Sunday, May 18, 2014

The Precious Professional Items of a Marine Mammal Trainer

There are a lot of big feelings flying around the zoo industry right now.  And as important as some of these topics are, I am a big believer in two things:

1) Maintaining what's important is critical
2) Find joy and meaning in everything, no matter how small

You just gotta have fun

How does this apply to two opinionated groups battling each other over a common passion?  You might think it's ridiculous, and if you do, then this blog is really for you.  Because here's what I think: while I've dedicated a handful of Middle Flipper posts to topics that have really incited drama, for the most part I've kept this thing focused on the animals who have influenced me.  Why?  Not because I want to avoid current affairs, but because I have to remember that this is all ultimately centered around the animals.  Not just the ones I care for (although they are my first priority), but the ones who they represent.  

Getting people riled up with a dramatic press release, inflammatory language on social media, or slinging low-blow insults at friends, family members, or colleagues is just not my thing.  I don't think it's constructive for either side (why do there even NEED to be clear cut "sides"?).  


As trainers and animal caregivers, it's so easy in these periods of controversy to feel defeated.  But you're not defeated, it's just part of the ebb and flow.  Focusing on what's important to you (your animal companions/coworkers, what you stand for, your family, your friends) and finding a way to make those things create positive differences in the lives of others is a good way to recalibrate yourself.   And again, find the joy in the little things.

The other day, I was getting ready to do an otter training session when one of my coworkers commented that she'd had her watch for almost a year.


This watch is $30,000 and would last about 9 seconds in my job

Do you know how ridiculously rare this is in the marine mammal field?  A watch that lasts ONE YEAR?

And I thought, "This! This is one of those little things I should really enjoy, because it's hilarious that I'm fawning over a watch."

So I put together a few items I believe are the Precious Professional Items (PPIs) in the Marine Mammal Industry.

Don't get me wrong, it's not like marine mammal training is the only profession that have PPIs.  In my small-mindedness, I imagine lawyers jealously admiring someone's brand new desk chair.  I think about bankers coveting a brand new, company-issued Apple laptop computer.  Maybe private practice doctors cherish expensive pens or something.

Can one drool over a desk chair? Sure, if it's got the right ergonomic support. 

Of course, animal trainers don't have expensive pens.  We might have A desk chair, or (if we're lucky) more than one computer older than or equal to 5 years old.  But we've got stuff we use every day just like anyone else in a profession.  And that stuff gets lost, old, and/or worn very fast.  Here's my list of my PPIs.

1) Waterproof watches

Though your life is but a brief blip in Time, we so love you.

It's a key facet to my job that I'm on time.  Shows, interactions, sessions, meetings, LUNCH TIME! I have to know what time it is.  Of course, I'm around salt water for most of the day not just from the habitats, but I work right on the beach.  It's not a happy place in which electronics spend lengthy periods of time.   

And so the necessity for waterproof watches is born.  Okay wait, when I say "waterproof" I mean "water resistant", since very few trainers can afford to buy a legit waterproof watch.   So we're talking your WalMart brand, $14 watch that is water resistant to 30 feet or something.  

Any readers out there ever have a tamagotchi?  Remember how much time and love you put into that little pixelated creature with its pixelated poop and cute little electronic cries for attention and food?  Remember when you realized it's just a pixelated creature and you remembered the real world, and you didn't clean up the little poops anymore and before you know it, your tamagotchi is really sad and getting sick, and then it just dies?  Remember that feeling of guilt and sadness?  That's what it's like when your watch starts to die.

Don't Tamagotchi and drive

Spending $14 on a watch is not something any trainer wants to do.  That $14 can buy a decent amount of groceries.  It can pay for two months of Netflix, or a dinner out with friends.  Considering the small amount of money we as animal trainers make, spending ANY cash is a difficult process.  So when you buy that watch, which you absolutely need for your job, you want to make sure it lasts.  You might splurge a few extra bucks thinking "Hey, I'm getting what I pay for, right?"

And then one day, weeks or months after your purchase, you look down at your watch.  And you notice A Bubble on the INSIDE of the watch screen.  Or, the most terrifying, you see the Mystery Code From Hell appear.  

You know what I'm talking about.

You're going about your day, la la la, and you peer down at your watch because you know lunch must be coming up anytime now.  And what you're expecting to see is a digital readout of:


But what you actually see is some demented collection of symbols, none of which you've ever seen before in your life.  


The sort of weird code we were introduced to in The Ring when they attempted to figure out where the VHS tape came from.  

So you see the demonic digits glaring at you, and you know that your watch is dying and that maybe, someone is going to crawl out of your TV tonight and eat you alive.  But then you realize you're safe, because you're a poor dolphin trainer and don't even OWN a TV, HA!

But she might come out of your broken dolphin trainer WalMart watch.

But I digress.  As trainers, we know our watches are on borrowed time (ha ha!), with life spans lasting maybe into several months.  

Our watches are so precious to us, that when we leave facilities we will sometimes will our watches to coworkers we leave behind.  ESPECIALLY if it's a watch that's lasted a lot longer.  

"WHAT BRAND OF WATCH IS THAT?" We'll ask our lucky coworker, the one with the year-old watch.

"I don't know, Sue the intern gave it to me last year.  Looks like it's from WalMart."

And our hearts sink, because we know they've found the one lucky watch that will actually survive to its warranty date.  Like so many disappointing lottery tickets, we blow through watches with hope eternal, but plenty of let-downs.  

2) Hair ties

You can never have too many.  No like, literally.  It's impossible to have to many because you lose them all the time.

Hair ties are one of a few tangible items that exist in alternate dimensions not yet explained or understood by science.  Some other items of this nature include: socks.

Dolphin trainers buy hair ties in massive quantities.  I think a very smart dolphin trainer could run a killer business if they created the Oriental Trading Company magazine but just for hair ties.   I can in fact guarantee that if hair ties were sold by metric ton, marine mammal facilities would likely buy an equal amount of fish to hair ties.  So we'd have Fish Truck day and then we'd have Hair Tie Truck day, and each one would be really important.

It's like you buy a pack of 30, but you only can find two at any given time.

Sure, lots of hair ties break.  But most of them just disappear.  Never around the animals, of course, because you'd notice if your hair tie disappeared when actually working (hello! your hair would be all over the place).  But it's when you get back to the locker room to change to go home for the night, or are sitting in your car, that something mysterious and supernatural occurs.  The hair tie leaves your hair and vibrates into another plane of existence. 

I'm no quantum physicist, but I have a reasonable suspicion that Jimmy Hoffa is sitting in a bizarre in-between world surrounded by heaps mismatched socks and dolphin trainers' hair ties.

Keeper and Master of Hair Ties

So when we lose Our Last Hair Tie, we turn into panhandlers to our fellow trainers.

"Do you have a spare hair tie?" is one of the most commonly uttered phrases in our field.

The decent rule of thumb is if you have extras, you lend or give one to a trainer in need.  Why? For humanity's sake and all that, yes.  But also because no matter how hard you try to keep track of your ties, no matter how many locks and keys and inventories you create to maintain a steady number of them, all of your hair ties will disappear without a trace.  And then, you will be in need.

3) Towels


If you want to win a trainer's heart, don't worry about fancy jewelry, concert tickets, or delicious food.  If there's some cutie you're eyeing in a wetsuit, or you want to cheer up a coworker having a rough time, this is what you buy them:

A giant, fluffy bath towel.  One just for them.

TOWELS are KING.  Most facilities issue some kind of towels that are usually ones that don't sell in the gift shop or are donated from peoples' homes.  And while they are fine for use, they are not always utilitarian.  For example, some of the towels I've used at work do a better job smearing water over my skin than actually drying it.  I'm not making this up, I've actually used that type of towel as a makeshift umbrella when I've had to run to my car in the rain, because it doesn't absorb water.  

Even if you have really luxurious towels at your place of employment, there are never enough.  I have a feeling a small number of towels join their friends the Hair Ties to rendez-vous in the 5th dimension, but most of the time there just aren't enough clean towels to go around.  This is especially true on rainy and/or cold days.    If you want to talk about a glimpse into post-apocolyptic mania, watch a group of dolphin trainers fight for the Good Towels.  They'd run past gourmet food and shirtless men* just to get their hands on a big, warm, clean towel to dry off on.

I....may choose him over a good towel.

Trainers spend more mental energy planning out on when to use Good Towels throughout a cold day than you'd probably think.  It's not as simple as grabbing a towel and that's it.  The inner-dialogue goes something like this:

"I'm on the 10:00 dolphin show, then I'm doing an in-water session at 12:30.  I'll stay in my wetsuit and use a Bad Towel then, and when I need to change into my dry clothes for my meeting at 3:00, then I'll use the Good Towel.  But I'll save the Good Towel for the end of the day for my shower, at which point I'll feel I'm ready to part with it."

4) Fancy Leftovers For Lunch

Now that's fancy!

Oh.  oh.  Poor animal trainers with giant stomachs stare with green envy at the fancy leftovers of other trainers' lunches.  

While the rest of us are eating microwaveable sale items, we watch you with your steaming Fancy Restaurant Food you got When Your Family Visited, or When You Went On A Hot Date.  We poke at our rubbery, blue-light special meals sheathed in plastic while you devour the remnants of a savory culinary delight.  


We're not just jealous of the actual food you're eating, but of the experience.  Not many of us can afford to Go Out, so when we do, it's a big event.  When it's another coworker's leftovers we're drooling over, we imagine what it was like to be at that restaurant, eating food that cost the $14 we just spent on a WalMart watch.

Crappy watch? Or delightful dish? Decisions decisions...

"Did you SEE what Annie had for LUNCH?" we'll ask, as if it were news as exciting as finding out someone was pregnant and/or won the lottery.  

"YES! She got to go to That Restaurant! She had so much fun! The food is so good! Now the lunch room smells so good!" they say.

"She's so lucky!" you say.  And then you go back to your cheese whales.

Not that there's anything wrong with that.

These little treasured PPIs make me smile every time I think about them.  Why? Because it reminds me not to take anything for granted.  A WalMart watch is not really a big deal, except it is sometimes in the moment.  

Pondering the Universal Enigma of the Missing Hair Ties is a nice mental distraction and always brings a smile to my face. 

Finding a really nice towel after a difficult day is a small but comforting oasis.  

Living vicariously through another person's fun time out brings you closer together.  The little, simple things in life are so oft passed over as trivial and meaningless, even though we give their meaning much more gravity than we realize.  Why not embrace that?  The way I see it, those little bits of happiness are easy to come by and can make a bad day seem more tolerable.  Thinking these things are stupid only means you're not seeing the forest for the trees: each day is packed full of these little moments and silly things that can make us (or someone else) smile.


* Unless we're talking Chris Hemsworth or Zac Efron, in which case I'd likely use their hotness as a primary source of warmth


  1. The following link shows my favorite (as well as some other coworkers') watch of all time. Why? Because the timer is preset. With the simple touch of a button, you can jump between setting the timer from 1min,3min,5min,10min and so on up to an hour. It is seriously the best (and now one of the most rare) watches ever and I will forever keep a back up ready just in case the one I'm wearing disappears or dies. Its basically my hitchhiker towel. -TB

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