For 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.”
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.
“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!
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.”
For 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!