Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Seals vs. Sea Lions

I hear this one all the time. It's a perfectly understandable confusion; these two animals are very similar in a lot of ways. If you're not a marine scientist or even an aficionado, there's not a whole lot of reason or opportunity to learn what the differences are between a seal and a sea lion.

This post would be more accurately titled "True seals vs. Eared seals" (more on this later). The family of pinnipedia is divided into three main categories: walruses, the eared seals (sea lions and fur seals) and the true seals (like the harbor and elephant seals). Within the eared seals, there are several types of fur seal, which have a thicker undercoat than sea lions. But aside from typical nit-picky species differences, fur seals and sea lions look pretty much alike. Therefore, since it's the only good image I've taken recently, the photo I'm using to illustrate the eared seals is a northern fur seal.

There are lots of similarities between true seals and eared seals. They're both mammals. They both belong to the family of animals called pinnipeds (meaning "wing-foot"). They have five digits on each flipper. And they both have sensitive whiskers for the detecting, pursuing, and capturing of prey.

But once you actually see them side by side, the differences become a lot clearer. 

This is a an eared seal (and a human, if you want to be pedantic about it):

My photo, and you're about to see it a lot.

This is a true seal. A harbor seal, to be exact:

From Wikipedia
You'll notice several differences immediately, but the biggest one is their general body type. The eared seal is definitely more of an athlete, with a svelte, lean, muscular body. The harbor seal is, er, well, more of a fast food and binge-watching TV sort of animal. Rounder. More to love, and all that. 

Both animals are very differently equipped. The eared seal has a rotating pelvis-- it can pull its rear flippers under its body and "walk" on all fours. Please excuse my terrible MS Paint illustrations of this:


In Rotation


Here's that standing eared seal photo again, with the rear flippers highlighted:

With true seals, their locomotion is primarily reliant on the amount of blubber they contain. Basically, it goes like this:

A true seal's flippers are much smaller, partly to stay out of the way when they go bouncing along.

Both animals are graceful in the water (though eared seals can move a bit more quickly), but eared seals got the upper hand out of the water, too. 

You can also look at color. Eared seals are pretty much universally a dark brown. They may have some blondishness from sun bleaching, but for the most part, they're chocolate colored. True seals are usually seen in a wider range of colors (all neutrals, but more varied, for sure). The harbor seal is spotted, for example. 

But if you're on a boat and you look in the water and see both animals looking up at you, there's one fast and easy way you can tell them apart. 

Sea lions and fur seals have external ear flaps (little coverings for their ears), hence the family name "eared seal":

True seals don't:

My photo

So, that's the difference. Wasn't that fun?!

Thursday, September 25, 2014

What's Been Going On With Me Lately, Part 2

Yesterday, I told you about all of this. Today, we continue.

My husband and I were planning to drop Infant off at Grandma's and go see the horse for a quick visit as a practice run for future babysitting. I'd had some heartburn late in my pregnancy, and I was starting to feel something coming on. I took some Mylanta right before we walked out the door. By the time I got into our car, I knew something was terribly wrong.

Later, my husband said the only other time he had ever seen me in so much pain was during labor. I don't much remember the ride to my mom's house, feeling like my stomach was going to burst open inside me, nor do I remember getting there and getting out of the car. I do remember my husband calling 911, and I got my second ambulance ride of the year.

The pain subsided a bit by the time the ambulance got to the ER, but the docs ran all the tests they could anyway, and told me I had gallstones. On top of that, my liver enzymes were elevated, which they wanted me to keep an eye on. They sent me home without much fanfare except a recommendation to see a surgeon about having my gallbladder taken out. I assumed life would continue on as normal, and prepared accordingly.

I rescheduled with my mom to try again the next evening. Just before we left the house, I started to get a migraine.

You might see where this is going. Sadly, you're right.

About an hour after we got there, I began vomiting every 5-10 minutes. I'm still not certain if it was from the headache, or the gallbladder, but back to the ER we went (by car this time). There, they gave me the most awful drugs for the migraine. They made my headache feel better, and they stopped the vomiting, but they made me so agitated that if I could have crawled out of my own skin I would have. If I hadn't been chained to an IV I likely would have gotten up and walked out.

However, when the doctor came back with my blood test results, the news was bad. He said my liver enzymes were even more elevated, and I didn't have a choice: they were admitting me to the hospital.

I spent three days away from my four-week-old son, strapped to IV antibiotics and fluids. The agitation didn't go away, likely because no new mother wants to be away from her baby. The first day, I didn't get to eat at all. The second day, they let me have a liquid diet. My going-home test on the third day was eating solid food. I passed, thank goodness, because I would have torn my hair out if I'd had to stay any longer.

My roommate was this poor woman who had already had her gallbladder out and came in with uncontrollable vomiting. They thought she had some stones still forming, and I promptly wished I hadn't heard that. I didn't want to know that I could go through the surgery and STILL have terrible pain.

My husband brought my baby to visit each evening, but the time between those visits was spent crying and trying to keep myself together (and obviously failing) in my hospital room. On top of that, my IV kept failing, and each time they redid it came with at least three botched attempts at placing a new one. This, on top of other issues, meant that by the end of that three days, I was completely done with the hospital.

This time when they let me go, it was with the caveat that surgery was no longer optional. I had an appointment with a surgeon a few days later, and surgery scheduled for a couple weeks out. All was going well, except I had to stick to a low fat diet.

Apparently, even that wasn't good enough, because five days before my surgery, I had another attack and went back to the ER. They gave me pain meds and told me that I had two choices: I could keep my scheduled surgery date and go home to wait, or I could be re-admitted to the hospital and take the next available surgery, which likely still would be a few days away. I opted to go home.

The day of my surgery arrived. I nervously said goodbye to my animals, baby, and husband, and went with my mom to the hospital. The nurses still had to try three times to get an IV in, but thankfully they managed. The anesthesiologist was a very literal man who told me, when I informed him I'd had some episodes of low blood pressure and thought I'd woken up the last time I'd been put under to have my tooth extracted, that those factors "increased the possibility of interoperative recall", and I quote. Charming, lovely man.

They had me walk into the OR and sit on the operating table after making it as physically uncomfortable as they possibly could. I had also told the anesthesiologist that I might panic when they tried to put me under, which probably explains why he didn't tell me when he was putting me under. Charming, lovely man. But he kept me alive, so I'm grateful.

The surgery went "well", according to the nurse who was there when I woke up. She said I'd been in my recovery room for two hours. All I remembered was her asking if I was in pain, me saying yes, her pumping more drugs into my IV, me still being in pain, repeat ad nauseum. Finally she gave me some oral drugs and took me out to see my husband.

I was still in incredible pain, but somehow we managed to get home. Everything should have been fine, except, well, it's me. Cue another ER trip the day after my surgery and an urgent care appointment a few days following. Sigh.

The short end of the story?

I'm mostly okay now. Definitely still healing. Still in pain, but I only spent a few days on the narcotic meds. I'm sad that my husband has basically raised my baby by himself for the last month, but so, so glad to have a partner in life who is willing to do so, without complaint.

I'm grateful to my family for their support.

I'm pissed at my body for its apparent rebellion, and frankly, as a recently-pregnant woman, I'm pissed at how little I can eat.

I'm scared I might come out of this with yet another painful, chronic condition.

I'm so happy to see my baby's face every day, even if I can't pick him up yet.

I'm excited to see what the future holds, and it's coming up on fall, my favorite season.

Fingers crossed.

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

What's Been Going On With Me Lately Part 1

I've been pretty quiet recently.

Aside from signing with my agent in June, there hasn't been a whole lot to share here this year.

Well, there has-- but it's pretty personal. Still, I figured it's time to explain what's going on in my personal life. I've been somewhat cryptic on twitter, though most of this isn't exactly a secret. I haven't been answering emails very quickly. I've been pretty MIA in general here and on twitter.

Last year was rough professionally and emotionally. This year has been rough physically.

I have essentially been sitting on my couch since March.

My pregnancy was fairly easy from a baby standpoint. Infant was happy, content, and not too hard on me. But I, already a fairly disaster prone person, became a walking target for physical misfortune during the last half of my pregnancy. In early March, I fell in an erosion ditch and sprained my ankle. Baby was fine, but oh hey-- turns out they can't give pregnant women painkillers or anti-inflammatories! Basically all I had to control said sprained ankle was advice to stay off it (yeah right, my job is standing all day), ice it, and maybe try physical therapy.

After a couple weeks of trying to push through it, I was placed on light duty at work which basically involved sitting down. Normally this would have been fine, but I didn't realize how long it would take for my ankle to heal. In case you're wondering, it took eight weeks. Eight. Weeks.

Obviously I was a little too excited when I got released from light duty and put back to work, because the universe decided it needed to take me down another notch. Literally the day after I was released by the doctor, I had a freak accident with my horse. She jumped into me and sent me flying, landing on my side. Thankfully I had the sense to tuck and protect my belly, but I still left the ranch by ambulance and spent the night in the hospital to make sure the baby was okay (extra double thankfully, he was). But I didn't get off scot-free. I had some incredible (painful) bruising on my right hip, sore ribs, and a pretty banged up knee. Not to mention the terror of the potential harm to Infant.

I didn't mention this earlier because I still feel incredibly guilty about what happened. It wasn't Pony's fault, it wasn't mine. Neither of us could have seen it coming, and it's a fact of life working with animals, especially large ones, that things can happen. It was just completely terrible timing for an incident to occur. I couldn't just abandon my horse, and all efforts to find someone to help me with her care had failed, including hiring someone. The only positive to come out of the accident, aside from Infant and I being okay, was that people actually took me seriously afterward when I said I needed help with her. I finally found a couple people willing to assist me.

I very, very slowly healed from my bruises and was mostly okay by the time Infant arrived (though still pretty immobile due to being extremely pregnant!) There then followed the period every new parent goes through of doing nothing but trying to figure out how to take care of a baby. Things were just starting to look up about a month after he was born, and then IT happened.

Tomorrow: Part 2

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Zoo Rant Week Follow-up: Let's talk about poaching

Find my Zoo Rant Week series here (this post links to the previous four).

There are currently five species of rhinos left in the world: northern white rhinos, southern white rhinos, black rhinos, Sumatran and Javan. One of those species, the northern white, has only four surviving members left on the entire planet.

The remaining four are under 24-hour armed guard in Africa, but are either not interested in breeding or are too old or too young. We are watching the extinction of a species, and they're far from alone in their predicament.

Last year, over a thousand rhinos were poached for their horns in South Africa alone. In some cultures, rhino horn is seen as a medicine, or a health supplement, or a rare ceremonial decoration. But a rhino's horn is made of keratin, the same protein that makes up our fingernails and hair. It grows back, just like our nails and hair do. There's nothing magical or medicinal about rhino horn. It would be the same as trying to cure a cold by eating your hair.

But rhino horn is a lucrative business for shady people. And the message that it's a medicine is so ingrained in the cultures that believe it that it would be like telling Americans that Vitamin C doesn't help prevent colds. (Spoiler: it doesn't. But I bet you know someone who thinks so). We can get into the placebo effect later; the important thing is that rhino horn contains nothing special.

In the regions where rhinos are found, there is a war going on every single day between poachers and those who wish to protect the rhinos. Every time the anti-poaching strategists come up with something new, like poisoning the horns (harmless to the rhinos, and marked with a bright pink dye) or removing the horns regularly (since they grow back), the poachers either find a way around it or kill the rhinos anyway out of spite.

And the situation doesn't stop with rhinos. Also popular animals to poach: tigers, cheetahs, leopards (most big cats, really). Gorillas. Sea Turtles. Elephants. Well, here. See a bigger list for yourself.

All of these animals are in danger due to poaching. The three at biggest threat currently are rhinos, elephants, and tigers. As mentioned during my zoo rant week, there are more tigers in backyards in the US than there are left in the wild. Without zoos making serious efforts to breed them responsibly (i.e., with an eye for ample genetic diversity and health), we could also expect tigers to go extinct during our lifetime. This may happen even despite our efforts.

Long story short: if you're looking for someone to hate when it comes to wild animals, hate poachers. Be verbal about the fact that these things aren't medicine, or pretty-- they're far prettier on the animals they come from. Pass legislation against poaching (yes, it even happens here in America). And above all, when you travel, don't buy animal parts as trinkets. No matter how small, or where the person selling them says they came from. Ever.

But don't hate zoos. We're really not the bad guys. We're doing the best we can in an uphill battle against climate change, poaching, and public opinion.

As usual, thanks for reading.

PS-- The New York Times just today published an excellent article about the widespread effects climate change can and will and is already having on the planet, the plants, and the animals. There's a lot in here that directly affects you and I. I suggest taking a look!

Friday, September 19, 2014

Zoo Rant Week: What the future holds for zoos, and a few closing thoughts

Read part one here.
Read part two here.
Read part three here.
Read part four here.

We've been on a journey this week. If you're reading this far, thanks for putting up with my rant.

I want to make it very clear that I don't have all the answers. I am constantly learning, and I'm the type of person who will always, always take in new information, consider it, and add it to my opinions on things. That said, I don't really see a near future where we won't need zoos for the reasons I've described. When it comes down to it, zoos may be the only places we can get to see some animals in the future. They already are, for a select unfortunate few species.

If we continue down our current path, zoos may be the only place we see wildlife in the future.

That's not a world I want to live in, or leave to my children. But the frustration is that we live in a very polarized political climate. On the one hand, I get it-- yes, it's scary. Sometimes it's easier to live in denial than accept a truth that doesn't sound changeable. But on the other hand, even if you don't believe in climate change, why would you not want to do anything in your power to make this planet a better place to live?

And then there are the folks who think all zoos are bad. There are certainly some zoos out there that aren't great, or may even be downright bad. But as I mentioned at the start of the week, there are a few easy ways you can find good zoos to support. And a 1.5 hour "documentary"* is not a good place to go looking for zoos to avoid.

So what is the future of zoos? Well, assuming this slippery path of legislature against certain animals in zoos doesn't hold up, I think the future of zoos is bright. I know this, because the people who work in zoos are driven by passion, compassion, and a drive to change the world. We work with these animals not just because of some pipe dream leftover from when we were children (though that certainly sparked many of us to head in this direction), but because it's hard not to care once you learn what's really facing these animals.

I go to work every day and I have the chance to save species and change lives and maybe even better the world. That's a pretty heavy responsibility, for someone who spends most of their day picking up some form of poo. One of my extracurricular goals each day at work is to look at my animals, my exhibits, and myself, and ask what I can be doing better. What can I do more of, what can I add to my routine, what can I suggest to my bosses? And then I implement it, and I do this every single day.

Zoos will never be static. We will always be striving to do more, because we know and recognize that the system isn't perfect (no system is!), and we've come such a long way in the last forty years alone that we can only dream of what's ahead. But if we're not given the chance to improve, to keep working toward a better and brighter zoo, the only thing that can replace us is worldwide change.

Which is why it makes even less sense to me that SeaWorld has recognized that people want to see change, come up with and implemented a plan, and it's making people angrier at them.

So that's it. Those are my thoughts. Like I said, they may not be the right answers, but this is what I've been wanting to say for a long time. This is the most political I'll ever get on my blog. I hope someone out there got something positive from this and thanks, again, no matter how you feel, for reading.

*I use the word documentary regarding BLACKFISH loosely, because on its original release, the film's own website referred to it as a psychological thriller.

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Zoo Rant Week: Why ocean animals are tricky to talk about

Read part one here.
Read part two here.
Read part three here.

This whole rant is thanks to BLACKFISH, and most of my examples so far have been land animals. So it's time to talk about the ocean, the animals that live there, and why there's no easy answer to any argument about them.

It boils down to this, and it's pretty common sense:

The ocean is huge.

There are tens of millions of species that live in the ocean.

We haven't even scraped a corner of a piece of a smidge off the everything there is to know about the ocean.

The Challenger Deep, the deepest part of the ocean, was visited once in 1960 by a manned submersible, and only three other times by robotic subs. We've been to the moon more times than the deepest part of our own planet.

But, somehow, we're still making it a miserable place for animals to live.

Did you know there's a giant floating island of garbage in the middle of the Pacific?

Did you know there are international sanctions and agreements against whaling, but several countries openly ignore those sanctions and do it anyway? For whatever reason, it's not considered poaching, because it's the ocean.

Did you know that if we don't find a way to reverse or even just stop climate change, we can expect rising sea levels and changes in the makeup of our oceans that could cause mass extinctions of many different species, not only in the water, but on land?

SeaWorld is one of only two facilities in the world that have successfully bred emperor penguins outside of Antarctica. These birds require extremely specialized care and conditions to successfully breed, and their habitat is threatened every day by the loss of Antarctic sea ice, rising sea levels, and warmer summer extremes in the Antarctic.

Having said all that, the biggest challenge that faces us in the debate about zoos keeping whales and dolphins is that we simply don't know everything about sea animals. It's impossible to study them thoroughly in the wild. All the speculation about the lifespans of whales is just that: speculation. We haven't been recording the same animals for long enough to know for sure how long they live. But they certainly face more challenges in the wild than they do in a zoo, and their average lifespans are certainly not the oft-spouted high numbers. My great-grandmother lived to be 106, but that doesn't mean I will. Nor will most people.

Sea animals present us with a number of challenges because we simply can't say anything for certain about their lifestyles and habits. We can guess, but we can't know. At least not yet.

In the meantime, we do everything we can to keep our animals healthy, mentally and physically.

Tomorrow: What the future holds for zoos

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Zoo Rant Week: Why education and conservation matter

In case you missed it, I'm talking about zoos and BLACKFISH this week. Yesterday was all about why zoos are important for the environment. Today, I'm narrowing that down even further.

I mentioned in my inaugural post that you should look for a zoo that does work with education and conservation if you're looking for a responsible zoo to support.

Public education is one of the best things a zoo can do for itself and the animals in its care. At my zoo, we offer guided tours, interpretive staff, and education programs for school children. We have camps and overnight programs, as well as daily keeper talks and animal presentations. We have signage on all our exhibits and offer online resources through our website. On top of that, each animal area is staffed with knowledgeable employees who are experts on our animals and facility. It's literally as easy as asking to learn. And that is crucial in the fight against extinction.

By fostering public knowledge, we can combat misinformation, including things like the fact that rhino horn isn't medicine (it's actually made up entirely of keratin, the same protein as our fingernails and hair). Or that climate change is really doing a number on animal populations. Or that you can really, truly make a huge difference to local wildlife by following all the rules you learned as a kid: turn off the lights when you leave a room. Recycle. Don't litter. And so forth.

My goal every time I open my mouth and talk to a guest at my zoo is to send them away either having learned something new or caring a little bit more than they did before they spoke to me. Why? Well, aside from wanting to do my job well, I know that the more people care about things, the more likely they are to take action. Whether it's doing any of the little things above, or voting pro-environment in the next election, I want them to hear how they can make a difference. It's so easy to see all of this as someone else's problem. But it's all of ours. It's up to all of us to fix it.

Now, the reason conservation work is important should be glaringly obvious, but you may not realize the extent your local zoo goes to in doing so. Many zoos around the world collaborate with each other to study different habitats and animals. Many zoos even have their own research institutions attached. Including SeaWorld, actually. The goal of these research institutions is to identify why animals and habitats are endangered and find ways to help them.

These facilities, as I mentioned yesterday, are crucial to saving animal species.

The controversial thing I want to say today is this:

That caring that I mentioned earlier? It doesn't happen if people don't have the chance to see these animals. It's really easy to think of the coatimundi, for example, as a South American problem, because most people in the US don't live with coatimundis in their backyards. If you've never heard of these animals, why should you care what happens to them? If you've never seen one in person, it's too simple to say that they don't matter.

Zoo animals do not (if they are living in a responsible zoo) have a bad life. People have this romantic vision of the wild and the "freedom" these animals are missing, but the wild is shrinking every day, and the freedoms out there are more and more often certain death at the hands of humans. Life in a zoo isn't bad. They're treated with the best care we're capable of giving them. It's actually my job to take the best care of my animals that I can. I spend 8 hours a day ensuring their comfort and well-being. In my free time, I educate people.

We need animals in zoos because most people are not going to travel to South America in their lifetime. If they do, they likely won't see or hear of a coatimundi. Same goes for polar bears, and snow leopards, and so on and so forth a hundred thousand times over. The best way we can get people to care about these animals and their plights is to show them why they should care.

Tomorrow: Why ocean animals are a sticky subject

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Zoo Rant Week: Why zoos are important for the environment

This week we're talking about all the things I wish people understood about zoos and the role they play in our world.

One of the things that's driving me crazy about BLACKFISH's influence are the folks whose response to the film is to "set the whales free" or even pass legislation to keep them (or any other animal) from being kept in a zoo.

Well, that is about the single worst thing you could do for any animal on this planet.

I won't get into the politics here. Climate change is happening, and we are at fault. Regardless of how you feel about that subject, you should at least accept that humans are extremely damaging to our planet. We litter. We sprawl. We poach. We fight wars. We build. We mow down habitats. Wild animals simply aren't safe. They are, in fact, safer in zoos, in the case of many species.

I've had the opportunity to work with some animals that are extirpated, or, extinct in the wild. They wouldn't exist anymore if it weren't for zoos.

While not extirpated (yet), it recently came to light that there are currently more tigers in private ownership in the United States than there are in the wild.

And there are creatures like the Pere David's deer. The Arabian oryx. The northern white rhino. All extinct in the wild. Their only hope of survival is zoos.

Finally, if you need some proof of what climate change will do to the rest of the planet, there's the plight of the polar bear.

The single biggest followup I hear zoo detractors make to this point is:

Why should I care if a few species go extinct?

Well, this is one of those questions that is almost impossible to answer. I can't tell you why you should care from an emotional standpoint (though you should), because we still live in a world where most people see animals as fourth-class citizens.

If the emotional side of things doesn't appeal to you, the biological imperative behind them might.

Every habitat on the planet has an ecosystem. This ecosystem is like a well-oiled machine: all the parts are there, it works flawlessly, you never have to think about it. But if you take out a single piece, or weaken it, suddenly the machine doesn't work so well anymore. And by the time you notice it's not functioning properly, it might be too late to fix it.

I'm beating you over the head with this analogy. I'm sure you've worked it out for yourself. (Hint: the animals [and plants, and insects, etc.] are the parts of the machine). So what happens when you take out one of these pieces? What's happening to the ecosystems that have lost so many tigers, or oryx, or deer?

Let me tell you a story that hits a little close to home (literally) for most of us here in the US.

The black-tailed prairie dog, a small rodent from the plains of middle America, is seen as a pest by most farmers. Like many rodents, they can be a bit destructive. Farmers dislike them because they pick on their crops. But when efforts to eradicate prairie dogs succeeded, something unintended started happening, too. Other animals began to die off, like the black-footed ferret, who used old prairie dog tunnels for their own homes. Animals that were responsible for killing other small pests like mice and rats. Which in turn made the crops suffer more. It turns out that the black-tailed prairie dog is what's known as a keystone species: it holds up the ecosystem.

In areas where we've driven away wolves and shoot coyotes and other predators on sight to protect livestock, there tends to be an overabundance of deer and other herbivores, who overeat plants and therefore destroy food and habitat for other species. When their native food source is gone, they spill over into human territory, causing car accidents and ruining-- you guessed it, more crops, and people's gardens.

This holds true in every ecosystem. No matter where you are in the world, removing a piece of the puzzle ruins the whole image. One species lost damages everything else, including us.

Obviously the world has lost species before and continues right on. But we are damaging things at a greater scale than we were even fifty years ago. And it's only going to get worse. Where will it stop?

We don't know. We can't predict how far it will go, how long it will take before we can all agree to do something about it and actually get it done. What we can do, though, is start preparing for the worst, and doing our best to ensure if that does happen, these animals won't be gone forever. We will have them around, thanks to zoos.

Tomorrow: Why education and conservation matter

Monday, September 15, 2014

Zoo Rant Week: Introduction

I considered writing these posts for a long time, but I think now's my chance.

There was a documentary released in 2013 called BLACKFISH. I've touched on it briefly here on the blog, and chances are you've either seen it or heard of it by now. Since the release of BLACKFISH, there has been a new wave of mainstream activism that is anti-zoo in general, and anti-SeaWorld in particular.

This is extremely troubling to me. Zoos can be a sensitive subject for many people, and even for me, admittedly. As a child, I wasn't quite able to rationalize them. But having worked for many reputable facilities in my career (including SeaWorld), I can now say with complete confidence that the world very much needs zoos. Responsible zoos, at least. And yes, that includes SeaWorld. I am not necessarily pro- or anti- SeaWorld specifically, but I am incredibly pro-responsible zoo. Responsible zoos need all the help they can get.

This week I'll be putting up a few different posts explaining why. This is not an anti-BLACKFISH post-- I will NOT be refuting the film directly, as there are plenty of excellent posts out there doing so, much more eloquently and succinctly than I could ever hope to. (One of the links above is SeaWorld's own list of erroneous BLACKFISH points. I see the conflict of interest there, however, as a former employee who worked closely with the killer whale trainers and was also involved in animal care, I do not see anything in there that I don't believe to be the truth).

Instead, I hope to explain the other side. Plain and simple, if you've bought into the bias that BLACKFISH has to offer, you do not know the whole story. You simply can't watch a 1.5 hour documentary, search the internet for facts that support it, and consider yourself to be an expert. I don't mean this accusingly. I'm hoping if you're reading this that you want to know more. I'm hoping I can still change your mind.

We need zoos. Believe it or not, we need SeaWorld.

I will be turning off comments on these posts because I don't have the time or wherewithal to deal with trolls et al. Individuals who want to know more or have genuine questions can feel free to email me directly.

So. Today, we'll start off with a little zoo history, and a couple points that will be important this week.

The past, the present, and the future

Zoos originally began as the menageries of the wealthy and powerful. Kings and nobles would collect and display exotic or rare animals as a show of their reach (and riches). As the centuries went on, zoos became less private and more public. Those same kings and nobles wanted not only their compatriots but also their subjects to be awed by the collections of animals they maintained. Eventually, someone got the bright idea to charge for admission, and the modern-day independently owned zoo was born.

The thing about zoos is that they are ever-improving. From literal cages with bars to the most naturalistic habitats we are capable of building. From chains, whips, and chairs to positive reinforcement and even hands-off care. The people who work in zoos in our modern world are there because they care about their animals. There's always more we can do to improve, but even in the last forty years, we've come a long, long way.

The future of zookeeping is either grim or hopeful. We stand at a crossroads right now with the public opinion swaying in the breeze. But if zoos fall victim to the hype, we stand to lose so much (more on this later).

What do I mean by a responsible zoo?

Generally speaking, a responsible zoo is one that fosters education and, more importantly, conservation of the animals in its care. Obviously the care they take of their animals is paramount, but as an outsider, it can be hard to tell whether animal care is "good" or not. Much of what goes on daily in a zoo can easily be mistaken for either good or bad care, and unless you're in the field it can be hard to tell the difference. So, the easiest way to tell as an outsider is to look for education AND conservation programs. The zoo should offer some form of both of these.

In the United States, the best way to tell if a zoo is following animal care guidelines is to look for accreditation by the AZA and the USDA. Zoos that carry these accreditations will usually say so on their websites. (Note: this does not apply to very small operations, like exotic animal rescues and nature centers. There, you will have to use your best judgment, but you can look for education and conservation again as a clue).

Okay, so, what is conservation, exactly?

Conservation means the zoo is interested in helping the environment, specifically the animal species in their care. Many zoos participate in the Species Survival Plan (or SSP) for various endangered species. An SSP is basically a studbook for all the zoo-kept animals of a particular species. That way, we can breed them responsibly to ensure the best genetic diversity.

But conservation can also be closer to home. SeaWorld, for example, does local marine mammal rescue, rehabilitation, and release. They also have a facility designed entirely to help with oiled wildlife recovery during catastrophic oil spills. I was fortunate enough in my time there to be trained in the recovery of oiled birds, which is an undertaking that requires tons of manpower and resources, and was done in addition to our regular keeper duties, all behind the scenes.

And what about education?

Okay look. I know you probably know what education is. But at a zoo, the things you should look for are guided tours, signage at exhibits, and public presentations.

Stay tuned this week. Tomorrow: why zoos are so important to the environment.