IBJNews

Dolphin trainer keeps busy in and out of water

Back to TopCommentsE-mailPrintBookmark and Share
On The Clock A Look At Interesting Jobs

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."

ADVERTISEMENT

Post a comment to this story

COMMENTS POLICY
We reserve the right to remove any post that we feel is obscene, profane, vulgar, racist, sexually explicit, abusive, or hateful.
 
You are legally responsible for what you post and your anonymity is not guaranteed.
 
Posts that insult, defame, threaten, harass or abuse other readers or people mentioned in IBJ editorial content are also subject to removal. Please respect the privacy of individuals and refrain from posting personal information.
 
No solicitations, spamming or advertisements are allowed. Readers may post links to other informational websites that are relevant to the topic at hand, but please do not link to objectionable material.
 
We may remove messages that are unrelated to the topic, encourage illegal activity, use all capital letters or are unreadable.
 

Messages that are flagged by readers as objectionable will be reviewed and may or may not be removed. Please do not flag a post simply because you disagree with it.

Sponsored by
ADVERTISEMENT

facebook - twitter on Facebook & Twitter

Follow on TwitterFollow IBJ on Facebook:
Follow on TwitterFollow IBJ's Tweets on these topics:
 
Subscribe to IBJ
  1. I had read earlier this spring that Noodles & Co was going to open in the Fishers Marketplace (which is SR 37 and 131st St, not 141st St, just FYI). Any word on that? Also, do you happen to know what is being built in Carmel at Pennsylvania and Old Meridian? May just be an office building but I'm not sure.

  2. I'm sorry, but you are flat out wrong. There are few tracks in the world with the history of IMS and probably NO OTHER as widely known and recognized. I don't care what you think about the stat of Indy Car racing, these are pretty hard things to dispute.

  3. Also wondering if there is an update on the Brockway Pub-Danny Boy restaurant/taproom that was planned for the village as well?

  4. Why does the majority get to trample on the rights of the minority? You do realize that banning gay marriage does not rid the world of gay people, right? They are still going to be around and they are still going to continue to exist. The best way to get it all out of the spotlight? LEGALIZE IT! If gay marriage is legal, they will get to stop trying to push for it and you will get to stop seeing it all over the news. Why do Christians get to decide what is moral?? Why do you get to push your religion on others? How would legalizing gay marriage expose their lifestyle to your children? By the way, their lifestyle is going to continue whether gay marriage is legalized or not. It's been legal in Canada for quite a while now and they seem to be doing just fine. What about actual rules handed down by God? What about not working on Sundays? What about obeying your parents? What about adultery? These are in the 10 Commandments, the most important of God's rules. Yet they are all perfectly legal. What about divorce? Only God is allowed to dissolve a marriage so why don't you work hard to get divorce banned? Why do you get to pick and choose the parts of the Bible you care about?

  5. Look at the bright side. With the new Lowe's call center, that means 1000 jobs at $10 bucks an hour. IMS has to be drooling over all that disposable income. If those employees can save all their extra money after bills, in five years they can go to the race LIVE. Can you say attendance boost?

ADVERTISEMENT