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My Life As a Dolphin Trainer
The first thing I want you to know about me is that I LOVE being a trainer! I love marine mammals, and I have a special passion to help educate people about them. When the public connects to the animals I help to train, this raises consciousness about the health of the world’s oceans, and this helps all marine life.
Training is all about communication, being clear and precise. Good training is also motivation and fun! Highly intelligent animals are very motivated to be mentally and physically challenged, and it a very important part of designing a healthy life style for them.
What I love most is the “aha” moment. This is that moment when an animal gets what you want him or her to do through successive approximations: training steps that lead to the goal behavior. When the animal does it for the first time, it is so incredibly rewarding to share that moment of understanding between the two of you. That “aha” moment, priceless! Of course this process can take minutes or even months, depending on the animal and what you are training him or her to do.
Dolphins, in particular, are very motivated to learn new things. It’s great for their mental as well as physical stimulation.
My Life as a Trainer
Even as a small child, I always wanted to help injured animals. When I was 10 years old, I found a pelican, covered in tar, on the beach and brought it to my mom who helped me bring it to the bird sanctuary to be treated and released. As a teenager, I volunteered to clean the beaches near my home in Santa Barbara, California. I became a member of several wildlife rescue organizations and adopted pets from the Humane Society. I counted whales and dolphins from a float plane with the National Oceanic & Atmospheric Association (NOAA) and volunteered with the Channel Island Marine & Wildlife Institute, helping to rescue sea lions and seals. I canoed down the Snowdrift River in the Northwest Territories and saw muskoxen in their natural habitat. I have always loved animals and being in Nature.
I started my journey as a Marine Mammal Trainer at Moorpark’s Exotic Animal Training and Management Program (EATM) in 1999. Immediately after graduation, I began working as a trainer for Bud and Jo Krames when they started up their own company, Dolphin Fantaseas, in Antigua, West Indies.
In May of 2004, Dolphin Discovery bought Dolphin Fantaseas, and I became part of a new team. It was a fabulous opportunity to become a stronger trainer and a way to learn different techniques to make me a better asset to the team. After six months in Tortola, I was sent to Oahu’s Sea Life Park, which Dolphin Discovery had just purchased. I was one of four trainers picked to help train the animals and staff in Dolphin Discovery’s style of programs. A few months later, I was sent to help start up Sea Life Park Mexico. I spent five wonderful months in Puerto Vallarta, where the Director of Training for all Dolphin Discovery facilities and I created and trained for a show in just five days.
It was in Puerto Vallarta that I worked with a male South American sea lion for shows and a female for interactive sea lion program with guests. It was Dolphin Discovery’s first work with this species. This was a tremendous experience and really propelled my development as a trainer. I had a great supervisor who really helped me to grow and believe in myself, and as a result, I felt a lot more confidence in my abilities as a trainer and as a teacher. I was promoted during this time to the position of Senior Trainer.
After Sea Life Park was successfully up and running, I was transferred back to the Cancun area. I worked at both the Cozumel and the Puerto Aventuras locations. When hurricane Wilma hit in Oct of 2005, I got a crash course in hurricane planning and execution when I helped to evacuate the twenty-three dolphins, four sea lions, and several macaws, toucans and sloths. I, along with four other trainers and the vet, remained in the hotel where we had transported the animals to insure their safety during and after the hurricane. There, we weathered four days of the biggest hurricane ever recorded in the area. It was a terrifying experience for all, but I chose to stay in Cozumel out of loyalty to Dolphin Discovery and to the animals in my care. I cannot imagine having made a different choice. CNN had reported that the water would inundate the island, but a few days later, we were able to transport the animals to the Puerto Aventuras facility. It was extraordinary to be one of the key people responsible for such a complex operation, and on a ferry boat, no less! But there I was, training a year old baby dolphin who was way behind in training, working with dolphins who were experiencing aggression problems, and training a new staff. Shortly thereafter, I was promoted to Trainer Advisor of the Cozumel team.
In Oct of 2008, I started working for Dolphin Cove in Jamaica and went to work in Ocho Rios to get to know the six dolphins we would take via private plane to Grand Cayman Island two months later. My goals in Jamaica were to learn Dolphin Cove’s style of interactive programs, as well as the hand signals they assigned to each behavior. I also wanted to build a relationship with the animals in order to ease the dolphins’ transition to their new home. It always helps to have a familiar face when you move somewhere new! As it turned out, we moved only four dolphins to Grand Cayman-Ziggy, Nemo, Lucea and Luna-because one had become pregnant. Pepe and Sally were transported few months later.
It is now years later, and I’m really enjoying my experience here at Dolphin Cove where I am the Manager of Animal Care, Training and Operations.
Most of our clientele at Dolphin Cove come from cruise ships. However, we also receive some guests from hotels, and others who live on island. Our facility is very large and is part of a lagoon attached to the North Sound. There are a lot of sea creatures that share the lagoon with the dolphins. Nemo and Ziggy usually find any wandering octopi looking for a new home. (And we routinely pick out crab body parts when we brush Ziggy’s teeth in the morning!) The dolphins receive restaurant quality fish, but they sometimes hunt for fun. It is not only part of their natural behavior; it’s also very enriching for them.
My Thoughts on Using Animals for Therapy
I have come to believe that animals and water are uniquely healing for human beings. From a trainer’s perspective, a great way to provide help to others is to have a motivated subject, and what’s more motivating than getting the opportunity to interact with a dolphin in warm water? Dolphin therapy is still new to me. Not everyone likes the idea, but I have seen it first-hand, and my response is this: if it helps people live happier and more fulfilling lives, and it is enjoyable and stimulating for the dolphin, how can this be bad? Quite frankly, I LOVE IT!!!
It is all about prevention. Cleanliness, and precise records and communication are crucial. It’s about knowing your animals and noticing even the slightest difference in behavior or attitude.
Dolphins actively participate in their own health care. They are all trained to allow us to collect urine, fecal material, blow samples and blow-hole swabs, gastric samples and blood, all voluntarily. This training and the voluntary participation by the dolphins reduces stress because the animal has control over its environment and the choice to help us care for it. The key is making the experience very positive and rewarding.
If I had one wish:
I would wish to be able to actually have a sit-down conversation with an animal. I would love to hear what they have to say and how they really feel. It is so tempting to anthropomorphize what highly intelligent animals really think and feel. For now, I have to be satisfied with what animals tell me through their behavior. I really try to listen and observe, and not force my will or beliefs on them.
Why did I become a trainer?
I became a trainer because I love animals. Of course, it really goes way beyond that. I want to create the best life possible for the animals under human care, as well as help the animals out in Nature. As a marine mammal trainer, I get to do both. I feel that the animals under my care are ambassadors for those who live wild in the oceans. The close interaction and exposure our dolphins offer help people connect to wildlife and nature. This can provide the motivation people need to alter their life styles in ways that help the environment and all the animals with whom we share the planet.
Human beings connect with and preserve things they care about. So what better way to build a connection is there than touching, learning about, and experiencing marine mammals in close proximity? This also helps people to respect all wild animals and to protect their habitats. Marine mammals under human care also give us the ability to learn about them and know how best to assist them if they need rehabilitation after a stranding or environmental disasters such as oil spills. It is an amazing feeling to nurse an animal back to health and to watch him make a full recovery and head back out into the ocean! We would not know how to accomplish this if we didn’t have animals under human care.
I don’t believe that animals are better dead then under human care. That said, the marine mammal industry is always evolving. We are learning more everyday and are therefore able to give the animals under our care both the love and environment they need to thrive. As care providers, we work together and share techniques and expertise. This helps us have an even greater connection to our animals and accomplish things that we never thought possible with marine mammals. Bottom line, the animals never cease to amaze! We are incredibly fortunate to share experiences with them and witness their extraordinary abilities.
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