handless body.  And you celebrate how intelligent and cunning you are as a human being.

….until you meet Delilah.  

The Grand Empress herself

Delilah, she knows how to open coolers.  She removes lids in ways that I still cannot understand.  She eats all the snacks.  And then she brings you back the empty cooler, and the lid (if she completely removed it).  I don't have anything else to add to this, because her methods are a mystery.  All I know is that she figured this out and acts calmly, almost bored, because she is that effing smart.

But there is a dolphin who gets buckets no matter where they are.  And her name is Spirit.

Remember this photo

Spirit lives at National Aquarium (Nani’s daughter) and is one of the sharpest women I have ever met.  She is a keen observer of human behavior, she is always 10 steps ahead of any training plan you can come up with, she figures out your games and exploits you.  GOD I LOVE HER.

I was told Spirit was a bucket diver when I started working at the aquarium.  I figured at that point, with 10+ years of experience, I had seen lots of bucket divers.  I also figured that after watching Delilah dismantle coolers, I couldn’t be surprised anymore.  Now, don't read that as me saying that I somehow thought Spirit would never grab a bucket during one of our sessions.  I had learned that lesson long ago; it was just a matter of time before I experienced that.  But I figured I wouldn’t be surprised by it.  It would just be Another Smart Dolphin Taking What She’s Owed.

HA! My hubris was steamrolled yet again by a slippery critter.

This is now my permanent facial expression

The first time Spirit took her bucket (a stainless steel one), it was 100% my fault.  It was on the edge, I left to get some toys, and I took my eye off of her for a second.  Rookie mistake, and boom, she got it.  She got a couple other trainer’s buckets in other sessions over the next couple of days, becoming bolder and bolder at how far she would come up out of the water to get it.  But again, this wasn’t surprising to any of us.  We just tried to be more vigilant in keeping our buckets away from her.

So this one session, I was standing on a slide out on the side of the main habitat during a presentation.  I was about shin-deep in the water, loving on Spirit and another dolphin named Jade.  It seemed like we were having a jolly time, with both dolphins soliciting rubs and playing wildly with their toys.  I placed their buckets high up on the wall, at the end of a set of stairs leading into the slide out, because Spirit would basically need to re-evolve her legs or defy the laws of gravity in order to reach it.  Therefore, I felt perfectly comfortable moving to the front of the habitat, near their underwater viewing windows.

Everything is fine, I got it

I did this because it was part of our plan to bring the dolphins to the windows so our guests in the amphitheater could see the animals better.  I brought Jade’s bucket with me, after putting some of Spirit’s food in there, so I didn’t have to schlep two big buckets back and forth to the windows, especially because I wasn’t going to be there longer than a few behaviors.  Oh…oh Cat.

We did a few behaviors, having a great time.  Spirit and Jade got a good amount of snacks for it, since we didn’t do it super often.  I also figured it would be a good idea to give Spirit a heavier ratio of reinforcement at the windows because she was away from her bucket and, even though she couldn’t reach it, she was not over at the slideout trying to get it.  THis is something I am sure most of you trainers out there would’ve done, because it is, according to the books, What Works.

Suddenly, Spirit shot away.  Towards the slideout.  Towards the stairs.  

Me. Dolphin (not Spirit).  Stairs are behind me, bucket in the place I am describing.  You get the picture.

Oh god, I thought.  She is going to try in vain to get that bucket.  What a mess, I thought as I watched her make her way to the bucket.

Then, with the grace and agility of a freakin’ killer whale, she somehow CLIMBED UP THE STAIRS WITH HER FLIPPERS, grabbed her bucket, then threw her body, which was now well over 1/2 way out of the water, back onto the slideout.  And a dolphin party ensued, ruining the presentation segment, leaving me standing mouth-agape at what I just witnessed.

She tried to turn back into this thing

The best part? None of the staff who knew Spirit well was surprised.  They calmly informed me that really, the only way to prevent Spirit from getting a bucket was to secure it in a bucket rack on one of the decks of the habitat, or hang it 35 feet from the ground like a freaking camping trip where bears hang out.

In fact, they further informed me of Spirit’s ability and Little Mermaid-esque affinity to Be Where The People Are in ways that do not make sense for a bottlenose dolphin.  My favorite story involve a trainer in The Pit, a small (and AMAZINGLY COOL) observation area located below the main pool’s deck.  The entrance to the pit is like nine feet away from the water’s edge, and is up on a low grade “hill” of sorts. 

The pit is in the middle of this photo; its roof-top door is open.  That is how far back it is.

The trainer was watching animals in another pool, when they felt drops of water falling on them.  This wasn’t unusual, because if the animals splashed a lot, you might feel a couple of droplets as a result.  But for some reason, this trainer looked up.  And there, peering down at her, was Spirit. 

This dolphin had slid up well over a body length UPHILL, and scooted herself so that she could literally crane her head over the edge of the pit to see what was happening down there.  Like NBD. 

Despite the momentary anxiety bucket diving can cause, it ultimately is a really cool thing to witness.  As animal caregivers, we need to be humbled by the animals in our care.  We have to have reminders that no matter what stage in our career we are at, or what kind of day we are having, we ultimately work for the animals.  It cannot be any other way.  If they want to exploit our momentary lapse of judgment regarding food receptacle placement, so be it.  Let them feel free to do so.  Let them always remind us that humans are not the be-all, end-all.  And let them eat their snacks. 

  • If not, you need to start your own workshop and charge like $500 per person and maybe give me 10% of your earnings for you know, a founder’s fee.

** I know some of you guys wear fanny-pack pouches when you are in the water, but no one is impressed with a dolphin who steals fish from a container UNDER water.

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