Archives for May 2009

Animal Career Chat: Teaching Through Story

It occurred to me that many of you don’t know my background and I’ve been procrastinating about sharing it–who cares?

Guess I was wrong. People do care and lately people who have only known me a few years have been floored at my credentials and my experiences.

So, I’ll be writing my history slowly and you’ll be able to find it filed under the About page.

Believe it or not, my professional career with animals really began early in my teens.

However, animals always gravitated to me from the time I was a young child and I too them. Bubbles the pilot whale in the picture to your left was the star in one of my favorite shows at Marineland of the Pacific–not far from where I grew up.

The varieties of my animal pals were not limited to the domestic critters that lived throughout the neighborhood since they also include the wild creatures that roamed the fields, cliffs, and ocean realm of my home town of San Pedro, California.

As a child, I suffered from allergies (and still do with some species) and so we didn’t have many long-term pets. This was agony for me and my parents kept trying new types of critters to see what might work–there were purebred animals to those with mixed heritage but none got to stay too long.

It wasn’t a small problem because I landed in the hospital on more than one occasion.

However animals found me anyway, and I also managed to forge relationships with all the critters in the area—wild and tame.

I bring up the allergies to point out that you can have an animal career despite challenges.

Originally I thought I would go into marine biology and a niche career of marine mammal work—but although my path started there—it has meandered through many different agencies, countries, and so I’ve worked in many roles with all creatures not just the marine types.

Professionally I claim a career launch with graduation from high school—however it began several years earlier as my love for the ocean grew.

My passion manifested as a love with surfing and educating intercity kids about grunion, the tide pool life, whales and other marine animals.

We lived on the cliffs above the Pacific Ocean and although I traveled up and down the coast to surf, I spent many hours (and years) around the cliffs, on the beaches, and in the sea surround my home town.

Luckily I lived in an area with some unique animal facilities and somehow began volunteering for an agency that educated people about the ocean and life within and around it.

I found myself on the beach and on the ocean on a daily basis and was narrating whale watch tours during a time when the United States was still hunting whales–and when people thought whales were fish. Marine aquariums and oceanariums were new ventures.

Okay, okay, I am dating myself—but with age comes wisdom—remember?

My passion and enthusiasm had to be tempered as the kids often got too excited and the other volunteers had trouble keeping their charges interested since they wanted to know what my groups were doing…try as they might…they couldn’t. That same passion remains with me to this day.

Because I was so active and dedicated, the director of the program approached me (at the urging of his staff) to alert me to a position at Marineland, a marine park that used to be on the Palos Verdes Peninsula—which was an area where we also perched annually to conduct a census of the then endangered Pacific gray whale (Eschrichtius robustus).

Gray whales are mammals that filter feed from the ocean floor. They dredge the sand for amphipods (shrimp-like creatures) and other bottom-dwelling organisms eating by filtering with baleen, a fringed plate that lines the upper jaw.

The Pacific population of gray whales has the longest migration of any mammal, traveling an estimate 10,000 miles (16,000 km) round trip between summer feeding grounds of the Bering and Chuchki Seas in Alaska and the winter breeding and calving grounds in Baja California.

The trip takes about four months and the whales stay close to the coastline, swimming along or in small groups. The migration is staggered according to age and sex. Pregnant females lead, followed by other females, adult males, and then youngsters of both genders.

I jumped at the chance. When I showed up for my interview with tons of other applicants—I was the only teen in a white fashionable suit instead of jeans.

Needless to say I got the job…and that is when things began to get interesting.

In the old school, we teach through story and don’t spell it out.

There are a few lessons in this story. Did you catch them all?

If not, let me help you out. (I won’t be doing this all the time but I need you to catch the subtleties.)

Is an animal career for you?

You’ll know if:

You have a passion that carries you along.

You find a way to get involved with critters whether it pays or not.

Your actions lead you to new opportunities that you explore wholeheartedly.

So, can you answer those questions? I’d like to see some of you share your answers in the comments below.

Training Talk: Who is at fault?

Above: My pal gets coaching with her two dogs.

I’ve been at Mandalay Shores over the holiday staying with a friend and my nieces and nephews–3 dogs and 8 cats.

Usually I spend hours out on the beach walking for miles and enjoying the wildlife.

However this trip was a little different.

My pal has been complaining that her dogs are super out of control and aggressive to other people and animals.

The dogs happen to be clicker phobic (except for the German Shepherd mix) so I use my voice and have been spending time with all the critters.

The cats all sat around and watched as the dogs began school.

It was funny.

Only one feline wanted to join in the school session–the rest consider it enrichment.

Imagine the surprise of my pals when I ambled out with the dog trio and came back to report that the girls were good.

Well, almost good.

They did act up but quickly responded when I told them to stop and asked them to sit instead.

Often, using an incompatible behavior replaces the one you don’t want.

In this case, a sit solves many problems. The behavior

  • allows the dogs to watch,
  • calms them down,
  • stops them from leaping and lunging,
  • reduces the frothing at the mouth,
  • and eliminates barking or growling.

I’ve walked the dogs every day that I’ve been here.

Now they know that they need to sit if a dog or person approaches and when in doubt–they choose to sit.

Sometimes they need prompting but they all enjoy treats and being told that they are “good dogs” instead of entering into the drama that ensues otherwise.

The funny thing is that everyone in the neighborhood knows and avoids the trio.

So when I walk them I am sort of like a neighborhood celebrity…people smile and wave.

And those that used to cross the street with their dogs just keep walking and break out in big grins as they pass.

Now I don’t take any chances but I am amazed at how unwilling people are to change their behaviors.

For instance, we were walking up a narrow path when a big dog lunged at the fence and gate.

At the time I had two of my charges with me.

They were spooked but I moved to the side of the path and asked them to sit because I wanted them to be calm in that situation.

PLUS I saw two bicycle riders coming toward us.

Neither of the bicyclists had the sense to slow down or stop despite seeing the startled dogs.

If the dogs went off as they apparently have in the past, and if they were not under control, the additional stress would have sent them over the edge and possibly knocked over one of the riders.

As it was, the girls were jumpy because they had two dynamics present that each alone would have triggered a frenzy–never mind the double dose of stress.

My calmness and their new behavior helped–but it was a bit much for them.

They did great.

But it got me to thinking when it comes to animals out in public–whose fault is it if there is an incident?

My pals are dog lovers and do whatever it takes for their animals but they don’t expect them to behave nor do they teach them what constitutes good manners–and so they are wild–except for with me.

This is a problem I see escalating when I think it would be getting better.

Now most dog owners would be found at fault for failure to control their dogs. If you fail to pay attention, things happen that second you are distracted.

BUT what about those people who fail to adapt their behavior to adjust for the presence of a dog?

Could they also be at fault?

You’d have to get into the dog laws of the area and the specific circumstances to get a real answer but my point is that animal problems are usually a people problem.

If there is anything people should know (and keep at the front of their minds) it is that animals can be unpredictable.

So in the scheme of things we all should be more attentive to animals and slow down our vehicles or adjust our pace as we approach critters.

If more humans adjusted their behavior and developed better animal sense it might be better for everyone.

In the meantime, I hope my pals will adapt their behaviors to keep the better pet behavior going.

At any rate it will be interesting to hear what the neighbors have to say!

Do you have any thoughts on the matter? If so, please comment below.