In a May 10, 2018 photo, Senior Trainer Mady Cox swims with her mermaid suit next to the dolphins at Texas State Aquarium in Corpus Christi, Texas. (Casey Jackson/Corpus Christi Caller-Times via AP)
CORPUS CHRISTI, Texas (AP) – Mady Cox feels comfort from being able to see the Texas State Aquarium from her apartment window off Ocean Drive.
The Corpus Christi Caller-Times reports being as close as possible to the aquarium is the reason she moved to that complex, she said.
Cox is a senior dolphin trainer at the aquarium and has been there for about three years.
She spends a big part of her 40-hour work week with dolphins, Kai, Shadow, Liko and Schooner.
And leaving them every day is the hardest part of her job, she said.
“At least I know, when I look out and see the aquarium from my place, that if something happens I can be there in just a few minutes,” the 26-year-old said. “Not knowing how they feel a lot of times is difficult, too, because we want to give them everything they deserve.
“But we try. A huge part of our job is figuring out what is going to make (the dolphins) have the most reinforcing time,” Cox said.
She is one of eight marine mammal trainers at the aquarium who look after the dolphins daily.
Other staff includes curator of marine mammals, Emma Gilbert; assistant curator of marine mammals, Sarah Zigmond; senior trainer, Samantha Pretorius; and trainers Chelsea Martino, Meritt Grusecki, Marissa Zaino and Erin Cornfield.
Although the job entails spending a lot of time with the animals, it’s not all play.
The trainers’ day starts before 7 a.m.
And by 8 o’ clock every morning, two of them are in scuba suits and dive the 450,000-gallon, 12 foot-deep saltwater pool to clean it for more than two hours to make sure it’s safe for the animals.
And they check the tank’s water quality about five times a day.
The dolphins eat about six times a day and the trainers prep their meals and make sure the animals get their vitamins.
They handle the up to 25 pounds of fish each dolphin eats daily and they inspect it, too, to make sure it’s restaurant quality.
The kitchen where everything is prepped, is cleaned several times throughout the day to prevent contamination.
The trainers also closely observe the dolphins’ behaviors and keep track of this data daily.
The Atlantic bottlenose dolphins are intelligent mammals and need stimulation. The trainers also work very hard to try fun and different activities with them every day.
For fun, Cox often wears a mermaid tail to spark their curiosity.
Other staff members serenade them with music or try something as simple as holding a mirror in front of them to give them a chance to look at themselves.
“We can’t become complacent because of their safety and we never want the day to be the same for them,” Cox said. “Constantly having to be creative for the animals is also a really big part of our job.”
And the job it’s all about dedication and genuine care for the animals, Gilbert said.
“We need to know everything that it takes to make sure that the animals are as healthy as can be,” Gilbert said. “And that we know their home, we know their water quality, we know their food and everything.”
For Gilbert, that love started at an early age. The Eagle Pass native has been working at the Texas State Aquarium for about 15 years.
She remembers the first time her mother took her to SeaWorld in San Antonio. She knew she wanted to work with marine animals from that moment.
“It was always dolphins for me,” Gilbert said. “I told my mom that this is what I’d be doing one day, and she told me I could do whatever I wanted and she’d support me.”
On top of all the daily duties, the trainers also do a show for aquarium visitors at 11:30 a.m. and 3:30 p.m. daily.
And the purpose for all of it is to always develop the public’s appreciation for wildlife and inspire conservation of the ocean.
The job can be time consuming and sometimes it takes moving far away from home in order to pursue a career in animal training at zoos and aquariums.
Most of the marine mammal trainers at the Texas State Aquarium are from out of town or out of state.
That’s why trainer Marissa Zaino, 24, believes support from family and loved ones is key to make it work.
Trainers spend weekdays, weekends and holidays with the animals.
Zaino is the newest member of the team. She moved to Corpus Christi from New Hampshire less than two months ago.
“I’ve had to move a lot and leave my family but I’ve also had to leave the animals I cared about,” Zaino said. “But that’s something we have to do in order to do this job that we love.”
During Hurricane Harvey last August, the trainers along with other aquarium staff members rode out the storm in the aquarium to look after the animals.
Staff moved the animals near the Caribbean Journey exhibit for about three days and made sure they were safe.
“Not one animal expired, it was incredible,” Gilbert said. “You can see that this job is a lot of fun, but it’s a huge responsibility that we take very seriously.”
The trainers of course, have to be excellent swimmers. Get a scuba diving certification and a degree in animal science.
A background in biology and psychology is also recommended, assistant curator of marine mammals Zigmond, who has been working with animals for about eight years, said.
“Volunteer, get plenty of internships, get your foot in the door,” Zigmond said. “You have to be dedicated because our time, the weekends, the holidays, being here at 2 a.m. it’s what the dolphins need.”
And although marine animal training is a very competitive field, if you decided this is what you want to do, don’t give up, Zigmond said.
“Do not be afraid of rejection, keep trying,” the 30-year-old said.
And for anyone who wants to know more about the field, the aquarium is partnering up with Texas A&M; University-Corpus Christi to teach a conservation, welfare and research course.
The course will be offered this summer and will provide opportunities for biology students to study animal care activities at the Texas State Aquarium from both university and aquarium instructors.
Information from: Corpus Christi Caller-Times, http://www.caller.com
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