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?


  1. So much yes! I really enjoyed having a newborn at the same time as our sea lion. When I came to work exhausted and insecure, she looked exactly the same. We struggled together to figure out what to do with our unpredictable babies! It definitely helped me have empathy when she acted out of fear or anger. And pregnancy with hyperemisis while zoo keeping is a new definition of hell! All those moments crying and barfing behind the penguin building! Thanks for sharing.

  2. Yes. Though, I work with birds so they had no sympathy for me when I was hurling while trying to clean up their day old, sat in the afternoon sun, spoiled fish (storks). And I feel that most keepers (even females who haven't been preggo) have zero or very little sympathy for you and your sudden onset nausea (and in my case, dizziness, faintness) that causes you to take a seat in the muddy feeder you're attempting to clean.

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