Sunday, November 30, 2014

The Only Thing That Disgusts Animal Trainers

Animal trainers and caretakers are a weird sort, aren't we?   Like, think about it.  We have some really weird habits that make perfect sense to us, but cause outsiders to scratch their heads.  For example, we wash our hands BEFORE (and after) we use the restroom.  Because let's face it, you've got some unholy stuff on your hands and that needs to be taken care of before you answer nature's call.

Before and after bathroom activities

We also eat like it's our last day on Earth.  Seriously.  Is this a trait we have that, in some weird genotypic way, makes us destined for a life catering to the needs of animals?  Or is it something we just develop, because we are on our feet eight to ten hours a day (or more!) and are super active/worrying all the time?


Side note: If you need your refrigerator or pantry cleaned out, bring all contents to your local zoo or aquarium and place in a communal animal care staff area.  Poof! GONE.  Milk a little sour? We won't notice.*

But one of the weirdest things about animal care professionals is that while we are totally comfortable with basically any bodily function or fluid an animal can produce, there is one really seemingly stupid thing that totally grosses us out.  What is it? Let's explore this further.

Is it poop?  

No. We spend an impressive amount of time talking about poop.  I always chuckle when my non-animal care friends talk about how when they became parents, they became obsessed with their child's crap.   It's always shared in a jovial-slash-grossed out way that's like, "Ha ha, I never knew I'd be so into what my kid's poop looks like! You know?? Isn't that so weird?"

And the animal trainers are like, "I can tell you what the last 98 bowel movements of our cockatoos looked like in vivid detail with a giant smile on my face, as I recall how beautifully separated the urates, feces, and urine were."


Up until a few years ago, most of my animal training experience was with dolphins.  While there isn't a lot of poop-scooping  happening with those guys, we have the exclusive pleasure of being in the water while the dolphins do their number 2.  It dissipates quickly, and the water movement in the habitats pulls it away just as fast, but that doesn't mean that sometimes a little dolphin turdlet doesn't dingleberry itself to your wetsuit.  Or, ha ha, in my case one time, to my whistle.  The part I blow on.  And I didn't realize it until I blew into it.  Oh god that was one of the worst things ever.

But now I work with the poop masters of the marine animal world: sea lions and otters.  Oh, let's not forget about the penguins.  If poo was gold, I could easily own property on every planet in our galaxy and supply each place with gold-plated toilet paper.

In every room.  Even if it's not a bathroom.

Animal trainers rarely get disgusted by poop, even if it's on them.  The only time I've seen people freak out is if the poo gets in their mouth (understandable) or if a passing bird craps on their head or face.  But usually, we laugh after the initial disgust.  Otherwise, poop is a very normal thing.  In fact, it becomes kind of fun to clean up.  You feel so accomplished when the habitat is all spic and span; there are times I'm disappointed when the sea lions haven't made a poop mural on the floor because I just like cleaning a good mess.

Oh yeah, good morning Cat!

How about...blood?  Nope!

We're also pretty unfazed by the sight of blood.  Many of us train our animals for voluntary husbandry behaviors.  That includes taking voluntary blood samples.  And sometimes, you get a little blood on you.  It happens.  Usually it's after the sample is collected and you're putting it into a vacutainer or onto a slide.  We are well-versed in the risks of zoonotic disease transfer (and in some species, this risk is virtually zero) and know how to handle this and take it seriously.  But I haven't seen anyone pass out or vom at the sight of a little blood.

We're happy to get a few of these!

Oh! Oh! I know! We're all disgusted by stomach juice! 

Nah, that ain't no thing.  Dolphin trainers have another fun experience dealing with an animal who cannot breathe through their mouth and therefore have no gag reflex; we can get gastric samples without causing any discomfort to the dolphin.  Gastric samples can tell you a lot about their G.I. and overall health; it is a critical tool for preventative medicine in cetaceans.  As long as the dolphins are trained for the behavior, it is one of the simplest husbandry behaviors a dolphin can learn; they swallow fish much larger in circumference than the tubes we use to collect the samples.  

But uh, sometimes it's not so comfortable for the trainers.  Sometimes, the dolphins volunteer their own sample....up and out of the tube.  Like, into your face.  Steaming hot gastric juice in your face may sound disgusting, and oh, it is.  But usually we just laugh this out.  Once, I saw it go into someone's mouth, and no one really laughed then.  In fact, I think that individual deserves a moment of silence.


But other than getting it directly into your mouth, dolphin trainers deal with gastric fluid like it's water.  The mucousy saliva that dolphins have is often another fun souvenir of the gastric sample behavior, which gets on your hands and clothes and remains there until some heavy-duty washing occurs.  And still, the trainers deal with it unaffected.

Are animal caretakers horrified of worms?  Noooope.

How about people who work with animals in rescues and shelters?  If you think BMs by themselves are fair game for normal conversation, let's talk about what happens when they come with worms.  Most of those rescue animals have intestinal parasites who wink and wave at you from the copious amounts of poop you find in their enclosures.  When I volunteered at a dog shelter, I quickly acclimated to the sight of wriggling worms in dogs' poop when they came in.   The types of critters marine animal rescuers see on sea turtles, dolphins, whales, pinnipeds and sea birds would leave most people traumatized for decades, but the dedicated caretakers deal with it like it's just another day in the office.

Happy worms!

Okay, so animal trainers aren't freaked out by blood, poop, gastric fluid, or worms.  What else are they not scared of?

Need I mention what we tend to feed most of our animals?  If your animals are herbivorous, maybe your food isn't as gross as others, but you guys definitely win in the poop category.  But animals who eat animals...oh god.  Yeah, marine mammal trainers have to handle hundreds to thousands of pounds of fish a day.  It's totally normal for me to find a fish eyeball, long separated from its unfortunate owner, stuck to my arm.  Sometimes, fat from really oily fish congeals and stubbornly sticks to your skin, your hair, your soul.  Nothing except a butane torch can get that stuff off.  But hey, it's part of the job.

Some of you deal with huge amounts of raw meat, including organs.  I helped one of my friends prep food for big cats.  I think I handled about five horse livers that day.   Still another one of my coworkers spends his time skinning dead rats for his caimans.  People who work with rehab marine mammals have to disable live fish in order to ensure their patients can feed themselves after long bouts of being hand fed for medical reasons.  It's not that this doesn't make any of us feel sad or grossed out initially, but we still do it without a second thought because it is for a greater good for another animal.

The fact is, there is virtually nothing that grosses an animal caretaker out.  

Except one thing.

What on earth could possibly skeeve out a zookeeper?  They are hip-deep in crappola, get body fluids on them all day, have a daily macabre food prep experience, and smell the worst all the time.  But something that brings most animal care professionals right to their news.



Actual hair in our work shower.

Human hair.


Human hair in big, wet clumps.  In a drain.  In a shower.  On the floor.  Oh GOD I'm dry-heaving just thinking about it.


Especially in the marine mammal field, where we are wet much of the day, our hair falls out.  It falls out onto the floor where it remains and collects.  It collects and collects in our bathrooms and locker rooms because no one wants to pick it up.  The thought of touching wet, human hair makes us all want to jump off a cliff.

I watched someone take 6 metric tons of paper towels, wrap them protectively around their hand in a giant mitten, and attempt to pick up a medium-sized human hair clump.  They refused to look at it.  They closed their mouth and held their breath, and tried to get all the hair in their thick and totally non-dexterous paper towel contraption.  It took about nineteen times longer than had they just grabbed with with their hand, but none of us judged her.  It was DISGUSTING.  BLAHHHHH


I heard a story one time of a group of extremely competitive interns at a facility who promoted cutthroat competitiveness that involved a human hair ball.  Whichever intern chose to clean up the slimy hair from the drain WITH THEIR BARE HANDS was the "best."  Oh my god.  I'd never do that to any of my interns.

Why is human hair, which really has no disease or anything that can hurt us, so horrific to us?  The thing is I HAVE NO IDEA.  I've cleaned up sea lion hair and otter fur clumps with no issue.  Whatever, who cares.  But three strands of wet human hair and....I am in the fetal position.

There's got to be an evolutionary and psychological explanation for this.  It is not just animal trainers who think wet human hair is awful.  Some of the most disturbing scary movies use wet hair to freak us out.  

Case in point: The Ring.  Samara, that hair has to go.

So there you have it: the animal trainer kryptonite.  Just set giant clumps of human hair in a shower drain and you'll have them all at your mercy.   

Now cleanse your retinas with this adorable sea lion poop picture and experience sweet visual and mental relief.

Look what I made for you!

* Until a little later


  1. Replies
    1. You crack me up I love dolphins I wanted to be an animal trainer so bad but it wasn't in the cards. that's why I passionately support Sea World etc I know the dedication you guys have for these beautiful creatures.

  2. I gagged just reading this. I can't handle it. I CAAAAAN'T. I have a pixie cut, so when I find these wads clinging to my wetsuit boot I can't even take comfort in the idea that it MIGHT be from me. I swear to Christ they jump off the wall and attack me!! (Did I just double post, I don't even know plzdon'tkillmethx)

  3. Absolutely true. Almost every part for me. I do have a problem with the blood though. Not samples, not getting it on me, doesn't gross me out...... but, if one of my animals is hurt and bleeding, it is all I can do to keep from freaking out in fear of how serious it might be.
    On the poop note, I had a young walrus that decided to be a Picasso one night and flipper painted her entire enclosure with her feces... as high as she could reach, every wall and all the floor space. I tell everyone that if I could get through cleaning up that oily fish poop mess, I can get through anything.