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!

Sunday, July 30, 2017

Photo Evidence, Zoos, and YOU

You guys, I just realized something.

I know that I have never really been firmly in the "All Zoos Are Good Zoos" camp, and I have also never been in the anti-zoo camp, either.  But generally speaking, I am pro-zoo/aquarium, provided the animals' well-being is truly the first priority, and not just a talking point we throw out to our guests.

I also like to think that I am a critical thinker in most scenarios, except at most mealtimes.  Like, some people lose their inhibitions after a certain amount of alcohol is consumed, but pretty much the sight of mac and cheese renders me completely unable to process any further external stimuli.

But I digress.  In many instances, I try to take what I read with a grain of salt, even if I am of the same opinion as the author.  I am definitely not perfect at this, but I actively try.  I also feel like I am a pretty introspective person, come hell or high water.  I could do a 593-part blog series on my character flaws and still have content to write. 

So imagine my terror and surprise when I read the most recent "Check Out These Photos Of Sad Animals In Zoos" articles, thinking I would see the same-old images, and feel the same-old "yeah but..." feelings.  Except, this time, I had a totally different reaction.

Unfortunately, I realized that my entire life has been a lie.  What I thought was real, well, isn't.  In fact, as I read the article, images in my OWN life popped into my mind and I wondered, "My GOD, have I been blind to the Truth all of this time?"

Let me show you what I mean.

I thought my daughter was a human being.  But here is irrefutable photographic evidence that she is actually a candy corn.  HOW COULD I BE SO BLIND.  

Some of these Truths are not necessarily bad.  Some of them are pretty cool.  The more I searched through the photos of my life, the more I found.

Did you know I was a Ghostbuster?

Photo. Proof.

And that I am married to Chris Hemsworth?
He is the luckiest.

Oh! Oh and that I killed one of my previous coworkers?

Far right.  I'm a homicidal maniac.

I was in the Russian ballet for a while.

GOD I look good in a tiara.

Okay, let's be serious for a second.  This anti-zooish article I am talking about has some photos of things I think we would all agree are not really best practices.  Like the image of a gray seal with balloons around his exhibit?  F-

But the point of the article obviously focuses the reader's attention on a very slim perspective.  There are a lot of what I think are helpful positions on this topic, even if they are contrary to what many of us would agree with.  There are a few great rebuttals to this article, so I won't go into more depth on this topic.  But there is one photo I wanted to point out.

This is Jo-Anne McArthur's photo of a giraffe in a German zoo, located next to an Ikea.
It's hard to reason that, ideally, a captive giraffe would have nothing but savannah to look at in his/her top-notch zoo exhibit.  Or, like other fantastic zoos without limitless funds, have a great exhibit surrounded by native trees.  But the fact is, animals in the wild encounter manmade shenanigans all the time....and usually in a sinister setting.   That is not to say that one should change their opinion based on ONE photo, but I think all of us animal lovers (pro-zoo or not) could agree that there is a serious need for conservation outreach....the majority of which happens in zoos.

The famous (infamous?) photo of wild orcas with a delightful industrial backdrop

Many of us know that the facilities we work at or support do literally everything possible to ensure the animals under our care live happy, healthy lives.   Many of us get really upset when we see articles showing unfavorable aspects of our (well, now YOUR) livelihood and life's work. 

But instead of just rebutting the article, or sharing it on Facebook, we can't stop there.  We also can't immediately reject these kinds of opinions, because there is an element of truth to them in some situations.  We are concerned with animal rights activists taking hold of our field and destroying it.  But I think many of us also know that not all zoos are created equally.  Some of us work in places that we know needs change, but are too afraid (or exhausted) to bring up our ideas. 

Use the negative press as a catalyst for debate amongst OURSELVES.  We do not need to be united on every aspect; we need the freedom to engage in thoughtful critique of our animal management methodologies, exhibit design, training philosophy, and staff development.  The places that do some or all of these things well often have a lot to contribute.  The places that do not have these things well-organized often are chalk full of passionate, intelligent zookeepers just bursting at the seams to implement some amazingly positive change.  We are already pro-zoo, but that doesn't mean we are anti-change.  Talk to each other.

Whoa. Got a little heavy there, didn't it? 

Let's leave it on some more AMAZING and NEVER BEFORE SEEN photographs that will just totally turn your world upside-down.

You're welcome.

Sunday, July 23, 2017

Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Days: Part 1

There are a number of causes of Bad Days At Work, even for a seemingly glamorous job like a zookeeper.


Okay, please tell me why it's okay to refer to septic systems as honey pots (hint: "irony" is not an acceptable answer)

The general public probably thinks our bad days entail at least one of the following components:

  1. Poop
  2. Getting a light sunburn
  3. Animal deaths
  4. Not getting licked (or whatever behavioral sign of affection innate to the animal in your care) enough

But really, the only item on that list that really makes a horrendous day is #3, which is not what I am going to focus on in today’s blog.

No, I am going to focus on those really horrible, no good, bad days that pop up out of nowhere and rain chaos and sorrow DESPITE nobody being really sick or dying. 
*raises hand*

In fact, let’s revisit a list of potential Bad Day contributors.  I would like to amend it slighty.  Bad Days for me consist of:

  1. Getting poop directly in facial orifices (yes, I had to specify)
  2. Scuba diving in three feet of stagnant water that is filled with dolphin poop and algae and has not been filtered or otherwise moved in THREE DAYS OH GOD I AM ALREADY BARFING JUST THINKING ABOUT IT
  3. Lip sunburn.  It’s a thing.  And it’s a thing that haunts your every meal for months
  4. Animal deaths, obviously :(
  5. Getting bitten, fluked, charged, or taken on a lengthy Tour Of The Underwater Drains by a sea mammal larger and smarter than me
  6. Fire ants.
  7. Fire ants trapped in my bathing suit
  8. Being in relatively unsafe conditions, like getting wrapped in a net underwater that resulted in someone’s finger being pulled off
  9. Bringing a really dumb lunch

The list goes on.
Sad, sad little lunch

But one of the the worst non-animal-related days of my animal career was at the very beginning.  And I'm writing about it now, because I think you'll get a laugh, AND I am no longer in the field, AND I am pretty sure the statute of limitations will cover any unintentionally illegal component of this story.  

This day was the day I Almost Killed A Bunch Of People With Scuba Tanks. 

When I was at my first place of employment, I had the pleasure of wielding a “pickup truck” during fish delivery in the mornings.  I say wielding because to use the verb “drive” in this context is entirely misleading.  Also, this vehicle was, in a previous life (roughly 29 zillion years ago) a pickup truck.  By the time I encountered it, it was basically a pile of rusted metal on four-ish wheels that ran on Black Magic and an engine trying to die .
Oh! Here it is!

My department was responsible for removing frozen flats of fish from the thaw room and delivering it to every marine mammal department in the park.  This meant loading thousands of pounds of frozen fish into the bed of this Death Truck and somehow, through consistent religious practice, getting it to move from points A to B to C and D without losing too many parts and/or lives.

Because this event happened early in the morning before the park opened, and it was not operated on any actual roads, the task of handling the truck was done with light-hearted humor and a mixture of terror that you would get thrown into the steering wheel because the driver seat did not actually fix into one position.  It slid forwards and backwards with little outside force, but I was not a physicist and figured this was an old truck and/or a poltergeist was involved.

We oft joked about what it would be like to drive The Truck on the real road.  Yes, the driver seat slid like a rowing machine.  Yes, there were no side view mirrors.  The brakes didn't always work when you thought they would (such as when you hit the brake pedal).  The engine made a noise akin to a wolverine being skinned alive but generally did what you asked it too, like drive 5 mph.  I mean, I think it was 5mph, because the speedometer didn't work.  But the best part about this glorious vehicle was its tail gate fell off when it was met with force from three or more atoms moving against any part of it.
Yeah.  If you sold five of these fish house trucks, you still couldn't afford a footlong sub at Subway.

The tail gate issue was not a huge deal during fish truck delivery, because you drove really slowly with the fish boxes piled in the back.  But we all wondered, what would happen if you drove this truck at highway speed?  

And then, I found out.

My then-boss asked me to take empty scuba cylinders to a dive shop a few minutes away from the aquarium, and then return with several filled ones.  They asked me to do this with a coworker of mine (who shall herein be referred to as Famous Coworker, since he knew every celebrity and was on the Real World several years later) , who had been at the park roughly 8 months longer than me and had done this before.  

Long story short, when we asked 1) how many tanks we were to be transporting and 2) HOW we would get them there, we were met with these answers (in corresponding order):

  1. I don’t know, maybe 10?
  2. The fish house truck

Oh, but they were.

We both stood in stunned silence.  This was not the type of workplace where you could easily share your grievances, but we figured we heard wrong.  Surely, there must be another truck.  One that is fit for highway travel.  One that has a speedometer or mirrors or something.

Nope, nope, nope.  It was The Truck.  And they saw no reason not to take it, they just said to drive it slow (the highway we needed to take was…um, a highway). Plus, they reasoned, it wasn't very far.

Famous Coworker offered to drive his new truck, since it had enough room.  No, no, our boss insisted. The fish truck was fine, they used it last week for this purpose and everything was fine.  Just DO IT.

Now I know what you reasonable people are thinking.  WHY, oh WHY didn't you just assert yourselves?  Why would you voluntarily get into such a terrible Death Car knowing that it was a huge safety risk?  I can only say, I was 22, terrified of most management, and believed I wouldn't knowingly be asked to do something really unsafe.

So off Famous Coworker and I go, to pick up the tanks.  We chuckled while pooing our pants the first time the tail gate fell off at the security booth as we loaded up the tanks.  We had nothing to secure them with, but were instructed by senior staff to just stack them “real tight” in the bed of the truck.  We had just the right number to wedge them into a sort of pyramid (the tanks were on their sides, because you know, for safety), and we were given a few cinder blocks to keep them in place, just to be Extra Safe.
This is slightly more safe than what we had going for us

I had to drive (another long story), so I drove at about 7mm per hour (yes, millimeters) through the parking lot.  My heart was pounding in my chest as I turned out of the parking lot onto the busy highway that would take us to the dive shop.  I would’ve put the hazards on, because I was driving so slowly and was just convinced at any minute, the tail gate would fall off.  But you know, those hazard lights didn’t work!  What an adventure!

However, we made it to the dive shop a couple of miles away without any drama.  We unloaded the empties, and began grabbing the full tanks.  We realized quickly that there were a different number of tanks we would be bringing back…which meant they would not fit tightly together in the bed of the truck.  Famous Coworker and I worked hard to figure out how to secure the tanks, but at least three of them would roll around a little between cinder blocks.  Still, the dive shop worker told us we should just drive “kinda slow” but that we would be okay.
A visual mantra for marine mammal trainers everywhere

So we get into the truck.  I slowly make a wide loop in the dive shop parking lot, preparing for a left-hand turn onto a highway which has a 45mph speed limit but a common speed of roughly E=MC2.  I figured that if something bad was going to happen, it would happen in that turn.   I gripped the steering wheel tightly, bracing myself for the front seat to do its slidey thing and praying that the brakes would work if I needed.  I took a deep breath, eased my foot onto the accelerator, turned the steering wheel and….

….turned successfully (albeit very, very slowly) onto the highway.  I drove maddeningly slow about 3/4ths of the way back to the aquarium, all without incident.  Then, I saw the turn lane back into the aquarium parking lot up ahead.  I wanted to get into the left left earlier than I normally would, because I didn't want to make any sudden stops or accelerate too quickly if I waited too long to make the turn.  I especially didn't want to bust a U.  

I got into the left lane, silently apologizing to the cars that would quickly approach me and probably curse me and several generations of my family for operating a vehicle at speeds that are almost legally allowable for justifiable homicide.   

We were inching along, the turn lane now in sight, and

****Trigger warning for Dive Safety Officers: you will have a heart attack if you read any further*******







Swearing is necessary for this

The tanks are scattered and bouncing and rolling everywhere and I start to stop right where I am but before the car stops Famous Coworker lets out this banshee death scream and he is out the door running across a HIGHWAY towards these bouncing, FULL scuba tanks, and he is still screaming and I am also screaming and I am pretty sure someone is going to die.

I get out of the car and yell some swear words as I run towards some tanks, running on pure adrenaline and stupidity, and help Famous Coworker pick them up, help reattach the tail gate (we had had plenty of practice with that) and then we get back into the truck and stare at each other.

“We are going to get fired,” Famous Coworker said.

I don't even remember what I said, if anything.  I was pissed.  I was terrified.  We could’ve killed someone.

As I pull into the park, I see one of the park operations managers standing near the back entrance, waving us down, red in the face.  He yelled at us for spilling scuba tanks on the highway.  I yelled at him for not having a proper vehicle to pick up tanks, like actually YELLED, and then I drove away before he could speak.
Arnold gets it

We unloaded the tanks, several of them hissing now, trying to alert whoever (??) would be in charge of making sure they didn't explode.  I unloaded my anger and fear to everyone I could find, boss or not, unable to contain myself.  The only response I really remember was hearing from another senior person that they were surprised I was allowed to take the fish house truck on the highway, because the same thing happened to other trainers a few weeks ago, but it happened to them in a parking lot.

This was the first time in my life I totally understood the phrase “spitting mad”.  I was pissed at myself for not standing up for what I KNEW was a bad idea.  I was pissed at my bosses, and their bosses.  I literally could not do anything except breathe occasionally and wonder why, in this heightened state of ire, I was literally producing 39 times the amount of saliva I normally do.  Swallowing was the only task I could focus on, because otherwise I would’ve just drooled all over myself which made me think people might not take me seriously and/or would just have me euthanized.

The experience was definitely a lesson learned; safety takes priority, no matter how intimidated you are ( if the intimation is real, OR if it’s just in your head).  I am really relieved that nobody was hurt, and that I was lucky enough to just take away from it a crazy story and a life lesson.  And also I have somehow avoided prison.