Monday, February 28, 2011

The Middle Flipper is... (Part 2)

...a 58 year old dolphin.

For the advanced sushi enthusiast.

I am lucky enough to know one of the oldest bottlenose dolphins in human care.  Her name is Nellie, and she turned 58 years old yesterday*. She is the second oldest dolphin of her species in recorded history.  She is as reliable as the Timex watches she used to endorse in her TV ads:

Nellie's Timex Ad

What's it like working with an animal that has reached an age that is far past normal life expectancy?  Yes, it's awesome.  Mostly, it's humbling.  Here is an accurate account of an actual and recent interaction I had with the Amazing Ms. Nellie:

Me: Good morning Ms. Nellie! Please show me your tail to allow me to see if you've gotten any bumps or bruises on it. 

Nellie: Eeeeek. Click. Click. (No.  How about I spin instead?)

Me: Okay, Ms. Nellie.  I promise it will only take me a moment to look at your tail.  Please, show me your tail.

Nellie: Eeeeek. Click. Click. (I don't care if it takes a moment, or six hours.  I'm not giving you my tail.  Why should I, anyway?)

Me: Well, it's something we trainers do to ensure you get the best health care possible.  

Nellie: Click. Clickclick. Sqeak.  (That's a load of malarkey.  In my day, we didn't have health care.  In my day, I was in a Timex commercial.  I voted for President Nixon, although I now admit that was a mistake.  I remember the first monkey of your kind landing on the moon.  Seems like a waste of tax dollars to me, but what do I know? I don't even pay taxes.  I guess that means I'm smarter than you.  And for all of these reasons, you will not be seeing my tail.  Would you like to hear me sing?)  Squeak! Squeak! Squeak!

Me: Nellie.  I am using positive reinforcement.  I have fish. I have a basketball.  I have all of these things that you are supposed to want.  Those things should motivate you to show me your tail when I ask you for it.  I am a senior trainer.  I know how to train dolphins.  So please, give me your tail.

Nellie: Okay, enough of the cute dolphin B.S.  Look, whippersnapper.  I am 58 years old.  In your terms, that makes me 116 years old.  You are an infantile, blond, female, dolphin "trainer", the likes of which I've seen literally thousands of times.  I don't do anything for fish or basketballs.  You are nothing but a servant to the rest of us dolphins.  You feed us when we want, you clean our rooms without pay, you provide us with free health care, you give us every toy we demand.  I've trained YOU to give them to ME.  And you can keep your stupid fish and toys.  I'd rather have a shot of brandy and play canasta.  Let me know when you can provide me with a nice, young pool boy to look at. 

You can't argue with a gigantic, intelligent, and ancient animal.  Let's delve further into this topic of Nellie's dissension:

When I think of myself as a trainer, I think of myself as this:

The Dolphin Trainer! Compassionate, predictable, fair, and fun! 
Nellie probably sees me like this:

A hopeless weirdo.

From Nellie's perspective, I can certainly understand why she gives me the Middle Flipper on occasion.  She does what she wants, when she wants.  She gives you the Middle Flipper in a way that is usually diplomatic (i.e. I do not actually understand what Nellie is saying as she refuses to do what I'm ask her to do).  She does not swim off in a huff, or slap her tail on the water (a sign of dolphin irritation in some cases), nor does she get aggressive.  

Nellie has mastered the art of civil disobedience.  And why not?  She has certainly seen the dolphin training field change in many ways.  When she was born, dolphin training was in its infancy.  Where today trainers will guide the dolphins through small steps towards an end goal, Nellie's childhood training experience likely consisted of a trainer waiting until Nellie did something awesome, then fed her for it.  Neither of these two schools of thought are incorrect, but they are certainly different.  Nellie has mastered many methods of training.  

Every so often she will do something that none of her current trainers were aware that she knew.  Swatting a mosquito on your forehead could elicit a response from Nellie that results in a triple backflip.  What else does she have stored in that big, seasoned dolphin brain of hers?  Maybe I should listen a little more than I try to teach.

So hats off to you, Ms. Nellie.  I am honored to be your student.

* The average life expectancy of a bottlenose dolphin is around 30 years old, although they can live into their 40s and more rarely, their 50s.  Once they get to their 40s, they enjoy such activities as: pickle ball, supper clubs, and watching reruns of the Lawrence Welk Show.

1 comment:

  1. Oh god, this is the best one I've read so far! I showed my dad earlier and read him the conversation between you and Nellie, he was bursting out laughing.

    I hope to see Nellie next year when I do my aquarium trip!