A Career Guide to Marine Mammal Care & Training
This website is produced and written by working marine mammal professionals who care for and train dolphins, whales, seals,
sea lions, walruses and other marine mammal species. Depending upon our specific job duties and our host facilities’
preferences, we may be called trainers, animal care specialists, keepers, naturalists, mammalogists or various other titles.
When first starting out we may be sub-classified as assistant or apprentice. After years of hard work and progress we may earn
new titles denoting higher levels of achievement and authority, e.g., senior, lead, supervisor, manager, curator or director. For the
sake of simplicity we will generally just refer to all of these "hands on" marine mammal professionals as trainers.
As marine mammal trainers we are often asked about our animals, their training, anatomy, physiology, natural history, etc.
Probably the most frequently asked questions, however, are about our jobs and how we got them. People are naturally fascinated
by these engaging animals and many want to know more about working with them. "What does a marine mammal trainer really
do?" "How can I become a trainer?" These are just two of the most popular questions we get about this subject. From the very
beginning, one of our primary reasons for producing this website was to provide some answers to these frequently asked
questions in one easy to access location. We also wanted to offer some valuable resources, references and our own personal
tips and insights that may help people who are interested in this field as a possible career choice.
Is a marine mammal trainer the same thing as a marine biologist?
We often hear people say, "I want to be a marine biologist and train dolphins". While it is true that some marine biologists do train dolphins and many trainers
have degrees in biology, the two job descriptions are really quite different. Many folks mistakenly lump marine mammal trainers, marine biologists and
oceanographers into one homogenous group. Oceanographers primarily study the physical nature of the world’s oceans, for example, their chemical,
geological, and atmospheric aspects. A marine biologist is generally someone who studies life in the seas and oceans. They may specialize in such areas
as anatomy, physiology, behavior or ecology. The subjects of their investigations may range from microscopic single celled organisms to 150 ton blue
whales. Proportionately very few of these scientists work hands on with or train living marine mammal species. A good marine mammal trainer may study
and utilize knowledge from all of these fields (and more), but each of these careers are really part of their own specialized discipline.
What does a marine mammal trainer really do?
One obvious answer to this question is that we train dolphins, whales, seals, sea lions, walruses and other marine mammals using a system of positive
reinforcement called "operant conditioning". Behaviors are taught to help educate and entertain people through our shows, demonstrations and interactive
programs. However, this is just one small part of the job. Our primary responsibility is always to maintain and enhance the health and well-being of the animals
in our care. To achieve this goal marine mammal trainers must understand and work hard to ensure that their animals are provided with the highest quality
food, aquatic environments, structural habitats, social and behavioral opportunities and medical care. Training can be an extremely powerful tool in meeting
these goals. For example, animals are routinely taught "husbandry" or "veterinary" behaviors that allow us to monitor and track their health status and even
treat them when necessary with the least amount of delay or stress. Some of these incredibly useful behaviors include the voluntary collection of blood,
gastric, urine and fecal samples; physical, X-ray, ultrasonic and dental exams; and the administration of medicines, replacement fluids and even physical
therapy. In just the last few years, veterinary procedures that may have required physical restraint of an animal can easily and safely be trained to allow routine
collections without restraint or danger to the animals or the staff. Our veterinarians are able to get much more accurate pictures of our animals’ health status
before they show any outward signs of illness. (This is extremely important as marine mammals are notoriously good at hiding disease. Many scientists
believe that this ability to mask illness or weakness has evolved as an important survival mechanism to avoid being targeted by predators in the wild.)
Training also provides a great tool for facilitating the movement and relocation of animals from one habitat to another, thereby helping to manage compatible
social groups. In addition, many independent researchers now agree with what trainers have known for a long time, that training provides valuable mental and
physical stimulation, as a form of environmental enrichment, which is important for long-term health and well-being. As a result of all this training and proactive
health management, our animals are living much longer and healthier lives than ever before. Many of our animals are outliving their counterparts in the wild.
What are some of the most important qualities or attributes that employers look for
when hiring a marine mammal trainer?
Every institution has its own specific mission, operations and staff requirements. The degree of emphasis on each specific attribute may vary considerably
from one facility to another. For example, many facilities provide public shows and educational demonstrations. They may rely heavily on trainers with strong
public speaking skills and educational backgrounds. Some facilities may deal primarily with research and data collection. They may require advanced
degrees in biology, animal behavior or related subjects. Many facilities along the coast lines rescue, rehabilitate and release hundreds of sick, injured and
stranded marine mammals back to the sea every year. These institutions may need individuals with strong backgrounds in veterinary care and medicine.
Many modern marine zoological institutions provide all of these services in one location. They have needs for people with all of these skills and backgrounds.
In any case, there are several characteristics that seem to be universally desirable. These include education, experience, ability, attitude and commitment.
As mentioned earlier, the operations and needs of each facility may be very different. The level of education required varies considerably. Some facilities
only require a high school diploma for entry level positions. Many now look for a minimum of a bachelors degree in a related field such as biology, psychology
or animal behavior. Some facilities routinely hire candidates with a 2 year diploma or certificate from a specialized school, such as Moorpark College’s
Exotic Animal Training and Management Program. In any case, a strong knowledge of animal biology, behavior, water chemistry, nutrition, veterinary
medicine, marine ecology, and related fields is extremely valuable if a person is truly interested in achieving success and progressing in this field. It maybe
vital if they want to some day advance to a supervisor, curator or director level. Advanced degrees are becoming more and more common and are critical
factors at some institutions when considering managerial promotions.
While a formal education is very important, the only real way to gain the understanding and skills needed to successfully care for and train marine mammals
is by working with them under the supervision and tutelage of senior team members. In other words, through practical hands on experience. Many people
have unrealistic expectations of what a trainer does. It is a very rewarding career, but it is also a tough job. It may take years of on the job training before a
staff member is able to work independently or actually train new behaviors. Much of a trainer’s daily duties include cleaning, preparing fish, cleaning, feeding
and training, cleaning, writing records, cleaning, performing in shows or demonstrations, public education and interaction and more cleaning. Employers
want to hire people who already know what the job is really like and are ready to take on all of these important responsibilities. No one wants to hire (or work
with) someone who is only interested in the fun stuff or quits after a short period of time. Voluntary and professional experience with all animals, especially
large mammals, is a great way to demonstrate this type of understanding and commitment. Many trainers got their first practical experience by volunteering
at local zoos, oceanariums, veterinary hospitals, wildlife rehabilitation centers, animal shelters or horse stables. Often the next step may be a paid position as
a summer, seasonal or part time keeper or trainer’s assistant. Many facilities are busiest during the summer or holiday seasons and hire extra entry level
staff. Whether paid or voluntary, these types of programs allow job candidates to "get their foot in the door", make important contacts and show what they can
do. These types of jobs allow management staff to evaluate a candidate's true qualifications and potential and decide if they have what it takes to move on to
the next step…. a full time position as a professional marine mammal trainer.
Education and experience may get a person hired, but sooner or later only a demonstrated ability to consistently and effectively do the job will keep that
person working and, more importantly, make them successful in this field. Genuine ability can not be faked. Over time a person’s true nature and aptitude
show through. Luck and raw talent may play a role, but most often success in this field is the result of hard work, careful observation, practice, continued
personal study, positive attitude and genuine commitment.
A positive and open attitude is an extremely important quality that employers look for when hiring a new marine mammal trainer. Almost everything else can
be taught, but attitude must come from within. The job is often difficult, requiring physical as well as emotional strength. Most job descriptions require a
person to work outdoors in all types of weather, to lift and carry heavy objects (usually 50 lbs), demonstrate strong swimming skills (a SCUBA certification is
almost always required), be available to work weekends, nights and holidays and (very important) to be able to work well with others. Most jobs require that
trainers interact and provide information to the general public. They function as both informal educators and role models. In addition, training and animal care
is almost always done as part of a team. A positive, sharing attitude is critical when working in such an environment. A person who loves animals but can’t
seem to get along with people is not going to do well in this field.
People get into this business for a variety of reasons, but only those who are truly committed to the animals and the profession stay and advance in it. The
marine mammal care and training community is a very small, ethical and proud group of dedicated professionals. Their commitment to the animals runs
beyond the physical boundaries of any host facility. They communicate frequently with their peers at other institutions, sharing new ideas, information and
procedures. If anyone is having a health or behavioral problem with their animals, they can rely on the knowledge, experience and help of their colleagues
around the world. Professional organizations such as the International Marine Animal Trainers Association (IMATA), the Alliance of Marine Mammal Parks
and Aquariums (AMMPA) and the American Zoo and Aquarium Association (AZA) help to establish and strengthen these bonds of mutual assistance.
Conference presentations, published articles, book chapters, etc. not only help to advance the community’s information base, but also go a long way to build
an individual’s professional reputation. In a field dedicated to such high standards and ethics, it should come as no surprise that professional reputations are
established, advanced and sometimes destroyed along this well established network of communication. Commitment to the animals and the profession are
the cornerstones of long term success.
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