Tuesday, March 26, 2013

The Middle Flipper is...(Part 5)

....a dolphin who plays keep away.

One of the most unique experiences in a dolphin trainer's life is their first six months on the job.   Most of us naively assume that after an internship, a helpful membership to IMATA*, and surviving the Holy Trinity of job applications, swim tests, and interviews, we've Made It once we land our first position.  

Oh, we think.  We've finally Achieved Our Dream!

Livin' the dream!

Well, I don't know about most of you fellow animal trainers out there, but let me say that my first job as an Apprentice Trainer was 60% Excitement and 40% Sheer Terror.  You've got the job, yes.  But now you need to become a Good Trainer.  That road is long and never-ending, but it seems most daunting at the very beginning.  I spent six months of my life worrying only about never making a single mistake.  Ha!

Among some of the many fine examples of how my first place of employment takes excellent care of their animals, we Apprentices were indoctrinated with Animal Safety Protocol.  We had a series of tests we had to take as new hires before our probationary period was up.  If we did not pass, we would be asked to leave.  Not only that, but a passing grade meant an 80% or higher.  This was serious business, and it was great to have my first job show me how important animal safety is.

As you may have already deduced, I passed all required tests.  I promised myself I would always uphold the Safety Protocol, and never cut corners.  I, Cat Rust, Apprentice Trainer, would ne'er fail the animals nor the Company!  Nothing and nobody could shake my determination to be the shining example of Maintaining Animal Welfare!  And then, one day, one of my bosses tested me.

So who was it?  Was it the curator? The supervisor? The senior trainer?  No.

It was one of the grey, bald, aqua bosses we commonly call dolphins.  And this particular dolphin's name was Abaco.

Abaco, the Man, the Myth, the Legend.

At the time, Abaco was about five or six years old.  He lived with a group of other similarly-aged dolphins.  Their habitat was located in a different area than where our trainer's office was, so several times every day we'd load up a cart with their buckets for their training sessions. I had only been working with these animals for a few months, but was enjoying getting to know them individually.  

One day, after a particularly good training session, one of the senior trainers asked me to put toys into Abaco's habitat.  Not forgetting the Pledge of Safety, I double-checked all of the footballs I wanted to give them.  They were properly inflated, their structural integrity was sound, and they had been recently cleaned.  I tossed them into the habitat and waved to the other trainers as they left me to watch the dolphins play.  

One of the Rules: all toy play must be supervised, in case a 400 pound animal with 88 cone-shaped, sharp teeth decides to dismantle their playthings.   This was very unusual, as their toys were designed to withstand harsh play, but one could never be too careful.  Plus, the Rule was fun for the trainer who got to watch (unless you did not enjoy watching dolphins play, in which case your career path was incorrect).

As I watched the dolphins play with the footballs, I found a chair and pulled it near the habitat's edge.  I sat down and looked at my watch.  

"Oh good," I thought.  "I have 30 minutes until I need to be back for My Next Assigned Task."  I could not be late, as that would be a Mistake.  And as we've discussed previously, I did not allow myself to make any of those.

The adage "Time flies when you're having fun" ought to be amended.  I move to change this popular phrase to read:

"Time flies when you're having fun, unless a required task begins to encroach on a time-sensitive duty, in which case you are no longer having fun, you are trying to find a tangible element of Time Itself, wrap it around both hands, and heave it backwards to Just Start The Hell Over."

As the half hour lapsed, I began to get the footballs out of the dolphins' habitat.  Four of the dolphins had since moved on to other more fun dolphin tasks, such as Rolling All Over Each Other.  There was one football left in the water just out of reach.  I looked beneath the surface to see where the dolphins were before I tried to reach the football with a target pole.  

As I reached the pole out towards the ball, a dolphin rushed towards it and retrieved it in its mouth.  The dolphin moved so quickly I couldn't tell at first who had foiled my clean-up.  When he slowed down and peered at me with his left eye across the pool, I saw the culprit.  Abaco.

Oh, how cute! I thought.  Abaco wants to play with this football.  

Footballs.  Every dolphin needs one.

I glanced at my watch again.  I only had a couple of minutes before I needed to be back at the Scheduled Time.  As an Apprentice Trainer, you do not show up late to anything.  You show up early. And I most definitely was not going to be early at this rate.

Another Rule I had to follow was I could not actively try to ask Abaco for the ball back.  That was a Trained Behavior, and I did not have anything with which to reinforce him, should he bring the ball back to me.  

In my embarrassing naivete, I thought perhaps Abaco wanted to play a game of fetch with me.  I stood at the edge of the pool wall with my arms extended.  

Me: Come on, Abaco! Bring it over, I'll toss it back!

Abaco: remained still, the football still in his mouth "Yeah, right!"

Me: We are going to have so much fun playing fetch! You bring the ball, I toss the ball, you bring it back, I toss it out again...

To which Abaco replied by quickly spitting the ball out of his mouth.  It floated a few inches in front of his face, but still well within his control. 

"There," he said to me.  "You see? I don't give a %(*& about the football.  But you still can't have it."

I looked back at my watch.  I was now officially Late.  I had no way to get back to the office, because it required me to leave the habitat with an a toy Unsupervised.  I stuck to my guns.  I'd just have to get in trouble.  I could not break a Rule.

I feigned disinterest in the ball.  I walked around the other habitats, checked on the manatees in a nearby exhibit ten feet away.  I peered over my shoulder at Abaco, who had since let the ball float away in the current.  He stared at me, turning his head to follow me as I moved nonchalantly around the area.  

I waited until he returned to a normal swim pattern.

No, my Gut told me.  Don't go for the ball right away.  He's expecting that.  

I smiled at my own cleverness.  Dolphins are smart, but c'mon, they can't outsmart a human.

As the sun slipped behind the clouds, the football moved lazily towards the wall closest to me.  I made my way slowly over to the pool, watching the dolphins swim unaware of my presence.  I looked beneath the surface to make sure there was no dolphin, but the cloud-cover made it impossible to see the bottom of the deep habitat.  

GO FOR IT!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! my Gut said.  I lunged forward and reached for the football.  My fingers grazed its side and a wave of relief washed over me  an actual wave of water washed over me.  Abaco launched himself at the football from directly beneath it.  He sped away, ball in tow.  He popped up at the opposite end of the habitat, staring at me triumphantly.   I'm 108% sure he was laughing.

Me: Blast! You've outdone me again, Abaco!

Abaco: The game is up, Mere Human! Declare defeat, return to your kind in humble shame!

Someone has to come out here to check on me, I thought.  I'm really late for My Assigned Task.  They're going to come here to find out What The Eff I'm Doing.   I prepared myself for being scolded.  I thought about the future of my career.  And then the Terror of Apprentice Trainership set in.  What if I got in trouble for being late?  Would they understand it was because I was following a Safety Rule?  What if that didn't matter?  What if I was supposed to go to the nearest department, use the phone, and call for help?  What if I went to the nearest department, used the phone, and called for help and got in trouble for leaving Abaco alone with his football?  What if I left Abaco alone with his football, and a dozen or so space aliens hovered their spacecraft above the habitat, beamed up the football, and no one could ever find it again when we did the daily toy inventory? 

I had to call for help, I didn't know what to do.  I'd now played Cat and Mouse (to clarify: Abaco was the Cat) for over thirty minutes and I needed to get some expertise.  I ran as fast as I could to the Sea Lion Department, which was not too far away.  I breathlessly called my office and explained to the senior trainer what was going on.

The reason I know that mouse is my kindred spirit is because I too would steal cheese.


Senior Trainer: Oh, don't worry.  We figured that's what happened.  Just wait until he throws the ball out, or just wait until we get out there for the next session.

Me: Oh, okay.  See you soon.

Relieved, I went back out to Abaco's lair.  "I shan't play your childish games anymore!" I declared.  "You can try all you want, Abaco.  But I have won, because I don't need the football! I have taken your power! I emerge victorious in this Battle of Wits!"

Abaco and I did become pals.

Abaco disappeared beneath the surface with his football.  I leaned back in my chair and returned to a calm demeanor.  

The football popped back up at the surface.  In a matter of a few seconds, the ball moved closer towards my reach, but it moved against the current. 

Curious, I leaned forward in my chair to see through the water, and as the sun peered its way through the clouds, I suddenly saw Abaco sitting a couple of feet beneath the football, staring up at me. 

"OMG," I said.  "You're baiting me!"

We remained still, sizing each other up.  "I'M GOING FOR ITTTTTTT!" I told Abaco as I threw my hands towards the football as fast as possible.  Abaco charged the football and slipped it out of my hand, racing away towards the other dolphins.  The other dolphins began porpoising and vocalizing.  They followed Abaco around the habitat, watching him with the football.  Every time Abaco surfaced away from me, he'd tilt his head towards me, and throw the ball as hard as he could.  When he got closer to me, he held onto his prize so I had no chance of getting it.  

Now all five dolphins were riled up.  On every throw that happened on the opposite side of the pool, Abaco's tosses were more and more charged.  He was really gloating about this, I thought.  I conceded defeat.  

Me: You win, pal.

Abaco: No kidding, chump.

And then, Abaco learned a lesson in sore-winning.  In his wild celebration, he tossed the football a little too far.  The other dolphins in a tizzy, the smallest of them all rose to the surface and snatched the ball away from him.  And then, she threw the ball completely out of the habitat.

"YESSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSS!"  I said as I ran down the hill to get the ball.  I laughed out loud as I walked back up to the habitat to place the ball back in its toy box.  

All five dolphins sat up to watch me.  Among them, Abaco.  I stopped laughing and looked at him, filled with respect.  I don't know what he was thinking then, but I knew that he had given me the gift of a memory that I'd never forget.  He also gave me perspective.  While I was coming from the right place in making sure I was following the safety protocol, I was also worried about being on time, about the future of my career.  Abaco's keep-away game forced me into the present moment.  How often do we allow ourselves to enjoy a misadventure unfolding before us, completely out of our control?  Why should I have worried myself about MAYBE getting a slap on the wrist for being late, when I was only doing what I knew was right with the massively wonderful bonus of seeing dolphin intelligence in action (and my own intelligence well, missing)?   I think the lesson here is relevant to people from all walks of life.  So if you take away anything from this blog post, let it be to set aside what stresses you for just a moment, and enjoy what you are experiencing NOW.**

Here's some perspective.

* International Marine Animal Trainer's Association.  Check out their website www.imata.org

** Which right NOW, happens to be the last part of this blog.  Shameless plug?  Correct.

1 comment:

  1. He did almost the exact same thing to me when I was watching the DH animals and trying to clean up. It was with a buoy tho, and didn't take nearly so long because Caroline Munoz came to save me since I was just an intern.