Sunday, August 27, 2017

LOLing: Guaranteed When You're A Zookeeper

Ahhh I am so sorry I missed last week.  I was on vacation in the middle of the northwoods (awesome!) but that also entailed a 16 hour road trip with a two year old to get there and then to get home.  After 5,007 rounds of Five Little Monkeys Jumping On The Bed, I forgot what time/year/planet it was.

Here I was on Sunday night

Also, there has been a lot of sadness in our community lately.  So today's blog is light.

Yesterday, I heard an interview on NPR with an author who wrote a novel exploring the concept of “BFF”.  She talked about how as kids, our relationship with our BFF is fairly non-verbal; we just play and have lots and lots of belly laughs.  As we approach middle school, this starts to change, leading into an adulthood where we may or may not have a BFF….and if we do, it isn’t the same as when we were young kids.

She specifically talked about the concept of laughter, and how in her experience, she just doesn’t have the daily gut-aching uncontrollable laughing fits she did as a kid with her group of friends.  That really made me think about zookeeping.

I think as animal care professionals, we are very lucky in the BFF department.  

Okay, I know that some of you work at places with tense or even hostile work environments.  Sometimes, our field has a lot left to be desired in terms of professionalism with staff management.  But generally speaking, even with people we really do not get along with personally, we share a very deeply-rooted passion that labeled us total PsychoNerds in primary school.

I mean admit it, guys.  If I told you that in fourth grade, I did an “extra credit” report on killer whales…, I just out of nowhere asked Mrs. Dusa if I could do a report and presentation on killer whales…..and the class just stared at me like my face was roughly sculpted out of diarrhea, you would probably say, “OH MY GOD I HAD THE SAME EXPERIENCE IN THIRD GRADE ON MY HOOFSTOCK OF THE AFRICAN PLAINS REPORT.”
I don't even have ONE :(

Or how about all of the books we checked out at the library when we were kids? How we would walk in and the librarians would wilt in dread as we perused their pitiful Dolphin (or Whatever Animal You Are Obsessed With) section, frustrated that we uhhhhh already read all of those books in like a week, and when will Walden Elementary curate their cetacean reading to meet the standards of my needs?!

Then we get our first zoo job or internship, and realize that every single person on the staff is basically a PsychoNerd just like us.  In fact, your insane devotion to animal species X is completely normal.  It is not even mentioned.  In fact, in the dolphin world, some places avoid the label as “Dolphin Hugger” like hepatitis (but the most fun, well-managed dolphin places usually are total dolphin huggers and don’t deny it!).  You just show up to work like any ol’ job, hang out with your Favorite Critters, and then go home and eat whatever scraps you could afford at the grocery store and/or Big Lots.

God can't they just call it underwear?! Seriously.

So the type of relationship you form with your coworkers is really special…even with those you wouldn’t necessarily consider a friend outside of work.  And if you are a part of a really great team, I know that you probably laugh your proverbial balls off on a daily basis.

So what makes us laugh so heartily?  Well, obviously the animals do hilarious things.  Like the time Chubby, an older dolphin with a heart of gold and a brain of a dandelion, sat up IN FRONT OF HIS OWN SHADOW like that shadow was his trainer.  Like, this dude just popped up at a perimeter wall, saw his shadow, opened his mouth in anticipation of snacks, and started offering behaviors.  Lots of us were doubled-over laughing on that one.

Cute AND confusing

Or realizing that the drain in the otter exhibit (you know, the one that takes the toxic-waste-otter-leavings to some other god foresaken place) is completely blocked and there is otter crap building up and smelling and attracting fire ants?  And you try everything to unblock the drain, but the problem is the exhibit is not well-designed from a maintenance perspective so you can’t actually get to where the problem is…….

…..and then you discover the otters have been stuffing rocks, like zillions of freaking rocks from god knows where…..into the drain.  And when everything is unclogged and cleaned, you can laugh (and boy, we did).
The most scientifically accurate meme of an otter, right here for YOUR viewing pleasure

Wait wait wait, how about when during a sea lion show, when the narrator wasn’t talking and the audience was dead quiet, one of the sea lions released the wettest fart known to man, almost taking down her trainer with the odor that can only originate from the deepest, darkest bowels of pinnipeds?
True story, cows broke into a woman's home and enjoyed themselves

But we deal with ridiculous stuff that most people at most jobs would never even fathom.  How about when I was doing an interaction program and random tampons started floating in the water?  Or when I caused the entire two-story wetsuit-hanging shelving system to collapse?  

You guys can probably spit out a ton of stories of when you and your coworkers had laughing fits that made you want to throw up.  That is one of the most special things about our kind of job.  It is something to remember when you are working with someone who maybe isn’t your favorite.  Or when you are going through a tough time with whatever you’re dealing with at work.  There are valid reasons to be frustrated or angry sometimes, but it is never a bad thing to remind yourself that, in spite of how crazy we can make each other, our coworkers are literally laughing their asses off with you.  Routinely.  That is pretty. Darn. Lucky.

Sunday, August 6, 2017

It's The Little Things (That Freak Us Out)

You guys.  I had a dream last night that inspired this blog.  In that dream, I got this idea, which resulted in the remainder of the dream being spent trying to operate my phone in order to open the Notes app to write down a blurb to remind me of the idea.  But like all of my dreams that have to do with my phone, I CAN NEVER USE IT.  Like WHAT IS THAT.  I can’t run from monsters/bad guys in my nightmares, 911 is always busy, and I suddenly have completely worthless hands that cannot operate a touch screen on a cell phone.


So all of this hype basically means that I will now continue on to totally disappoint you with a relatively mundane (but, I’d argue, very important) topic that was important enough in my subconscious to bring forward.  But then again, I have also dreamed about half-mice-half-women and also, frogs.  

This blog, as well as countless other zookeeper-related social media posts, have addressed some of the major downsides to our job, including the really scary ones.  Most of us have worked with animals who can kill us, via brute force, precise lethal blows/bites, venom or toxin.  Most of us have major anxiety about locks and gates, or leaving potentially dangerous items in habitats that can be ingested.  We worry endlessly about sick animals, pregnant animals, animals who look slightly off but probably are just a little constipated.  These are the Real Fears of zookeeping.

But what about the OTHER things we freak out about on a daily basis? Are those tiny, insignificant worries not worth their own blog?  According to my brain, it’s time we addressed them.  The world should know what animal caretakers deal with emotionally.  And frankly, all of you need to know that you’re not alone and/or effing insane.

Let’s take a look at the Top Ten Really Stupid Fears I had in my tenure as a marine mammal specialist.

1. THE FEAR OF  My Favorite Hose Nozzle Breaking

Ain't no exhibit gettin clean with those kinks!

Oh. Oh.  ANY zookeeper who uses a hose for any amount of cleaning is probably standing up and placing their hands over their hearts.  There is nothing like walking into a sea lion-poopy (or, oh god, otter poo-slime) habitat and knowing that you have a baller hose that is basically 1 psi away from a fire hose.  You KNOW that sh*t is getting clean.  You feel like some kind of Doolittle AquaMan as you wield and manipulate jets of water like they are extensions of your own hands.  You control where each water molecule goes, you dilute and rinse every soap bubble, every speck of disinfectant.  You time yourself and know you can bang out a spotless exhibit in record time.
But then, your beloved nozzle breaks.  Or, worse, another coworker gets “the good hose” before you get there.  And then you’re left with the shriveled little hose, that is just left installed for posterity, that does not so much spray as it oozes water.  This is the nozzle that would do a worse job than if you carried in a water fountain to clean up massive piles of sea lion crap. You’re going to be there for hours.  Hours.  And the entire time, the sea lions judge you.  YOU judge you.  You only need one experience with this pathetic, worthless nozzle to instill intense fear that THIS WILL HAPPEN AGAIN IF YOU ARE NOT ON YOUR GAME NEXT TIME.

Let’s not even talk about winter, when water lines freeze and you not only can’t clean the exhibit, but you slip and fall directly into a pile of whatever that brown goo is on pinniped teeth that they shoot everywhere like giant streams of snot. 


Behold, for I bring you demons from hell

Florida peeps,  hear me.  I moved to Maryland where the worst bug we get is a mosquito. Yeah, they carry some illnesses.  But really, this is the safest place I have ever lived insect-wise (of course, I live right next to Baltimore City so it all evens out, safety-wise).  But you guys have yellow flies. 

Despite being utterly miserable working outside in freezing temperatures in Florida, despite wanting to be warm and enjoy not feeling like I was going to die, I still dreaded summertime when I worked as a dolphin trainer in the sunshine state.  Why? Because the Yellow Flies liked summertime too.  That is where our common ground ended. 
You see, *I* like summer time because it meant sun tans, sunset fishing on the beach, wearing nothing but a bathing suit all day, gardening, etc.  Yellow Flies like summer because blood.  

Now imagine your entire back covered in those

I have never experienced pain from an animal like I have yellow flies.  As a zoological expert, I can tell you that the mouth parts of yellow flies are composed of circle saws dipped in hydrofluoric acid. Unlike mosquitoes, which you may or may not feel biting you, yellow flies land quietly on the most inaccessible part of your body and perform major surgery in order to extract what seems like 89 liters of blood and at least one major organ.

I literally flipped out in complete, paralyzing fear anytime I saw these stupid mofos.  You know how people react when a spider is on them? Or a bee or something?  That is all of us in Yellow Fly country, except as zookeepers we are outside 90% of our day and usually have our attention and hands focused on something more important, like our own safety or the safety of our animals.  The Yellow Flies know this and make their vicious attacks, leaving gigantic welts and PTSD in their wake. 

3. THE FEAR OF Forgetting Deodorant

The internet understands

As a zookeeper, this is one of the worst mistakes you can make that does not result in anyone’s death.  Although, I think I have come close to killing someone with my uh, Natural Scent after being in the sun for 10 hours with no deodorant.  I AM SO SORRY.

4. THE FEAR OF Being In A Wetsuit and Have To Pee.  No, I lied.  Number Two.

Too bad

Yeah, they don’t tell you about this in the shamelessly-monetizing BE A DOLPHIN TRAINER books.  But you will get hermetically sealed in a wetsuit.  And then, just like when you played Ultimate Hide and Seek when you were a kid, you will have to take an enormous dump 5 minutes afterwards.  This is especially true in the winter months, when you are wearing two or three layers of neoprene and require the Jaws of Life to get you out.  Good luck if you had Chinese food the night before….

5. THE FEAR OF Girl Problems
Except you have to drive a front loader today

Not to be gross, but we are all scientists here.  We are biological experts.  And we know what happens to human and naked mole rat females on a monthly basis.  I distinctly remember standing next to one of the dolphin habitats in my bathing suit and rash guard, listening to a supervisor go over our plan for the next round of sessions when all of a sudden….I knew something bad was going down.  I knew I had at most, 30 seconds to address it.  So when my (male) supervisor looked at me and said, “Okay Cat, here is your role, go do it right now” I looked at him, my heart racing and anxiety through the roof, and said something like, “NO I CAN’T RIGHT NOW” and just ran away.  I was so terrified of what was happening to me that I didn't even care if I got in trouble.  Because you know what, I was sparing my supervisor some Night Of The Living Dead stuff. 
Girl, I feel you

Woe betide those of us who have had khaki uniforms…..

6. THE FEAR OF Reading Your Work Schedule Wrong


Shift work is hard to keep track of, even if your manager is amazing at scheduling consistency.  You know that your week is not always going to look the same.  Who else has dealt with Excel-based work schedules?  Who else has worked on a team with more than ten people on it?  Who else has looked at the wrong column and showed up at the wrong shift time because they did not have Golden Eagle Vision? 

The fear I experienced about misreading the schedule was instilled deeply in me after an experience I had as a mid-level trainer.  I was sitting in bed, hanging out with my cockatiel Lennon, reading a book.  I was enjoying my morning before a later shift (11-7:30), which was especially needed because I had horrendous tonsillitis.  Around 8:45, I got a call from my supervisor asking why I didn't show up for my 8:30 shift.  Furthermore, I was scheduled on the 9:15 dolphin swim.  


I flew out the door and made it to work in time, panicking that I had made a Terrible Mistake That Would Totally Get Me Fired.  Luckily, that fear took my mind off of the feeling like I was swallowing shards of glass.  But I sure did develop an OCD habit of checking and rechecking and rechecking and rechecking and rechecking the schedule

7. THE FEAR OF  Speaking To Guests In A Language I Took in Middle School 17 Years Ago
You're welcome.

“Hey Cat! We have guests from France who only speak French! You speak French, right?”

*Heart lurches into my throat, butterflies flap wildly in stomach, intestines stop working* “Uh, yes, in high school 35 decades ago”

“GREAT! Here they are!”
And then a horribly embarrassing exchange would ensue, in which my foreign guests would attempt to speak English to me after hearing my pathetic attempt and probably ruined their entire vacation, where they would return to Paris or whatever and tell their friends, “Oh, we had this well-intentioned girl with the intelligence of foot fungus guide our dolphin swim.”

8. THE FEAR OF Forgetting My Lunch


This is simple.  We burn 90926892368236 calories a day.  If you forget your lunch at most aquariums, your choice is to eat french fries the snack bar bought from Walmart 9 years ago, or eat ice cubes from the fish kitchen’s ice machine until your shift ends when you can eat Chinese food in large quantities.

9. THE FEAR OF Weather n’ Wildfires

I’ve never been afraid of thunderstorms until I was required to work outside in them.  Also, wildfires that blew ash all over everything.  Red Tides. 

10. THE FEAR OF Gastric Samples
It's all fun and games until the dolphin volunteers the Sacred Fluid

This is more specific to dolphin trainers who take their own gastric samples.  I know some of you suck on the end of the tube (you guys are, and I say this with love, seriously insane and do you realize you do NOT need to do that????), and you guys probably experience this specific fear more often than the rest of us.  But…there is really no fear as compares to inserting a tube into the mouth of a dolphin who is just ready to blow out every ounce of gastric fluid they have directly into your face, onto your shoulder, or (for you crazies) into your mouth.  Directly. 


I have seen dead animals.  I have fallen in blood, poop, pee.  I have gotten pus in my face.  I have had weeks worth of otter poop poured over my head.  I have used limb loppers to cute sea lion ribs.  There is not a lot that grosses me out.  But gastric fluid shooting onto my shirt? AHHHHHHHHHH

So, friends, those are just a handful of the fears and unpleasantries I experienced as a dolphin trainer.  But now let’s hear some of yours!