Arts & Entertainment, etc. and Tourist Attractions and Indianapolis Zoo

Dolphin trainer keeps busy in and out of water

September 4, 2006

It's 7 o'clock in the morning, and the Indianapolis Zoo parking lot is empty.

But in the inner sanctum of the zoo's Dolphin Adventure Pavilion, Valerie Hollowell is already at work, sorting through 400 pounds of slimy, smelly herring and capelin.

"Ugh! I hate fish," Hollowell says, shaking her hands with disgust.

The 32-year-old always has known she wanted to work with dolphins. After all, trips to Sea World were highlights of her childhood. But now that she's a senior marine mammal trainer, she knows the seemingly glamorous job she watched from the stands is more than wet suits and whistles.

For one thing, Flipper is not alone. The Indianapolis Zoo's nine dolphins are joined by four sea lions, three harbor seals and walruses, and one polar bear--everything but a partridge and a pear tree--in the Marine Mammals Department.

But for nine years, Hollowell has fed, medicated, trained and befriended the animals like they were her own children.

"I think about them even on my days off," she admitted.

Workdays begin at either 8 a.m. or 10 a.m.--except those "fun" days when she does the first feeding at 7 a.m.

Hollowell and her colleagues are constantly on the move when they're on the clock. Dry erase boards and chalkboards hang all around the building, spelling out everything from the animals' diets to the trainers' schedules.

On this day, Kimo, a male dolphin, isn't eating because he's preoccupied with trying to hook up with a female dolphin, China. Hollowell took a gastric sample from his stomach to make sure everything is normal, but she's not worried.

A graduate of Indiana University, Hollowell didn't get her training in the tropics, as many people assume. She learned it all on the job at the local zoo, where she interned before being hired on as marine mammal trainer.

Many of the trainers don't have backgrounds in marine biology or zoology. Some have degrees in education and law. Hollowell's degree is in resource management.

Most trainers move on after a while, she said, so it's good to have a Plan B.

Salaries for trainers range from $10 to $16 per hour. Many of them have part-time jobs to provide additional income. Hollowell works at Chalkie's Billiards & Restaurant.

"We are all here because we want to be--we love the animals," Hollowell said. "None of us get rich working here, but we love our job."

Working eight-hour days, five days a week, Hollowell spends a lot of time with the animals. (Nova is her favorite, but don't tell the others.)

In addition to feeding, cleaning and caring for the marine animals, each trainer has a certain niche. Hollowell's specialty is writing the dolphin shows thousands of people watch daily. It takes nine months to a year for a show to be written and officials to approve it, but she said the work pays off when the audience oohs and aahs at the cool tricks.

When she's not participating in the show, Hollowell sits in the stands and critiques the performances of the trainers and dolphins. On this day, she chuckles during one show when Nova doesn't jump through the hoop for another trainer.

"People have to understand that dolphins have personalities like humans," she says. "They have to decide for themselves whether or not they want to perform. We can't make them do anything."

The hardest part for the dolphins isn't the flips and turns they perform during shows--that stuff comes naturally. But it takes time and repetition for a dolphin to get used to eating food that's already dead, or letting trainers brush their teeth.

Zoo visitors often approach Hollowell after shows and ask her what it takes to become a trainer. The key, she tells them, is a passion for the job.

On this day, Hollowell walks around the newly renovated pavilion to make sure everything is working properly, eventually making her way to the underwater dolphin dome.

"There's Kalei," Hollowell says, pointing to the dolphin swimming in her direction. About five inches of acrylic separate the pair, but the bond between them is apparent.

"I know Kalei's personality, her likes and dislikes," she says. "You won't see any other trainer in the zoo interacting the way we do."

Although she may not enjoy the early mornings when she's elbow-deep in fish, Hollowell isn't complaining about her job. Slime and smell aside, she sees it as refreshing, knowing that "every day, I get to swim with dolphins."

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