Q. What does your job as a sea lion trainer entail?
A. We are responsible for the daily care and training for our pinnipeds [animals with finlike feet or flippers]. There are 10 California sea lions and one harbor seal. What everyone sees is the fun stuff, but most of our day is spent behind the scenes cleaning and prepping food. You make buckets of food, you feed buckets and you clean buckets. They eat three times a day, so you can imagine all the work. The exhibit, holding areas, stage, that all needs to be cleaned, too. Not to mention the acrylic ... we clean the hand prints and sometimes face prints that get on the acrylic as well. We SCUBA dive in our exhibits to clean about three times a week to scrub off the algae and vacuum up the waste.
Have you always wanted to train sea lions?
Not specifically sea lions. I've always loved animals. I've always wanted to live on a farm. I thought maybe I wanted to be a vet. Later in life I ended up volunteering at a vet's office. I couldn't handle having to put an animal down. In seventh grade, my mom took me and a friend down to Orlando and Sea World where we did the dolphin interaction. From seventh grade on, I was like, oh my gosh, I need to be a marine animal trainer. In my eighth-grade yearbook, I said I would be the one that would teach the dolphins how to dance. Sea lions are, in my opinion cooler [than dolphins], and I have taught a sea lion how to dance! It's just a little flipper shake.
How long have you worked with the sea lions at the Saint Louis Zoo?
I've been here just over two years. Prior to this, I worked at a small aquarium on Long Island. I was there for five-and-a-half years. I've been in the field almost 8 years.
What training did you need in order to work with the sea lions?
I have a degree in psychobiology. It's a happy medium between psychology and biology. Psychology is awesome for training. Biology is good for the natural history of the animals. Experience was just as important. I volunteered at my local vet hospital. My first internship was at Point Defiance Zoo and Aquarium in Washington State. I did an internship at Mystic Aquarium with their beluga whales ... my favorite animals. A lot of it is on-the-job training. Each facility is run differently; each animal has its own personality. Each one of them is completely different from the rest.
How do you go about training a sea lion to salute, balance a ball on its nose, do handstands?
Whenever we train a new behavior, we have one person train until it's complete. We break it down into really small steps, and set up opportunities for the animal to succeed along the way. Sometimes you write out a training plan and think it's great and it will go perfectly, which never happens when you're working with animals or life in general. So you rework your plan, do it a different way. If for some reason your animal doesn't really get it, we call it going back to kindergarten, we take a few steps back and try to build up their confidence and build up their behavior. If they do something right, they get a fish. If they get something wrong, there's no punishment, we just ignore it. I find myself analyzing a lot. What am I reinforcing in this?
Who is easier to train and teach? Sea lions or kids?
My son will be 1 in April. My 3-year-old is so smart, but she has a bit of an attitude right now. It's important to be really consistent. With animals, they get fed three times a day, and we can turn on our minds and turn on our training. At home, we are training 24/7, and our kids are watching us all the time. I'm going to go with sea lions are easier to work with.
Sea lions seem to have big personalities. Do they ever play tricks on you?
Absolutely. If you're not careful, they will train you in a heartbeat. Your mind is always thinking, always trying to figure out the next step in the behavior. I am training Roby to hold a fish in his mouth and pass it back to me. It's very difficult. He's doing really well with it. He will hold it, give it back to me, and I give him that fish and ten more. Once, I gave it to him, he held it for a few seconds, then he gobbled it. Then he looked at me, stuck his tongue out, and I just lost it. It was hilarious.
What is your favorite behavior to train?
Mia's dance ... she does a little flipper dance. This is what I wanted to do since I was in seventh grade. I said I would train an animal to dance, and now it's happening. She's actually not one of our show animals yet, but you can see her out on exhibit. She probably does it during every session: 11:15 a.m., 1:45 p.m. and 3:30 p.m. every day.
How do the sea lions like their new digs?
I think they're pretty excited about it. They have a lot more space and something new is the underwater viewing. At the old arena, it was all cement. When they were swimming, they didn't see anything. Now you can see them eying the crowd and really trying to figure out if they want to finish the show.
How much do the sea lions eat?
Our show boys are eating 27 pounds each of fish. We use about 200 pounds of fish every day. In the winter, they are eating more to build up that blubber layer to keep them warm. It's a lot of individual fish.
Do you ever eat fish at home?
No. I'm actually a vegetarian. Honestly, I don't even smell it anymore, and luckily my husband doesn't either. My kids haven't said anything.
Sea lions can't read, can they? So, go ahead, tell me your favorite.
Honestly, I don't think I have a favorite. I feel like it varies session to session with me. They are each so different, and they each bring something different to the table. They are each unique and awesome in their own way. You can't have a favorite kid, so I can't have a favorite sea lion.
Kids ages 10 and up can go behind the scenes with Olstad and the other trainers to learn more about sea lions during the zoo's Junior Sea Lion Trainer Program. See the zoo website for details.