Talk With a Trainer: Assistant Curator of Marine Mammals Sarah Zigmond

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Ziggy3 smallFor marine mammal trainer Sarah Zigmond, life is about lightbulb moments. When working with an animal and teaching them a new behavior, then seeing the second the training takes and the animal learns the behavior – there’s not much better than that, she says.

“It’s just incredible. When you see the connection made and realize they get it, they know it, it’s just amazing,” described Zigmond. 

Better known as Ziggy, the energetic young animal lover is the Assistant Curator of Marine Mammals at the Aquarium, responsible for the top notch care of Atlantic bottlenose dolphins Shadow and Kai, as well as North American river otters Merlin and Ari.      

“My day starts off at 6 a.m. to prepare diets for the day,” Ziggy explains, “Then we SCUBA dive to help keep the exhibits clean. Throughout the day, we are constantly washing and disinfecting the area, monitoring water quality, and caring for not only the animals, but their environment as well.”

Ziggy says that at their core, the Aquarium’s marine mammal staff is there to ensure that Shadow and Kai receive the highest level of care in every possible way. To do so, the Aquarium’s trainers possess a variety of skills and educational backgrounds to benefit the animals they care for.

After graduating from Texas A&M University – Corpus Christi with a degree in psychology, Ziggy interned at the Vancouver Aquarium, and then was hired as a marine mammal trainer at the Miami Seaquarium in 2011. There, she worked and created relationships with California sea lions, harbor seals, and Atlantic bottlenose dolphins.

“And that’s a really important thing that a lot of people may not realize,” she explains, “These animals, they choose to have a relationship with you. It’s totally their choice. I’m fortunate because Kai and Shadow allow me to have a relationship with them.” Ziggy7 small

This special bond between trainer and dolphin is absolutely crucial when it comes to training or caring for them. Whether it comes to training new behaviors, participating in enrichment sessions, or for animal husbandry purposes; Ziggy says that that particular animal has to trust you.

Husbandry sessions include normal health-related activities like teeth brushing, physical exams, and veterinary check-ups. They are one of the many ways Ziggy and Dolphin Bay staff ensure Shadow and Kai are healthy and happy. Ziggy says it’s important to train animals to be at ease during certain procedures in order for the optimum health of all involved.

In regards to health, Shadow and Kai receive only the best. That includes diets in a big way. The 450-pound, eight and a half feet long marine mammals eat quite a bit.

ziggy1 small“They eat about five percent of their body weight……..every day,” she says with a laugh.

Ziggy and the other Dolphin Bay staff feed the dolphins restaurant quality fish like herring and capelin around six times per day.

In addition to their regular dietary intake, Shadow and Kai also receive food and a variety of enrichment items. For birthdays and milestones, creative-minded trainers like Ziggy freeze up colorful Jell-o and fish cakes for the dolphins and otters to play with and enjoy.

In simple terms, enrichment is anything that changes an animal’s environment. Enrichment is a dynamic process for enhancing animal environments within the context of the animals’ behavioral biology and natural history. Environmental changes are made with the goal of increasing the animal’s behavioral choices by drawing out their species-appropriate behaviors and to improve their social, cognitive, and psychological well being. Enrichment items can be food or toys (environmental enrichment devices)  – and it’s not just fun for the animals.

“We love making toys for them! It’s so fun!” Ziggy exclaims.

For example, flexible pool noodles and colored duct tape became candy cane toys around Christmas for the dolphins to enjoy. They also have plenty of sports balls (Spurs-themed, of course), as well as water squirt toys, hoops, and more. One of the more unique and fun enrichment sessions includes trainers playing classroom instruments in the Underwater Viewing Room to produce some auditory enrichment for them! Ziggy4 small

Ziggy says interacting with the dolphins and otters in such ways is just as much fun as it is a privilege, and she also hopes to spread those lightbulb moments to others. 

“It’s enriching for me too, to further my education and knowledge of these animals while working alongside them. There are so many different things we can learn from them and others working with them around the world. Knowing more about them and teaching others about them will only help to protect their species and their environment in the future.”


Ziggy6 smallFor children or students interested in becoming marine mammal trainers:

Ziggy says this career is a lot of hard work and takes a lot of commitment, but it’s totally worth it! To swim along in her career path, she advises you to:

  • Get a good education concerning caring for all aspects of all animals. Prior to her internships with marine mammals, Ziggy actually worked as a care specialist at a boarding facility for dogs, and as a kennel technician and vet tech at a rescue shelter.
  • Get hands on! Dive right into hands-on experience, whether it’s volunteering at your local animal shelter, working at a well-reputed pet store, or caring for your neighbor’s cats – it all helps.
  • Work hard at everything you do. The marine mammal training field is a competitive one and it takes perseverance, commitment, drive, intelligence, and most of all, heart, to be successful, but you can do it!

River Otter


This is Merlin, a River Otter!

River otters are aquatic mammals. They generally live along rivers, as their name implies, but they’re also found near streams and lakes. Otters prefer water bordered by woods and with wetlands, such as marshes, nearby. Flexing their long bodies up and down, paddling with their webbed hind feet, and using their feet and strong tails to steer.




This is Merlin, a River Otter!

Although River Otters look cute and cuddly, they are wild and do not make good pets. They have sharp claws which can tear up carpets and furniture, and very sharp teeth, which can be dangerous. River Otters also mark their territory with “scat,” another name for waste.

River Otters are perfectly adapted to the places they live – around rivers of all sizes, canals, lakes, marshes, and bays. At one time the number of River Otters was quite low. However, due to reintroduction programs, their success in the wild is growing.

Texas State Aquarium Saddened by Loss of North American River Otter




The Texas State Aquarium is saddened to report the passing one of our North American river otters, Dusty. Dusty arrived at TSA in June of 1996 as a pup and enjoyed a long life at the Aquarium. She was 17 years old at the time of her passing, well past the median life expectancy (MLE) for her species, which is a testament to the exceptional care she received throughout her life here at the Aquarium.

A preliminary pathology report from blood samples collected on Wednesday indicated that Dusty had leukemia. A necropsy has been performed, and the Aquarium is awaiting the pathology report to confirm the diagnosis. 

The MLE for North American river otters in professional care is 12.3 years. According to National Geographic, the life expectancy for a river otter in its natural habitat is between eight and nine years. Both veterinary attention and the lack of predators are primary reasons for the longer life expectancy when in professional care.

Dusty was one of many geriatric animals living at the Aquarium. With advances in veterinary medicine, nutrition, and husbandry techniques, animals are living longer in zoos and aquariums around the nation. As a result, managers and care takers develop new ways to address the unique needs of geriatric animals.

The Texas State Aquarium family is saddened by her loss.

North American River Otter


North American River Otter

Friday is Endangered Species Day, so every day this week, we will be featuring a different Endangered/Threatened Species that resides here with us at the Texas State Aquarium. At the end of the week, you can come by the Aquarium and learn more about these Endangered/Threatened Species, and what you can do to help.

Here at the Aquarium, we have two Otters, Dusty and Merlin. They definitely capture the love and attention of our aquarium guests, however, many are unaware of threat of extinction to these playful creatures.

“They once lived in streams, rivers, lakes, swamps, and coastal areas throughout Canada and the United States. Now they are gone from the central and eastern United States, and extinct or rare in Arizona, Colorado, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Kentucky, Nebraska, New Mexico, North Dakota, Ohio, Oklahoma, South Dakota, Tennessee, Utah, and West Virginia. Scientific studies have shown them to be sensitive to pollution. Still these animals are commercially harvested: 20,000 – 30,000 are taken annually for their lustrous fur.”
-Encyclopedia of Life

Did you know?
Otters can tolerate a variety of environments, including freshwater and coastal marine habitats.

Come back to our blog every day this week to learn about more Endangered/Threatened Species, and don’t forget to come by the Texas State Aquarium on Friday to show your support for threatened animals on Endangered Species Day!