Sunday, September 28, 2014

The Middle Flipper Is (Part 12)......

...the pickiest sea lion in all the land.

Meet Patty.


I can hear all of you collectively "awwwwing" at your computer or phone screen.  Why? Because Patty had an adorable face.  You know what else she had?  Here's a little list:

* Charisma
* Smarts
* A lovely singing voice
* A beautiful blond coat
* Sass.  Lots and lots of sass.

Patty was a 32 year old California sea lion who was rescued as a pup, like so many others*.  Perhaps because she received excellent, doting care when she was such a young gal, she did precisely what she wanted, when she wanted.  She underwent a mastectomy for breast cancer when she was 30, pulled through like a champion, and went on to tell Planet Earth that she ruled.  Despite being mostly blind at her ancient age (30 years old for a California sea lion is the equivalent to a 90 year old human), her eyes were always bright and ready.  She vocalized a lot in short, staccato-like pulses that resembled normal sea lion sounds but were orated with confidence.  There was no, "BARK BARK BARK".  There was, "Bark.  Bark bark barkbark? Bark....bark!  Bark bark bark bark?"  Or, "Bark."  Simple, elegant, definitive.  God I wish I knew what she wanted to tell us.

I met Patty in 2013.  She was one of the first sea lions I ever got to know well, which surprised some of the veteran trainers at my job.  Why? Because Patty was picky.  Very, very picky.  She had a long history of hand-selecting her trainers.  In some cases, she only saw one or two trainers for extended periods of time, so I'm sure that didn't really help her be open-minded about her human servants.

Yes, my queen.

When I started to learn what Patty was all about, I witnessed her show this extreme differentiation between trainers.  You know, it's not like pickiness is unique to this particular story.  We all know an animal who has a stronger relationship with someone that isn't us, right?  Or an animal who knows how  to yank our chains and have a good time at our expense.  That's part of the fun.  It's also an important element to any animal training program, so we can all cultivate strong relationships with our animals.

In most cases, when an animal chooses to leave a trainer in a scenario likely related to differentiation issues, there isn't much to write home about.  It goes something like this:

Cat: Hey Sally the seal! Good to see you! Let's get started with-
Sally: No, thanks.  Bounces off

Or maybe something like this:

Cat: Hey Penny the penguin! Target!
Penny: How about I take 67 seconds to target?  Or what if I spin? How about a nice spin?

So you go back to the drawing board and really try to build up your relationship and all is well and good in the training world.

But when Patty had a problem with her trainer, oh, you knew it.  You couldn't be in the same habitat without knowing when Patty was making her Selection (or ha ha, Rejection).  Like a Grecian goddess descending from Lofty Heavenly Heights with Ire and Conviction, Patty dramatically left her trainer and barreled her way in the shortest distance between two points: her current trainer and the Chosen One.  If you were in her way, too bad.  She had an agenda that could not be stopped by the biomass of a human being.

An actual photo of Patty searching for a preferred trainer.  

The first time I saw this, I don't remember who her actual trainer was.  I just remember being in the habitat, with three other trainers interacting with sea lions, and hearing, "Heads up! Patty's coming!"

I look over at her, and here she comes, waddling at 98 miles per hour towards Favorite Trainer Number One (herein referred to as "FT1"), who happened to be working with our oldest male sea lion, Kyle.  When Patty arrived, despite the best efforts of all other trainers involved, the feisty lady parked herself at FT1 and gazed upon her with wide eyes.  "Bark. Honk," she said.   Nothing could break her concentration, so we had to end the session and try again.

So when I started getting to know Patty, we all assumed that she'd have a rough time getting adjusted to the new blond in town.  But surprisingly, we got along right off the bat.  I don't know what I did or didn't do that got me in Patty's good graces, but I relished it.  She never chose me as Favorite Trainer per se, but she never left me.  We had a jolly old time.  We ran around, we played games, I marveled at her incredible resolve as a cancer survivor at such an old age, and I giggled at every definitive bark and honk she shared with me.  I was in pure animal trainer bliss.

We were so happy together in those days!

And then.

Something happened.  What it was, I still don't know.  It remains as mysterious as the third gunman on the grassy knoll, Atlantis, or why Lindsay Lohan is still a thing.  No one may ever know.  But something happened and I went from being Patty's friend to NOT FRIENDDDDD.

Patty would've blocked me on FB for sure.

At first, this differentiation was business as usual.  While I felt a little bit sad that our special relationship was no longer valid in the world of Princess Picky, I knew that this was part of her thing and in a weird way felt honored to experience it first hand.  We went through the normal motions of working through a major differentiation problem.  You know, pairing successful trainers with me, reinforcing Patty for interacting with me for brief periods of time by letting her go to Favorite Trainers.   But nothing worked.  And what was normal at first quickly turned into a Mystery Of Great Proportions Laced With Great Insecurity About How I Smelled.


Look, it's okay if an animal isn't the biggest fan of me.  I mean, I'd love to have the best relationship ever with every animal ever.  While I will strive to figure out how to make every animal's life special and good and wonderful, I also know they are individuals and have a right to be like, "Eh Cat, you're okay but you're not my favorite."  I mean, we don't all get along the same way with every human, right?  The animal can have a choice, and in the vast majority of cases (errrr, okay, in every case in my experience EXCEPT what I'm about to tell you), you can put the time, effort, and respect into each relationship and at least get a GOOD rapport, even if it's not one that has the greatest connection ever.

So if an animal goes through a period of time where they just aren't that into me, I don't let it destroy me.  I let it motivate me, so I can figure out what I can do to build trust and respect from that animal.

Patty showed me that there was a limit to that perspective.

After all, Patty's perspective was the only one.

Not only would she not eat from me or emit behaviors with me, she wouldn't go anywhere near me.

"No duh, Cat.  If she didn't eat from you, why would she go anywhere near you?"

Good question, dear reader.  Let me clarify.

If I were in the habitat with another sea lion, and happened to wind up near Patty, she would leave her trainer to get away from me.  

Any attempts to get me to feed her a half of a capelin while standing next to another trainer proved impossible for a good long time.  The second I'd get close to Patty, especially if I was upwind of her, she'd break focus with her Favorite Trainer, open her little nostrils, sniff the air, turn her head towards me and do one or more of the following things:

1) Spit her fish
2) Chuff
3) Sneeze/snort/projectile launch sea lion boogers and that molasses-like substance that coat their teeth and gums
4) Dramatically throw herself off of her seat and plunge into the water, never to return

Here is Patty, after letting herself into her favorite hallway, refusing to do anything for anybody.  

One day, I decided to do some enrichment with another group of sea lions.  To do this, I had to be in a hallway that joins all of our sea lion habitats together, allowing us to easily move animals around. I leaned against the wall of the hallway which led into the habitat I wanted to put enrichment in, and I remained there for several minutes playing with and observing the sea lions.

An hour or so later, I went to Patty's habitat with several other trainers to do a session.  One of Patty's Favorite Trainers (not FT1, but FT2) started off on a great start.  She decided to work on Patty's gating, and asked her into the hallway I just talked about.  I watched as Patty energetically and vocally followed FT2 into said hallway.  FT2 was giving rapid fire SDs, bridging every behavior because Patty was doing so great.

I got into my session with the sea lion I had, until I heard Patty Snort and Chuff.

"Heads up, Patty's coming back in!"

I look up and see Her Royal Highness's hallmark power-waddle into her main habitat and slosh dramatically into the water, leaving a perplexed FT2 in her wake.

"I don't know what happened," FT2 said.  "She got to this one part of the hallway, sniffed it, then left me!"

This can't be happening, I thought.  "Where did she sniff?"

FT2 described to me the exact location where I had leaned for a few minutes just an hour ago.  And suddenly, any self-confidence I had disappeared.  I must smell really, really bad.  I looked down at the sea lion I was interacting with, a very old but sweet sea lion.  I wanted to ask her:

Me: Star, do I smell that bad?
Star: Oh honey, it's not bad.  It's special!

Star, foreground, looked and acted like a Sweet Old Lady and helped me get through the dark Patty Rejection Times.

Think my remote smell is bad?  There were also several occasions over several months where Patty would stop eating from FT1 if I passed by her and the wind blew the right way. Like, she'd have a fish in her mouth, smell me, and immediately eject the fish like it tasted like poison, or worse, a mushroom.

....this is eerily close to what Patty looked like around me.

The trainers all opined at length about what could be the cause of Patty's distaste in my very existence in her world.  She was having more minor incidents with other trainers, but nothing to the extent that I was experiencing.  In fact, as far as I'm aware, I hold the record for Worst Picky Patty moments.

We came up with lots of hypotheses, all of which were debunked (but for your entertainment):

1) Was I too loud?
2) Was I too quiet?
3) Was I too strict in my training?
4) Did I use different laundry detergent?
5) I'm a vegetarian; does that give me a weird hippy smell or something?

I felt like I was permanently in Patty's Burn Book, with no clue as to what put me there.  From August until the end of December, I had not a single successful incident of even being NEAR Patty without her announcing her great displeasure.  We charted it on an excel spreadsheet, I avoided going near her for a time and tried to slowly approximate myself back into her sphere of influence.  Alas, nothing worked.

Oh look! Cat's on every page!

And then, almost as quickly as it started, the differentiation stopped.  She started interacting with me as if nothing had ever happened.  I actually felt like crying from happiness when I had a successful session with her, starting with 0.0004 seconds of interaction with a Favorite Trainer and quickly progressing to full sessions with her.  She was bright-eyed, she was attentive, she talked my ear off.

Then, on Christmas Day in 2013 at the very last session, the assistant supervisor and I noticed Patty having difficulty breathing.  Over the next few days her condition deteriorated quickly, which as you can imagine meant that she'd only give her Favorite Trainers the time of day. But only that lasted for a couple of days, and soon she stopped eating from anyone.

We had to get her medications that could alleviate the reason why she had breathing difficulty.  While we couldn't know for sure what exactly was going on, we knew that she had fluid in her lungs.  The medication would reduce or eliminate the fluid and make her feel like her old self again, but we knew this was likely a condition related to her very old age.  We had to find a way to get Patty to eat the meds.

Alas, even FT1 was unsuccessful.  Patty, being the sassy CEO of sea lions that she was, did not hide her irritation with us entering her castle.   It got to the point where we had a hard time cleaning her habitat because she blocked us or tried to chase us out.  I'm sure this had something to do with the fact that she felt like crappola, too.  But we knew this was a very serious issue.

Patty with FT1

Who, oh who could feed Patty and bring her back to her old self?

One of her former trainers, now the director of our Life Support Systems, used to be one of her primary trainers.  He above all others was Supreme Favorite Trainer (SFT).  So we asked him, can you try to get Patty to eat?  Patty hadn't seen SFT in at least two years, so we weren't sure how this was going to go.  But we had to do something.

I don't know how all of you guys out there imagine perfect meetings of lost lovers occurring, like if you hear violins or something or picture some Ryan Gosling movie scene.  But whatever you imagine, that's what happened when Patty saw SFT.  The years of absence meant absolutely nothing, because she lit up when she heard his voice.  She leaned into him when he reached out to give her shoulder rubs.  She started talking again, something we hadn't heard in a several days.  And she ate.  After two days of nothing eating anything, she ate like it was no big deal.

And it feels so good.

So SFT got her the meds consistently each session, and we saw Patty's quality of life exponentially improve.  Knowing that SFT had other things to do than be at the beck and call of the animal training department (oh you know, like Life Support stuff, or taking a day off), and that Patty would only benefit from at least getting some of her old FTs back on the roster, we started approximating her old cronies back into the mix.  It didn't go well.  Patty wanted nothing to do with anyone other than Supreme Favorite.

So what did we do?  Well, as I mentioned, Patty couldn't see very well.  But boy could she smell.  So her FTs wore SFT's jacket, entered the habitat quietly, and tried not to talk (or talk in a low voice like SFT's) which worked for a little bit.  We all felt like ninjas walking in there, gazing upon Patty as she sunned her beautiful blond fur waiting for her human servants to try their best to earn her favor.

Masters of Disguise we were not.

We even tried to have SFT talk to Patty on speaker on a cell phone while someone else tried to feed her (she saw right through that *%#@).    We eventually got some successes, but not without some clear signs from her that while okay, she'd eat from you, she'd REALLY rather eat from SFT.

Like this one time, FT2 went in (who had lots of success with Patty doing well for her since going on her new meds).  Her intention was to feed Patty, but let SFT give her tactile and hang out with her.  FT2 got off on the right foot, and nodded to me to let SFT into the habitat.  SFT came in, and Patty remained with FT2....until SFT spoke.  At this glorious manly sound, Patty stood up, shoved FT2 against the wall of the habitat so she could haul ass towards her True Pal.  She didn't hurt FT2 but for her feelings a little bit.


In the end, Patty started eating from most of us, even me off and on (for no rhyme or reason any of us could figure).

As I'm sure you guys have noticed, I've referred to Patty in the past tense.  At 32 years old, Patty passed away this spring.  Her cancer had come back and had metastasized; there was nothing anyone could've done.  It still makes me tear up just to write this, because despite whatever the heck I did that displeased Picky Patty, I miss her a lot.  I miss her Bark, bark, bark honk bark?  I miss how she used to lean forward on her lean with her giant eyes, and how she'd act so disgusted if she caught just the briefest sniff of me.  She knew what she wanted and went after it, not caring what our plans were.  I think about how much she lit up when she saw SFT, especially the first time they were reconnected, and being reminded of something we all know: the animals remember the relationships that mean the most to them.

The vets had never seen an animal survive metastatic cancer to the extent Patty had it.  She swam and sassed right up until the end, when I assume she decided it was time to shuffle the mortal coil and rule another, more ethereal realm.  A strong, confident, and intelligent woman who taught us all a lot of lessons and left us with lots to think about with her Middle Flipper events.  I'll never forget her.  And now neither will you. :)


* California sea lion pups are starving.  Hundreds of them strand every year.  Don't believe me?  Check out any pinniped rescue facility, including The Marine Mammal Center, Sea World, the Pacific Mammal Center, and countless others along the west coast of the U.S. and Canada.


  1. What a great memorial. Awesome post.

  2. This is such a beautiful story about your dear Patty, and you tell it so well <3 Thank you! :-)