Animals Are My Passion
Most children bounced around from passion to passion. One minute they wanted to be a rock star and the next minute they wanted to be an astronaut. I was not “most children.” I have always had one dream – one passion – to better the lives of animals and to teach people to do the same.
Let’s Save The World
As a child, I started the “Save the World Club.” Our mission? To save the world from pollution. Our club of 4 (myself and 3 reluctant “members”) made paper signs to post around the neighborhood, urging citizens to pick up their trash and “Save The World.” I was certain it would work. We put signs up everywhere and then waited for the world to change.
When my mother explained to me that trees had to be cut down to make our paper signs and I quickly halted our efforts and sulked in my defeat.
While the feeling of defeat dissipated in a day or so, the urge to “save the world” only grew.
In high school and college, I volunteered with animals every chance I got. Bird rehabilitation centers, beach clean ups, giving tours at the zoo – anything to be around the beauty of animals.
I never thought of it as volunteering. I thought of it as a privilege. I felt lucky to be given the chance to remove trash from giraffe’s exhibit, or assist a keeper in giving the gift of flight back to an injured owl.
Volunteering was all about giving – yet it was then I learned that giving was, in fact, receiving.
By caring for these animals, even in such a passive way, I learned the magic of Mother Nature and the responsibility of humans to do what is right. To look past our own selfish desires and instead selflessly and willingly give to these honest animals.
I often call animals “honest” because they are the most honest beings on the planet.
Animals don’t lie. They can’t. They don’t know how.
Animals don’t bend the truth.
They act instinctually and without a second thought. When you understand that – and even more so – when you experience that – you realize how truly amazing animals are.
Kyle, Meet Pavlov.
At Arizona State University I took psychology courses to further my understanding of behavior. I learned about operant conditioning, classical conditioning, positive reinforcement, and the like. I learned the foundation of behavior and that foundation would serve me into my career with animals more than I could understand at that point.
Operant conditioning. Positive reinforcement. These aren’t theories – these aren’t “maybes” – this is science. Fact. It works. Not sometimes. All of the time.
Imagine that! Imagine understanding behavior principles that you knew would work when you applied them. That is what I realized as a sophomore in college. I learned that consequences truly affect behavior and I learned that the frequency of behavior can be affected.
I took my first animal behavior internship in Hawaii. I worked with a variety of species of animals including harbor seals, Hawaiian monk seals, California sea lions, Atlantic and pacific bottlenose dolphins, and one of my personal favorites, Humboldt penguins.
Yes, I learned how to care for these animals.
Yes, I learned how to utilize operant conditioning and positive reinforcement to train them.
Yes, I cleaned all day. Seriously – all. day.
And yes, it was perhaps, the best time of my life.
What I really got from that internship, however, was my first relationship with an animal.
Willie The Humboldt Penguin
If you ever meet me and ask me about my favorite animal – I will mention Willie. There will be others that I mention – but you can guarantee that I will mention Willie. Or as I called him, Willard.
Willard loved me.
I don’t know why.
I loved him.
I loved him because he loved me, sure. But I also loved him because he had adventure inside him. He wanted to be “over there” and “right here” all at the same time. He wanted to play with me, but also play with his dad, “Wingnut.” He wanted to rush over to a tree and start digging a nest. He wanted me to scratch his belly while he took a nap in my lap. He didn’t want help going up the stairs because he “could do it himself.”
He was Willie.
I learned from Willie that it is foolish to attribute general characteristics to one species of animals. Sure, you can say that most penguins live in warm climates but you can’t say that all penguins are dumb. You can’t say that all sharks are mean. You can’t say that all elephants hate the sun. You can’t generalize.
Animals are individuals. They have individual likes, dislikes, preferences, and habits.
And while animals and people are different – we do share that trait – we are all also unique.
Out of more than 30 interns, I was the only one to get a job right after my internship. I worked in Hawaii for about two years.
I collected data and research on Hawaiian monk seals that was used to assist in their dwindling population numbers.
Our facility hatched and released of hundreds of sea turtles back into the ocean…every year.
I inspired thousands of children every day to reduce, reuse, recycle, and to care for our natural world. I hope I inspired some to enter the field of animal care and animal rescue. (I think I did.)
I got paid $8/hr so I bussed tables and started a residential cleaning company.
I didn’t spend one holiday with my family.
I worked weekends.
I was up at 5am to prepare fish for the animals.
An 800 lbs monk seal broke my big toe.
And I loved every minute. Every second.
I felt like I was making a difference. I know I was helping the animals. Maybe I was “saving the world” just a little bit.
As I worked my way up in the animal care world, I began to set my sights on working with even more animals. So, after two years in Hawaii, I moved to Florida and started my career with parrots, false killer whales, pilot whales, and orcas. I also continued my work with dolphins.
The Big Leagues
Working at a facility with seemingly endless resources was exhilarating. Whatever the staff needed was provided and more importantly, whatever the animals needed was readily available. In addition to performing with these amazing animals 3 to 7 times each day, we also were able to spend time rescuing and rehabilitating animals in need.
Pilot Whale Rescue
In 2012 there was a mass stranding of pilot whales off the coast of Florida. Some of my colleagues were sent to the scene to rescue and release as many whales as possible. The whales who needed additional care were brought back to our facility with the goal being to rehabilitate them and release them back into the wild.
I remember signing up for overnight shifts to keep watch of a particular pilot whale. He didn’t have a name. We just referred to him as a set of three numbers – 304, 374, something like that. Animals aren’t numbers to me, so I don’t remember the number.
This whale had a bent peduncle (tail) and fluke. This disability made it impossible for him to swim. So we made “whale floaties” to keep him buoyant and the veterinarian staff made a splint in order to start straightening out his curved tail.
I watched this whale for countless hours. Countless days. I tracked his respirations, his activity level, his food intake, and his urine and fecal movements.
I spent time in the water with him to help him learn to swim again. I helped deliver medicine and draw blood to track his progress.
Many of the other pilot whales that were being rehabilitated made quick recoveries but were either too young or had disabilities that prevented them from being returned to the ocean. (Side note: NOAA, a third part organization, decides what animals are deemed releasable). These pilot whales were on to new and exciting lives – lives that were healthy and spent with other marine animals; such as dolphins, and other rescued pilot whales. These whales were beginning to learn behaviors to make it even easier for us to care for them.
But the pilot whale with the number – he was having a harder time. His injuries were substantial and despite our best efforts, he eventually died.
Why would I share this story of a rescued animal dying after more than a year of rehab and world class care? Because it’s what happened and it’s the reality of working with animals.
Animals die in the wild and animals die even when they are receiving the best possible care.
When that animal died I questioned whether the heartbreak of losing an animal was worth the joy of working with them in the first place.
The second love of my life was Maxine, a hyacinth macaw who knew how beautiful she was. I knew it too.
People often ask me, “how do you create a bond with an animal.” There are two ways:
- You can work with that animal and gain their trust. You can prove yourself to that animal and show them that you are something worth caring for. You can be patient and be good at your job and if you’re lucky you’ll find yourself in the most rewarding relationship you’ve ever had.
- It’s immediate and there are no explanations.
The relationship I had with Maxine was #2. I loved her. I believe she loved me. She didn’t care for most people. Neither do I. We had a lot in common.
Maxine lived with her “other” boyfriend, Casey, but we all knew that I was the man in her life.
I taught Maxine “object discrimination” and tested a hypothesis that Maxine could use “process of elimination” to problem solve.
I began by teaching her to discriminate between two objects; a wooden block and a pair of keys. I would place the block on the table and when I said the word “block,” she would retrieve the block and place it in a bowl. I then removed the wooden block and placed a pair of keys on the table. I would say “keys” and she would retrieve the keys and place them in a bowl. We did this for a week or so.
Once I felt she had an understanding of these two items I placed them both on the table. I said the word, “block,” and she went over to the keys, looked at them, and then ran over to the block, picked up the block and placed it in the bowl. Success! I repeated this with the word “keys” and she was successful again. Over and over she was successful – she was able to discriminate between these two objects.
I then taught her a third object, a pebble, and she was quickly able to discriminate between the three.
It was now time to test my hypothesis. If I placed the three objects she knew on a table and one object she had never seen, would she be able to choose the new object when I said a word she had never heard?
I placed the four objects on the table.
Circle. Our new object.
I asked Maxine for the “block.” She ran over to the circle, looked it up and down, and then ran over to the block and put it in the bowl.
I asked Maxine for the “keys.” She ran over to the keys, picked them up, and placed them in the bowl.
I then asked Maxine for the “circle.” She stared at me. She ran halfway over to the four objects and stopped. She looked back at me. She looked at the block, then the keys, and then the pebble. She then looked at the circle. Grabbed it. Looked at me. I made no reaction. She put it in the bowl and looked at me again to see if she was correct. She was and we celebrated.
I have a limitless supply of memories starring Maxine, but I share this story of teaching her object discrimination because it strengthened our bond. One of the fastest ways to create a relationship with someone is through teaching. Coaches and athletes. Students and teachers. Animals and their trainers. They create fast, strong bonds. The same thing happened with Maxine and I.
Unfortunately, Love Doesn’t Pay The Bills
I continued my work with Maxine and other parrots; military, scarlet, and greenwing macaws. I also worked with cockatoos and a tucan. I worked with 8 male pacific and Atlantic bottlenose dolphins and false killer whales and pilot whales. I eventually worked with killer whales and became a Senior Animal Trainer.
While I loved my time working with animals, that ‘love’ didn’t pay the bills. I had to make money to survive so I started my second company, Pinky’s Dog Training.
Pinky’s Dog Training
Pinky’s Dog Training brought two great things to the planet. One, it helped hundreds of dogs and their parents have better, healthier, and happier relationships. Two, it brought us perhaps the greatest slogan in business history: “We Make ‘Sit’ Happen.”
I managed a team of trainers and behavior consultants who delivered customized training programs based on positive reinforcement and operant conditioning. When I worked with exotics, I had a boss or a supervisor. However, when it came to dog training – I was the boss, and the accountant, and the therapist to a team of trainers and hundreds of stressed out dog parents.
I began to realize that there were many parallels between the concepts of animal training and running a business and I believe that is one of the reasons I was so successful. After three years of running the company, I sold the company and started wondering what else I could do to actually save the world.
One of the greatest joys I get when working with animals is the impact I can make on the public. To see a boy from the Make a Wish Foundation smile at a dolphin or to educate a family from Ohio on how they can help keep our Earth clean in order to protect our wildlife populations is truly a passion. I feel like I am “saving the world” just a little bit with each of those experiences.
I have been privileged enough to reach thousands of people – in person – every day through my work with animals. However, there are millions I am not reaching. To change that, I set out to Los Angeles to pursue my career in television as an animal behaviorist and on-camera host.
Saving the world might be a stretch. However, changing the world – changing the world for better – is absolutely doable.
In 2014, I published my eBook, Wear a Wetsuit at Work: How You Can Become a Marine Mammal Trainer. At the end of 2017, the book was published in paperback.
I often share my insight on a variety of local news stations discussing animal issues and have worked with NPR, Fusion, Huffington Post Live, Nat Geo Wild, and more.
I currently work as the on-camera host for MedCircle.com educating millions of people on the important topic of mental health. Diagnosed with depression at the age of 9, keeping my mental state positive has been a lifelong challenge – even a struggle. To help other struggle less through proper education has been a privilege.