Want to know an animal care specialist’s favorite animal?
Look no further than their wardrobe and home decor.
Even the general public has enthusiasm for their favorite animals. Socks, shirts, necklaces, earrings… you name it, you can probably find your most beloved critter on it. However, you will be hard pressed to match the dedication of a zoological employee for finding these items. We become bloodhounds with the vision of an eagle. Money is no object, even if the rent is due that week. Once we spot our beloved item in the store, shaped in the form of a penguin (or giraffe, sloth, zebra…), we develop tunnel vision. We reach a critical level of anxiety that can only be abated by having said item in our hands.
Where it is safe.
Where we have established preliminary possession.
It’s not yours. Don’t touch it. Don’t look at it.
I will use myself as proof for this claim. What’s my favorite animal? The shark. I have fervently (and sometimes drunkenly) championed the importance of the shark species to “special” people who feel that the only good shark is a dead shark.
Fools. Why anyone would beg to be throat punched for uttering such a statement is beyond me.
Anyway, my healthy obsession with sharks has also influenced those close to me to think of me when they uncover rare shark paraphernalia. They excitedly text me pictures of shark sheets, shark slippers, and shark backpacks. I have my own personal army out there every day that unwittingly assists me with collecting all things elasmobranch.
And I love every single second of it!
As you can see, the item doesn’t always have to be a real time representation of our favorite fauna, although we are all aficionados of nature photos. It can be cartoony, abstract, and completely impractical. It doesn’t matter. When we spot that t-shirt of the sloth a riding comet? Look out! We will straight up shank you for it. You’ve been warned.
We will also gladly, and proudly, wear these items in public with zero shame and an expert level of comfort.
We are also addicts of subtle objects, things that are a tad more understated than a head to toe shark suit. We all own little items that betray our borderline clinical fixations with a particular animal, but these accessories are a smidgen harder to spot.
This is my personal favorite in my “shark stable”.
However, our love runs deep and the real thing must be represented somewhere. We have teeth, bones, hair, feathers, and any other biological gems you can think of to represent our beloved spirit animal. As professional animal care folks, we have a unique access to things we think are treasures that others would describe as a “biohazards”. One of my former colleagues had a collection of castings* from our hawk.
Biohazards aside, professional photographs of our chosen animals in their most blissful state of being is the crown jewel of any animal care specialist’s home décor. It is a must and not just any photo will do. Usually, it is either a visual that is on our bucket list to see (for example, The Great Migration) or something beautiful enough to encapsulate the spirit our beloved animal.
When I found this trio of photos of a Great White shark, I practically went to my knees at the art festival.
So, if you have an animal care professional in your life you now have the key to their happiness. If your mate or bestie is having a day, or maybe they just plain NEED that item in their life? Get it. Like, now.
They won’t care if it is practical, pretty, tacky, or expensive. If they are employed as a dolphin trainer but completely infatuated with the slow loris? Initiate “Operation Loris Hunt” and find that trainer a phone case with a damn slow loris!
They will be so appreciative and overcome with emotion that they will probably name their first child after you.
And, if that zoo professional is me? You can trust and believe that I will enjoy that shark accessory with some wine.
Until next time, keep your eyes open for that perfectly ridiculous animal gear that you can’t live without.
Hugs and Fishes, y’all!
*For all you non-zoo folks, a casting is a pellet a bird regurgitates that is comprised of undigested parts like feathers, bones, and other funsies.
Warning: This post contains many hyperlinks to news articles so that you can confirm the crazy. There were so many to choose from that I may have gone overboard. Just roll with it and enjoy the batshit that is my local community.
It tends to begin with this…
“Where are you from?”
“No, where are you from originally?”
“Like I said, Florida. Born and raised!”
“Oh. Weird, no one is really ever from here. You guys are all crazy.”
That’s a little excerpt from a conversation I have had many, many times with a new acquaintance or guest at my facility. I can’t say I blame them, our little state and its colorful residents have been in the news quite a bit over the years. Floridians have unique and original methods of communicating and violating the law. Florida is a melting pot of diverse ecosystems, politics, age demographics, food that will make you praise the Lord, politics, and (my favorite) stupid criminals. We work hard, we play harder, and we will straight up ride a lawn mower down the road to our local gas station to avoid DUI’s (it doesn’t work because you can still get a DUI).
Florida. Why you gotta be so crazy?
First off, let’s set up the visuals if you are not familiar with the true Florida landscape. I am proud “Flo-Grown”, born and raised right on the imaginary border between North and Central FL. Typically, when people envision what my backyard looks like it is much different than the reality. They think palm trees, beaches, flamingos, sunsets, and margaritas.
In reality it’s freshwater lakes, scrub pines, sandhill cranes, and Busch beer in a can (don’t drink it if the mountains are blue). And you know what? I wouldn’t change a thing.
True Floridians are all naturalists at heart. Even if you find a good ‘ol boy (or girl) who didn’t graduate from high school they can still track game like a bloodhound, tell you the circadian rhythms of local fauna, identify native and invasive plants, “learn you” about navigating gator mating season, and distinguish dozens of different chirps and vocalizations of local birds, reptiles, and insects. We grew up surrounded by nature and the vast majority of us have a great respect for it, even if we make poor choices as how to interact with it sometimes.
This is especially true with dangerous local wildlife.
Not only do we love wildlife, we love food and cocktails. I know, so do you. However, Florida’s awesome climate has attracted people from all demographics and nationalities; along with them they brought their cuisines. We attack our vittles with the gusto of the Kool-Aid man busting through a brick wall and God help you if you get in our way. We abnormally love to eat and drink and that goes double for our fast food.
We also celebrate the weirdest things. Hurricane coming? Batten down the hatches, stock up on propane and liquor and get drunk STAT. Key West tried tosecede from the USA in the 80’s and mockingly declared war (true story). Better throw a 10 day festival every year to celebrate! We honor corn and strawberries here in Central FL every year with our own version of a World’s Fair, complete with the holy trinity; Beer, Bands, and Boobs.
Like I said, we love food and we love to eat. It brings out our competitive spirit. But, sometimes it goes off the rails.
We can also break the laws in ways that you could never dream up in your most psychotic episodes. You were in a fist fight? Amateurs. We will knife you for putting onions in the potato salad, after we set fire to your lawn for forgetting to say, “God Bless You” when we sneeze. Then, we are sorry. Having the cops show up tends to make you sorry.
Floridians can also be reverent, spiritual, and blame just about anything on Jesus. I was at the local DMV several years ago getting my license renewed, just a couple of weeks after a massive explosion at the local propane facility. My town hadn’t seen that much excitement in years. As I chatted with the clerk (she only lived a couple of miles away from the explosion) she heralded me with her experiences.
“I swear to Jesus (crosses herself) I thought it was the rapture. The preacher had just been talkin’ about the rapture this past Sunday and I thought, “Yup, that’s it!”. So, I hid the grandbaby in the closet and peeked outside. When I didn’t see any souls risin’ up, I figured it had to be somethin’ else. Come to find out, the Blue Rhino plant done blew up.”
True Crackers (an individual born in FL and I will touch on that another time) also hate to be boring when it comes to our weapon(s) of choice. A gun? So boring, unless we are accidentally shooting ourselves with it. We stock up on the samurai swords, nunchucks, old 2 x 4’s (lumber), pinecones, butter and spaghetti. If we can pick it up, it’s a weapon.
Hello, all! It’s been awhile since I have written and there is really no other reason other than… life. Life just gets in the way and, I will admit, I am already setting my sights on holiday posts and shenanigans. I know, I know. It’s only late September but I just can’t help myself.
And then, this article kept cropping up on my Facebook feed. It’s titled, “5 Things We Need to Stop Telling Ourselves About Zoos.” My friends would post it; groups that I am a part of would share it and express their disbelief. I heard chatter at work, asking if we had seen or read it. For me, it sounded like another excellent example of word vomit. However, after seeing the link for the umpteenth time I went ahead and took the click-bait. I grabbed a glass of wine and prepared myself for a purge of unbridled anthropomorphism and fashionable rage. I read it… and was a little surprised. No, there was nothing new about the reasons why society should attack zoos with pitchforks and torches. The surprising part was that the author seemed to try and show some restraint, presenting the shadows of a traditionally persuasive argument. As I have mentioned before, I hold cogent discussions in high regard… so, please.
Allow me to retort.
Proposed Myth #1: Zoos are for Conservation.
No dancing around here, the author went right for the heart of why we do what we do. I respect that. The author states,
“While some zoos may contribute in small ways to conservation projects, the vast majority of animal species in zoos are not on the endangered list, and the ones who are will likely never be rehabilitated to their natural habitat.”
Contribute in small ways. Huh. All of the education offered in dozens of ways to society by zoos and aquariums notwithstanding, let’s get to what the author is referring to. MONEY. Zoos and aquariums accredited by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) alone provide an annual sum of $160 million in fundsfor conservation projects around the world. Over 2500 projects in over 100 countries, to be exact.
Sea World parks alone, who I mention because my “opponent” did, has given well over $10 million in grants through their conservation fund that was founded in 2004 by Ginny Busch. This does not include the $10 million they recently pledged to research of the critically endangered resident orca populations. 100% of the fund is given to conservation and research projects; this does not include any donations or monies spent from profits made by the parks. There is plenty more money, time, blood, sweat, and tears that all zoos and aquariums have given gladly over the years towards conservation. It just takes some looking (or talking to us like human beings) to find the information because we are just now beginning to “blow our own horns”.
Want to know who donates the most to conservation? American sportsmen contribute $3 million a day directly to wildlife conservation and protection through license fees, land usage fees, and excise taxes. That’s almost $1.1 billion a year.
This work has been done quietly for decades. Haters gonna hate but it doesn’t make all of that work or donations disappear.
Now, let’s look at our AR “free the cages” friends over at the author’s table. PeTA and the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) are the first two non-profits that come to mind. As non-profits, all (or at least most) of their monies should be going towards conservation and/or education. Right? They wouldn’t possibly thumb their nose at our efforts if theirs didn’t at least match what zoos and aquariums were providing?
The HSUSseems to be trying to clean their act up after an embarrassing “Donor Advisory” was issued by Charity Navigator in 2014. They were channeling their inner Ebenezer Scrooge and giving less than 1% of their donations (around $135 million annually) to the programs they touted to support. So tell me, HSUS, when exactly was it that you decided to rip off millions of consumers who fell prey to those tear jerker commercials? Was it the plan from the jump or was it just too hard to see all that cash slip through your fingers?
As for “the vast majority of animal species in zoos are not on the endangered list, and the ones who are will likely never be rehabilitated to their natural habitat”, that’s just straight up bamboozling. Rescue and release is a heavily mandated process through the federal government. Release is always the goal with wild animals that are rescued. It is vital to get them back out there so they can breed.
Many of the animals that we care for permanently that are endangered, or critically endangered, are bred in the hopes of sustaining a population that could replace what’s going extinct. This would happen in “utopia” when society finally joins hands to stop destroying their habitats, but we are always hopeful. It will likely take several generations to faze ourselves out of the process if it happens; none of this matters yet because their natural world is on fire. So, in order to sustain our populations, this means we trade as part of our Species Survival Program (SSP) to keep the bloodlines fresh and the genetics diverse. Want to know what animals are threatened, endangered, or critically endangered so you can cross reference your local zoo? Here you go, check it out.
Some animals we care for are not endangered, but are invasive or were confiscated (again, by the government) from irresponsible citizens. I have seen facilities housing tigers that were bought by drug dealers (Tony Montana-style), alligators raised on houseboats, monkeys with their teeth removed because they kept biting the person who bought them and pythons that suddenly weren’t so fun to own as a pet once they reached 11 ft. in 5 short years. Many more animals were born at their facilities and humans are a part of their life, rendering them horribly vulnerable to harm in the wild.
There is much more to be said on this, but alas, I must move on.
Proposed Myth #2: Zoos are the best way to learn about animals
Let’s all be honest, this is mired in opinion and we all know there is no shortage of those flying about. There have been some studies done here, here, and here. Some were written (or funded) by AR advocates and some by zoo advocates.
Ultimately, I can only speak for myself and what I have experienced firsthand. I have personally spoken to thousands of people over the last 15 years as part of my job. I have reached them from multiple posts; aquarist, biologist, marine mammal trainer, educator, and curator. Did I get to everyone? No. Does everyone go to a zoo or aquarium to learn? No, they don’t. They predominately want to touch things, take awesome photos/selfies, and ride roller coasters.
The thing is that we don’t care what brought you through the door. Once you are there, it is our job to jam some knowledge into your head and to plant the seed of critical thinking. So for me, based on my 15 years of experience with endlessly discussing the same topic with the level of enthusiasm of doing it for the first time, this is my educated and professional opinion…
Zoos and aquariums are our loudest and most effective voices for learning about our natural Earth and its inhabitants, as well as the challenges they face.
Proposed Myth #3: Zoos are a ‘normal’ part of society
Okey doke. Let’s look at the traditional definition of “normal”.
Conforming to a standard; usual, typical, or expected.
The usual, average, or typical state or condition.
So, what our author is implying is that you have been conditioned over time to just see the “abuse” of animals in human care as normal. Did you have any idea that you were so weak-minded? Neither did I. The article then goes on to compare zoos to freak shows of yore and refers to the fascination we had with humans (on display) that were profoundly different or of novel quality. Um, we still do that, genius. It’s called “reality television”.
There is not a single zookeeper or animal care professional who will even try to say that their habitats are the size of the wild. What they will tell you is that they go to agonizing lengths to mimic every resource and environmental event that they need to behave naturally, independently and socially. What they will tell you is that their animals are not releasable, which is a decree that is made by our federal government. Take a wild guess what the other option is for most of them? It rhymes with “sleuth-en-asia”. (I’m looking at you PeTA)
What they will also tell you is that the better we do our jobs, the more naturally our animals interact with their environment and the more we learn about them and their intrinsic needs. In turn, this helps us more effectively communicate to our guests how our choices as a human population affect their wild counterparts.
Make all the sweeping statements about how vile you find zoos but our participation in research cannot be dismissed because it doesn’t fit in your “empty the cages” rhetoric.
Proposed Myth #4: Animals are happy in zoos
Okay, I have answered this question myself many a time and it just takes a fundamental grasp of biology and animal behavior. There is no way for us to tell if an animal is “happy” by the way we define “happy” as humans. This is a perfect example of our author playing with anthropomorphism to make a point. What we can do as zoo professionals is look for behavioral cues that let us know how animals are receiving their environment. A wild animal’s day is focused on one thing: survival. Every day is spent satisfying the first tier on Maslow’s hierarchy of needs; physiological. They don’t have the luxury of sitting around and musing if they are “happy”. We (humans) can only do so through endless years of evolution and probably why we are so neurotic.
BTW, my activist friends. Do you notice what is on the first tier? Sex. Keep that in mind when you scream for the termination of breeding programs.
Animals in our care have food, shelter, and all the other components provided for them without fail which then leads us to securing their mental health and enrichment. What the author of this little think piece is trying to underpin his argument with is a phenomenon we call “stereotypical behaviors”. It’s when, for any myriad of reasons, an animal repeats a behavior for noticeable time periods. It can be a reaction to an internal or external stimulus. It’s something we look for with a critical eye as it can be a warning sign that something is up. And what is “zoochosis”? That is a term coined by animal rights activists and not a term we use in zoological facilities. Psychosis is, again, a human condition that is still very much in the research phase. Science learns more every day. Funny, while we are still learning the inner workings of human psychosis, our friends in the AR movement purport to know the inner workings of an animal mind.
That’s truly extraordinary.
As for eating excrement? Sometimes this can be a stereotypical behavior; sometimes it is completely normal. It depends on the species, the social group and hierarchy, the overall health and diet of that species, if an animal is in estrous, and many other variables. They are not humans so eating feces isn’t something that earns them social ostracism. So please, if you see your male dog lapping up urine recently evacuated by a female dog do NOT flip out and diagnose them with “zoochosis.”
Besides, the vet knows you only want that diazepam for yourself. *wink*
And finally (Thank God), we are at the final myth.
Proposed Myth #5: Zoos Care.
*Sigh.* You can make up your own mind on this one. This “point” has the feel of the circle jerk of “I know you are but what am I?” Talk to your local zoo or aquarium professionals and ask what their experiences are. Ask the rescue and rehab workers what it’s like to be them and the emotional exhaustion they experience. This “myth” is a paper tiger and, quite frankly, the author doesn’t even support this argument well him or herself. What caught my eye was the suggestion of “observing animals in the wild or visit a sanctuary”. Really? So, viewing animals in a sanctuary is different than viewing them in a zoo. Why? Because they are non-profits? I think the majority of sanctuaries are performing miracles, having to rely on the scraps society throws them to provide quality care. It’s either feast or famine with a sanctuary; when animals are fashionable they have funds pouring in. When the attention dies down, it’s back to pulling veggies from their own homes to create a diet that day. Guess who donates a lot of money, resources, staff, and support for many sanctuaries on a consistent basis while society tunes in and out at their leisure?
Come on…you know! You only get one guess!
If you said, “For-profit zoological facilities”, you are correct!
Now, the suggestion to go out in the wild for a “natural encounter” as an alternative. There are some great programs and some terribly destructive ones. As the demand for wildlife encounters grows, legislation is simply not keeping up and funds are scarce to enforce existing regulations. Watch a perfect example of a “legal” area to swim with federal protected manatees and the ramifications shown HERE. Our Florida Manatees migrate to find warmer waters annually, they cannot tolerate water below 68 degrees. It is imperative they find it in time (and stay there) to avoid cold stress and the subsequent frostbite (necrotic tissue and loss of limbs), suppressed immune systems, and respiratory issues.
So, yes. I strongly support the avenue of viewing animals in human care when this is the other option. A thousand times, yes.
At the end of the day, make up your own mind. Utilize your critical thinking skills and determine for yourself how you feel about zoos, aquariums, and animals living in human care. Maybe it will lead you to support your local zoo/aquarium or maybe it will lead you to contributing to conservation in your own, effective way. It is, and always will be, your choice.
Ultimately, the most unpleasant experience I’ve seen imposed on any animal today while writing this was forcing a Santa hat on that cat. You live life on the edge, sir.
I have a Gator game that is beckoning (GO GATORS!) so, until next time…
I admit it. I curse like a sailor wearing a wool uniform, paired with a scorching case of herpes, on a hot summer day. This is a habit I cultivated many years ago; my career had (and has) nothing to do with it. I’ve performed all of the perfunctory mea culpas over the years, especially as a southern female. We are expected to be ladies and foul language is still fairly taboo. This is especially true if you have blue eyes, freckles, and breasts.
I’ve repented and apologized to proper company, always making sure to mention, “Jeez, I really need to stop cursing so much.” I didn’t mean a word of it, but I felt the need to soften the harsh verbal stream that was flowing from my mouth. I wanted to leave the impression that I hoped to change the behavior, but I didn’t truly hope for any such thing. I tried to condition myself to say similar, yet less offensive phrases such as “Cheese and Rice” rather than “Jesus Christ!” I tried using “Son of a Biscuit” instead of “Son of a B*TCH!” I also chose “Mother Humper” over “Mother F*cker” for awhile (not much better but I considered it an approximation).
Nope. Not working for me. Not gratifying at all.
The fact is that I like to curse. No, I f*cking love it. However, I realize that there are critical moments to activate the “profanity filter” if you want to be successful in our field. So, here are a few things I have learned along the way to help keep you from receiving the dreaded “See Curator Immediately” Post-It® in your mailbox.
F*ck me running, I hate those.
The most obvious way to become a successful profanity enthusiast (and keep your zoo job) is to know your audience. When you are in a safe place to remove the filter, let ‘er rip! My time is typically during my lunch break and my marathon moments are when I am at the bar with my zoo and non-zoo friends. Honestly, during those times I truly feel as though my blasphemous comments outnumber my wholesome ones by 2-1. I interpret this as a release valve; a way to release the pressure of mounting steam, created by the heat of staying within the confines of the “polite police” (otherwise known as “regular people”). It pours out like lava, likening you to Puff the Magic Dragon..a dragonfull of vulgarity vapor.
You also realize that cursing in front of animals is tremendous because they don’t understand you. Your human co-workers take you to HR; your animal co-workers go about their day swimming or picking fleas off of each other. You can quietly sing your favorite song with curse words and they are none the wiser. My faves are Cee-Lo’s “F*ck You” and Limp Bizkit’s “Gimme Somethin’ to Break”; it all depends on my emotional weather at the moment. You can talk to yourself without reprisal from others, such as “Holy Filet O’ F*cking Fish! Who’s the jackhole who didn’t clean the sink last night before leaving? Seriously, who in the world of F*CK does that sh*t?!”
*cue throwing buckets.
This element is also advantageous when you get hurt. Exhibit A: This is my foot at 7:30 a.m., after I stepped into a 5,000 gallon exhibit to retrieve live rock for another exhibit. A spotted sea trout bit first and asked questions later…
Expletives are not just for when you are angry and upset. Quite the contrary! I relish blasphemous language when I am joyful just as much as when I am wound for wrathful sound. I once crafted a pretty awesome EED (environmental enrichment device) for a rescue sea turtle that took some “thinking outside the box”. There were lot of restrictions (due to his disabilities and personal history) and it made designing the EED difficult. When we finally crafted something safe and fun for him that met all the regulations? Jubilation! I believe my words were, “Look at our little fat bastard go! He is happier than Julie F*cking Andrews when she spins on a mountain top.”
Maybe foul language isn’t for you, but you still need that release. Try imaginative interpretation; it’s another version of “earthiness” that I enjoy as a way to liberate myself from stress. For example, I’m busy cleaning the lab and a co-worker (who doesn’t have HR on speed dial) asks me how I am…
“Hey Mother Ocean, how’s it going?”
“I’m good but I’m busier than a two dollar hooker on half price Sundays.”
See? No foul language but lots of imagination… and Bonus! They really get the point and laugh. However, again… KNOW YOUR AUDIENCE. If they don’t talk like that in front of you? Don’t talk like that in front of them. Profanity is really only fun when others around you are scratching the same clandestine itch that you have for cursing. Otherwise, you are just beating them over the head with a verbal hammer and will be rewarded with this…
In all honesty, while I enjoy cursing in general, it is totes more fun with a partner in lyrical crime. I once had a curator that fancied telling people to “Go Scratch” and I would sing him “You Light Up My Life” as a tribute. I also had a co-worker I adored and we would try to outdo each other every morning in a little argument rapid fire. It was always about something stupid; we would joke about who cleaned the reptile enclosures better and it would culminate in me saying, “Dude, every word you say is f*cking dumber than the last. F*ckwad.” He would tell me that I was less interesting than his morning dump. And then, I would shoot him with the hose.
You know, real “friends to the end” type of stuff.
I will take that tête-à-tête over the dutiful, “Mother Ocean, good morning! Did you read the communication board this morning? You always forget…( tee hee). Don’t forget to punch in on time and smile!” That’s right about the time that sh*t is about to get real. I once asked a room if they were challenging me to see how fast I could burn down a building with just the substances in the break room to use. Did you seriously just remind me to f*cking smile?
Thank you. Thank you, little 8 lb. baby Jesus in a scratchy little manger, for my co-workers that will then allow me to release the pent up aggression through words. They are my saving grace. Of course, the release happens far away from the petal pink ears of my other co-workers that were a razor’s edge from being unknowing contestants on “Extreme Overreactons; Florida-style“.
So, in summation, profanity isn’t for everyone and in order to secure your future positions (as well as your current), you must take care. It must be used like the good dishes; they only come out for company that will appreciate them. So, when you do find those wonderful mother f*ckers, make sure to tell them how much you love them and sing them a rousing rendition of “You Light Up My Life.” Or, “F*ck You” by Cee-Lo. They will delight in your gift of song because they speak your reckless language. If they don’t, you will learn the hard way.
The lesson is nothing new. It was drilled into us as tiny tots on the playground the moment we elicited a response from others with our words. I learned it many times in many ways, as all kids did. I was made fun of for my freckles by other children (ouch) and for my tendency to day dream by adults (devastating). I made others cry when I realized I had ready-made weapons in the forms of razor sharp vocabulary and quick responses (not proud of that). Kick it old school with me for a moment and let’s say it together…
Words can hurt.
We (animal care specialists) have been hurt quite a bit lately and continue to be. No, I’m not speaking of bottom lines, money, or even spotty public support for our zoos and aquariums. I’m speaking of the vile words that are carelessly flung around online; some aimed at us individually and some are sweeping general statements. We have become paper targets at the shooting range; outlines of real people with no complexity, value, or depth to our abusers. We are simply the bull’s eye to be hit by insults, threats, and verbal abuse. These affronts are all the same thing to me… Word Vomit. Cogent discussion is dying and word vomit is the new normal when discord is the order of the day.
Let’s go ahead and get crystal on something before I venture on. Disagreement is normal; disagreement is respectable. I don’t categorize those that feel differently than me on the subject of animals in human care (zoos and aquariums) as “word vomiters”. Quite the opposite! I welcome cogent discussion and it’s a skill I have worked hard on as an adult, professionally and personally. I feel that opposing views are what help support the balance when morality is the intangible boundary for behavior. Asking a question (or many questions) is not only okay, it is vital for critical thinking. That is what word vomit is sorely missing in its vile soup of aggression and impulsive reactions; Critical Thinking.
Critical thinking begins with taking a step back and trying to see the issue from a different perspective. If you are not an animal care professional, try to see it from ours. Please?
Imagine the pain of losing a beautiful creature that you cared for and nurtured, maybe you have experienced it for yourself. Imagine caring for a small group of animals that are rapidly becoming extinct in the wild because of the willful ignorance of society. Picture yourself looking at them every day, agonizing over every behavior and nuance because you know that they could possibly be the only generations left by the time you reach your parents’ ages. Visualize yourself as a caretaker of an animal that chooses to interact with you after months or even years of building trust. Now, envision knowing that if different circumstances were forced on them they would have no way of “seeing around corners”. They would have no way of discerning good humans from bad ones; their only interactions have been with educated humans that possess a breadth of knowledge concerning their individual behaviors and biology.
Imagine assisting to remove quarters from the jaws of wild sea turtles, rusty fish hooks from pelican throats, and AA batteries from marine mammal stomachs. Once they are healthy, you release them back to the environment that is killing them. They were born into the food web and they must go back out (if they can) to hopefully procreate before dying. Now, visualize the concept that the animals that you have cared for their entire lives, many from birth, are now being potentially forced into the wild by outsiders…again, without the skills to survive or to identify potential dangers. Dissenters of zoos/aquariums simply don’t see the difference and it’s easier just to assume we are indoctrinated or selfish. Envision yourself trying to engage in conversation with these dissenters, using your experiences and knowledge, only to be told you deserve to be murdered. Cue the verbal abuse.
Yup, according to cowardly online zealots we deserve murder, rape, and more. Our children deserve to be kidnapped, stuffed into cages, and tortured. Our families should be gutted, shot in the head, and hung on the wall as trophies. They want to burn our houses down and they want us to explode in our cars (stop watching mob movies, zealots). While these words can sting, it’s the accusations that we don’t care and are indifferent to our “animals’ suffering” that hurt the most. We don’t care? How many milestones have we missed with our own families; holidays, weddings, birthdays, first steps, first day of school, dinners, and just time. How many times have we looked at our weathered hands and skin and realized we were aging before our time? There is a large price to pay, emotionally and physically, and we do it for no other viable reason than we care.
We care about the animals and we care about their wild counterparts that are dying in droves. We care about their environment that is collapsing around them. We care about the fact that society still doesn’t seem to care enough to change. We care that we are the loudest and most effective voices for these issues and we are still being told we don’t care. We care so much that animal care workers (beginning with kennels and veterinarians) are starting to be identified as a large population of workers plagued with Compassion Fatigue, a secondary-traumatic stress disorder (STSD). We are right behind civil servants (police and firefighters) and paramedics.
Here’s the thing. Many of us learned at some point that just because we can does not mean we should. Just because you can hurt others doesn’t mean it’s the way to get things done. In this time of unprecedented anonymity, my colleagues and I have found ourselves tied to the virtual whipping post. It has become fashionable, and acceptable, to verbally abuse us via social media and to threaten us.
Oh, what’s that you say? You feel that we are cruel because of where we work and that our animals are not in the wild? No worries, I can take that bullet and let’s talk about it. We can bring our personal experiences to the table, our formal education, our practical knowledge, and our expertise with animals born in human care; everything we have that presents us a viable resource for learning more if you are truly concerned about animals living in zoos, parks, and aquariums. We sit down to the virtual table for a respectable debate and then…
Ugh. It never gets easier.
Here’s the thing. Just talk to us; not threaten, not regurgitate extremist jargon, and not verbally beat us down before we can catch a breath. Understanding is never reached through open mouths (spewing pea soup) and closed ears. We are intelligent, passionate, empathetic, and articulate people. We are good people and we want to talk to anyone who can remain respectful. This is a complex issue, it always has been, and virtual word vomit is very similar to the real deal. You may feel better after purging but someone still has to clean it up. And honestly? Did you really feel better telling me I deserved to be raped? If your answer was yes…well, then…
Having the same opinion as us is not a prerequisite for engaging animal care professionals in a rational discussion; however, being civil is. Who knows? Maybe you will see things from a different perspective and it will help ease your fury or pain. It may not change your mind and that’s just ducky. Really. However, if you truly care and you aren’t just using your keyboard to hurt us, you will notice we have many of the same goals as you.
You want the best for our animals, for their wild counterparts, and for their environment. None of that will happen without respectful dialogue, critical thinking, empathy, and a touch of amity.
Lunatic fringe aside, we can’t make this a better world without passionate people of all views and beliefs. With passion comes conflict; without conflict there can be no resolution.
Until next time, Hugs and Fishes, ya’ll.
This blog post is dedicated to Akati and her caretakers at the Detroit Zoo. The hardest facet of our jobs is when it is time to mourn. My thoughts are with you.
All potential jobs come with an interview. Some have very structured and formal outlines, requiring you to sit in front of stone-faced CEO’s in expensive suits. Fidgeting is not an option. Others are more informal, aimed at ferreting out the finer and lower points of your personality through a seemingly innocuous exchange. However, marine mammal training positions come with an added bonus and opportunity for sheer panic! Just in case an interview of any sort wasn’t enough to test your pluck, prepare to strap on that Speedo. You are about to be analyzed for your lung capacity, free diving skills, and ability to retain body heat in extreme conditions. Word to the wise… brush up on your self-soothing skills and ability to cope.
Future trainers, this is “The Tale of A Swim Test”.
Once you do receive the swim test invitation call, you have already bitten your fingernails down to their core. You toiled over your resume and waited the agonizing weeks for either a phone call or a rejection email. Finally, your phone rings and the screen proudly displays “Unknown” because Human Resources is a cheeky monkey. They usually prefer to remain coy with their phone number. You accept the invitation, trying not to squeal in the HR rep’s ear, and take about 5 seconds to celebrate. It’s just then that a daunting realization emerges; you have less than a week to prepare and are already scheduled to work that particular day at your current job. If they didn’t know you were job shopping before, they will now. Oh, the humanity!
You go into work and keep your professional face on, knowing that displaying your deep excitement could be an insult to the opportunities bestowed on you by your current employer. This part is truly one of the parts I find the hardest; finding that balance of showing my genuine appreciation for them while I tell them that I’m trying to leave. It’s not easy and it takes a delicate touch. Once you have endured the awkward confrontation of notifying your current supervisors of your opportunity, you can begin the true journey of worry and apprehension. Most facilities are really good about sending the outline of the swim test to you; they don’t pull too many surprises on you. You peruse the list, taking a mental inventory of what you know physically will be a piece of cake and what won’t. Your mental progress typically goes as such…
“Freestyle swim? No problemo! 25 ft. deep free dive…hmmm. Where the hell am I going to practice that skill? Push-ups?! What is this? Boot camp?!”
Honestly, your swim test is a test for your endurance but if you are taking care of yourself (and you should be) it is a completely fair process and assessment of your comfort and strength levels. You dream up with all kinds of ways to prepare yourself. You do push-ups in the bedroom and bathroom multiple times a day or take to holding your breath while you work or watch television (that has gotten me some looks). Does any of this work? Who knows but it always makes me feel better.
The days tick down until… GO TIME. Your test is normally early in the morning, scheduled to be completed (at least poolside) before the day truly begins at the facility. There is a bizarre mixture of competition and camaraderie between you and the other candidates. You want to be nice, but in the end it is like Highlander. There can be only one. There are nervous giggles, overzealous introductions, and snap judgments. We are all competing and doing our best to act like we aren’t. You are led poolside, stealing looks the whole time to try and see if you can imagine yourself working there. Don’t get too comfy, you are about to dive into that chilly water and the sun is barely up. There’s nothing quite like having your breath taken away by an ice bath first thing in the morning. No problem, I love the feeling of jumping into a vat of pins and tacks before 7:30 a.m.!
You will get your breath back, no worries! It’s time to put your game face on and get down to it. Swim tests are all fairly parallel; distances for skills are shaped by the areas that host the test. If you are swim testing for a facility that is larger and has larger habitats, your test will be exponentially more challenging than a smaller facility. I know, you are thinking, “Does the word “duh” mean anything to you, Mother Ocean?” However, I have seen more than one person get completely thrown off track because they weren’t mentally prepared for the size of the habitat they were testing in. At the end of the day your mind can be the hardest hurdle to jump. The pressure you put on yourself is enormous; it can serve as fuel or it can eat away at your confidence like acid. Let it be your fuel and put your mind on a short leash.
Easily, my favorite skill is the water tread (hands and elbows up in the air). It gives you a chance to get acclimated to the water and warm up your body for the rest of the skills. I used to wonder why they still included this skill, it seemed so easy. Quite frankly, the first time I was certified as a lifeguard in my hometown we had to do the 5 minute tread with a brick so just holding my hands up is pretty painless. However, the first time I saw other candidates doing a bicycle kick instead of the egg-beater, I never wondered again. It’s comparable to watching someone leave a water faucet on and walking away; it’s such a waste of energy.
Soon, soon comes the dreaded “breath hold”. This is where you traverse the entire length of the pool on one, single breath. I have been on swim tests that require a minimum of 120 ft. and others that require half that. Again, it all depends on the size of your intended facility. I’ve had many conversations with fellow candidates and we all do the same exact thing under there; we talk to ourselves. You will have a mental dialogue, speaking sternly to yourself and willing your body to stay down just a little while longer. Again, this is where your nerves are going to throw you a curve ball. You have to practice and you have to be prepared; being a strong swimmer is expected and you won’t knock anyone’s socks off by just meeting expectations. Even if you can swim a further distance as the norm, you have to take into account that your heart is racing, adrenaline is high, and your body will burn through oxygen faster. The same goes for your free dive; if you aren’t ready your body will not be sure of what to do. Bye, bye Oxygen. Your ears won’t pop, you run out of air, and you look like a diving duck in the throes of a seizure.
It’s not pretty and, trust me, I have been there.
At the end of the day you may have a speech you have to give, shivering and soaking wet. You may have to do some push-ups or some other test of your upper body strength. The key is to keep calm and pleasant. If you screw up? Keep going! I once fell down a flight of stairs (in my bathing suit) after completing a swim test that I knew hadn’t gone so well. When I get really nervous, really excited, or really upset, I shake… a lot. My legs were shaking so bad that my wet feet just came right out from under me. The cherry on that Clutzy Sundae? All of the curators from the separate animal training departments were there and they all saw it. What can you do? I popped up, started laughing as though riding down a flight of stairs on my ass was the funniest thing ever, and said “Touchdown!” Don’t ask me what that means, I just said it. They wanted to call First Aid; I put on my best Miss America smile and mentally willed them all to forget it. No, I didn’t get that position but I was offered swim tests afterwards.
Moral of the story: Take your lickin’ and keep on tickin’.
However, the best advice? Never choose to be injured just to complete your test. Your ears won’t clear? DO NOT FORCE IT. You feel lightheaded during your underwater swim or dive? Don’t flirt with shallow water blackout, she’s trixy. Quite frankly, many facilities will permanently place you on their “Do Not Call” list if you injure yourself so it isn’t worth it. Failure is a preferable option to being blacklisted; at least you live to swim another day. I knew one girl that blew out her ear on her free dive and another who swam right into a wall on accident during her freestyle; both involved blood. The perforated ear drum is no longer in the field but the misfired swimmer was able to swim another day (she is a trainer to this day, as well).
Ignoring pain and choosing to push yourself into the realm of injury is tantamount to “Hey ya’ll, look what I can do! Watch this!” It never ends well and this presents you as a reckless candidate with poor decision-making skills.
In the end, you may get the job or you may not. The odds are never in your favor; as we all know our field is wildly competitive. However, you already beat out hundreds of candidates just for the pleasure of the “swim test panic attack” so find solace in that. Practice and don’t be afraid to tell your panel that you worked hard. False modesty is just that — false. You will get that job, maybe not today but someday. Just keep trying and remember… if it was easy, everyone would do it.
And, if you fall down a flight of stairs in front of the suits then don’t forget to “tuck and roll”. Damn, that’s harsh.
Best of luck to all past, present, and future candidates and May the Force Be with You.
Meet Josh Newell (on right), a 35 year old bartender that recently garnered attention by jumping the barriers at the Columbus Zoo so that he could videotape himself petting the cougars. The hapless bartender then uploaded the video to YouTube to share with the world (and ultimately the police) his shining “Cougar Love” moment in the sun. Congratulations, Josh! This chain of inappropriate behaviors and complete inability to predict the consequences of your actions has earned you the crown of this week’s “Topic Queen” on Tales From The Wetsuit.
While he is not alone in his trespassing ways, he certainly showed a stunning lack of critical thinking by providing indisputable evidence that he broke the law… and all just to pet some “kitties”. This, among other transgressions I will speak of shortly, caused me to ponder the correlation between “Behind the Scenes” trespassers and Social Darwinism. Their lack of impulse control is now beginning to have social and legal consequences as there is now a precedent set for zoos/aquariums prosecuting the interlopers. Not to mention that jumping into an enclosure with a primate or large cat can have obvious physical consequences, primarily you taking your meals through a straw for the rest of your life. So, why do they do it? What is the belief or thought process, paired with a zoo/aquarium visit, that supports decisions that culminate in (at best) prosecution or (at worst) being mauled to death?
According to Josh, the budding behaviorist in classy aviators, he did it because the cougars “liked it” and the purring totally proved that. I think we can all breathe a collective sigh of relief that Josh isn’t in charge of the cougars’ training program criteria, enrichment, or safety protocols (SOPS). Bless your heart, Josh.
Bless your insipid, take no accountability, entitled little heart. Make better choices, sweetie.
Back to the topic, let’s examine the evidence.
Evidence, Exhibit #A: Every single day, we zoo professionals hear questions or witness behaviors that make us feel like we are taking crazy pills. For example, “Will it bite me?” or guests just flat out reaching for an animal’s face without asking you a thing. I grew up in a rural area full of horses, cattle, domestics, and I have a wonderful aunt that raises macaws. I learned early, really early, that facial touching = biting. Clearly, a vast majority of visitors never learned those lessons from their pet hamster. This is the preliminary cognitive dissonance we observe daily in our guests and a warning of their potential for hijinks.
Instinctively, guests know that animal you are holding is capable of biting. That kinkajou has a mouth, it has teeth, it has eyes, and it doesn’t know you from a can of paint. They know it’s best for them to not reach out impulsively (for them and the animal) but they want to touch more than they want to resist the urge. Cognitive dissonance: two ideals that are in direct battle with one another. There are many places on this plane of existence that your fingers don’t belong, like light sockets and an animal’s face. ANY animal’s face. Want proof? How did you do the last time you had to give yourself eye drops and hold your own lid up? Would you allow another person, a perfect stranger even, to walk up and rub your cheek and touch your mouth? The sheer thought of it makes my mind feel as though it is coming loose from its tethers. Touch my face uninvited and you just bought me an express ticket to Crazy Town. P.S. I’m taking you with me.
Evidence, Exhibit #B: The general public’s overall lack of impulse control is their insistence on placing their own progeny in an animal enclosure. Look, ya’ll. It wasn’t awesome when Michael Jackson dangled a baby over a balcony and it isn’t awesome when you dangle them over our shark pools. True story, a father did that at an aquarium I used to work at. He placed his two year old along the perimeter so that she could reach in and pat the water in our nurse shark pool. Shark responds to the stimulus, swims over in that lackadaisical way only nurse sharks can, and bites the child just below her thumb. Their story? The nurse shark leapt out of the water and over the wall, Sharknado-style, attacking their cherub as they innocently stood there. Of course, they never touched the water. Luckily, we had many witnesses to the contrary. Anybody who has ever spent a hot second in the presence of a nurse shark is, at this very moment, laughing in disbelief. “Nurse sharks” and “leaping” don’t belong in the same sentence. Ever.
Another example is a mother who recently dangled her child over a cheetah enclosure in Cleveland, promptly dropping him when her other child knocked her off balance. She is facing potential child endangerment charges.
Parenting: You’re doing it all wrong.
I know what you are thinking, that these people are just stupid. Troglodytes that would eat paint chips if someone told them to and couldn’t negotiate their way out of a wet paper bag. Not true.
Evidence, Exhibit #C: A guest’s ability to Macgyver their way into areas that are off limits with the stealth and cunning of James Bond quality, only to claim “stupidity” when they are caught. When I go to the grocery store there are several doors that say, “Employees Only”. I really want to go get a gallon of milk with a later expiration date, I know that milk is back there just waiting for me to claim its calcium goodness. However, I ask myself, “Self, are you an employee here? That sign says only employees can go through that door.”
“Why no, self, you are not an employee here. Better go find one that can go back there since I can’t.”
Reading Comprehension and Acceptance of Boundaries. It’s a beautiful thing.
However, zoo and aquarium professionals witness violations of this straightforward concept on a daily basis. Guests jump fences, manage to circumvent locked doors, morph into gelatinous octopi to squeeze through a six inch crack, and lose all ability to read any sign in any language. Signs with just pictures don’t even work. Inevitably when you find them, chasing them down while calling out (they often lose their ability to hear as well once they breach the barriers) they will stare at you dumbfounded. Their expressions are a mixture of mock disbelief (Who? ME?), annoyance (She can’t be speaking to ME), and then anger (How was I supposed to know I couldn’t be here!).
This brings me back to our old pal, Josh Newell. Joshie told news reporters, “The zoo calls me an idiot for jumping their fences and touching the cougers but they are the idiots. It was so easy for me to jump that fence and get back there so, really, it’s kinda their fault.” Now that is some stellar reasoning, friends and neighbors. You didn’t work hard enough to keep me out so I got in, like a criminal does. Seems like a legitimate argument…if you’re flaming moron from Planet Jackwagon.
Ironically, these are the same people that can’t find a bathroom with a park map, a guide dog, and a fresh set of directions given to them every 15 feet. This is my interpretation of what I look like when I find unwanted guests trespassing behind the scenes. First, the guests…
And then, there is me….
I present these long observed guest behaviors as evidence before you that “Zoo Crashers” aka trespassers have entered the realm of Social Darwinism. Their behavior now carries the joys of fines, prosecution, and in some very sad cases even death. We could build wildly high barriers to keep you and Josh Newell out or make sure that you were kept so far away that you would need binoculars to see the animals. But, that kind of defeats the purpose of zoos and aquariums. We want you to see them and experience what it’s like to observe a living, breathing animal.
Are you still asking why is it a big deal for guests to break into back areas or animal enclosures? Barring that you were asked not to by the people that work there, some of these animals have training programs that include free contact and some don’t. However, even with the ones that do participate in free contact (trainers touch with no barrier between trainer and animal) there are establishedboundaries. We work very hard and methodically with approximations, reinforcement, and behavioral plans to establish a safe and proper communication with animals; a relationship is built on trust and respect for each other as beings. When you jump in with bears, wolves, lions, apes, or cheetahs unannounced you have just walked into the boardroom meeting with zero plan or ability to communicate above a primal level. They don’t know why you are there, what you are up to, or when you are leaving. You are a curiosity or, even worse, a threat.
I, for one, am thrilled that zoos and aquariums are beginning to deliver consequences through the law and court systems. These people chose their actions and in turn they chose the consequences, ergo Social Darwinism. They weed themselves out of polite society with these choices, destined to be labeled “dunces”. They lose money over it (the ultimate punishment) and now have to check that little box, “Have you ever been convicted of a crime?” Showing a lack of impulse control and poor decision making skills does not present you as quality employee.
So, dear readers, the next time you feel that urge to stick your fingers into an animal enclosure or “wander” behind the scenes…Don’t. Practice your dark arts elsewhere and go buy a funnel cake. Take a walk on the wild side and eat one of those “turkey” legs (*cough*… emu). That should satiate any desire you have to live life on the edge as your sugar and cholesterol levels will reach critical mass. And if you do stick your fingers where they don’t belong? Animals are not afraid to retort.