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Stories from Quarantine

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Ken with rescue dolphin (c. 1985).
While some COVID-19 restrictions have been lifted, we are still advised to practice social distancing and, when necessary, quarantine.  While this can be difficult, I hope to provide some levity in the stories below. In my own time quarantined at The Ranch, I found myself reminiscing about my experiences in the zoo community during times of animal quarantine.

Marine mammal quarantine 

When dolphins and whales are sick or injured, they sometimes come up onto beaches and become stranded there. They need immediate help but bringing them into a zoo or aquarium is risky. There are many diseases they could bring with them, so providing medical attention requires strict quarantine procedures. The staff members caring for these sick dolphins and whales need to be isolated from the rest of the crew. For example, when we had a shift with a stranded dolphin, we were not allowed to come into contact with the resident animals at the zoo. Food had to be prepared separately, air flow had to be regulated to prevent cross-contamination, water systems needed to be completely separate, and personal protection equipment was mandatory. 

Here are three quarantine-related stories I thought you might find entertaining. 

NBA basketball finals 

In the late spring and early summer of 1986, an injured dolphin washed ashore and required intensive round the clock care. One of our trainers, Michael, was the point person for the dolphin’s care. He slept poolside and swam with the sick dolphin 24 hours a day for several weeks. Michael’s nonstop care freed most of the rest of us from having to be quarantined.

Michael was a huge basketball fan, and his beloved NBA team, the Houston Rockets, had made it to the finals that year. It was a best of seven games series, all of which took place during his quarantine with the sick dolphin. Michael asked me to videotape the games (there were no DVRs back then) and requested that we not talk about the games around him. Since he was isolated in quarantine, that was relatively easy to do. His plan was to enjoy the playoffs on tape once he could return home when the quarantine was over. Michael managed to stay completely in the dark about the outcome of the basketball finals series. 

Quarantine came to an end, and Michael was working his last day before finally getting to go home, sleep in his own bed, and watch the NBA finals! As Michael was getting ready to leave, our zoo director happened to come by with a group of VIP guests. Since quarantine was over, the director wanted to show them the stranded dolphin that was making a remarkable recovery. The director began to introduce one of the guests to Michael when Michael exclaimed, “Oh my God! You’re Ralph Sampson! I am such a fan!”

Ralph Sampson was one of the star players on the Houston Rockets team. In response to Michael’s enthusiasm, the star player replied, “Nice to meet you. I’m sorry we couldn’t bring home the win!”

Michael cried out, “Noooooooo!” and literally began to sob and cry uncontrollably.

I took over the tour at that point and Michael went home. Ralph Sampson whispered to me, “Wow, that guy is taking our loss harder than I am!”

Michael’s reaction was also a testament to the emotional toll that being in quarantine can have...
All I could do was say, “Yes, he’s a big fan.” I didn’t explain that Michael had been unaware of the outcome of the game and that his reaction was not just to the loss but to missing out on the pleasure of experiencing the whole series with fresh eyes—a pleasure he had been looking forward to for weeks. Michael’s reaction was also a testament to the emotional toll that being in quarantine can have on someone who is isolated from the world for nearly a month!

My mom’s a mermaid 

At times we needed to be in the water with stranded dolphins in order to help them swim. Callie, one of our animal-care team members, took several shifts each week working with a stranded dolphin named Lance that had just emerged from quarantine. Lance needed companionship and assistance in navigating his pool. Callie was an exceptional swimmer. When she swam, she always wore a single fin on her feet; unlike the most common use of SCUBA fins, one for each foot, Callie inserted both feet into a single larger fin. When she swam with Lance, the fin blended into her wetsuit and she looked like a mermaid.

Callie was a single mother, and her four-year old daughter, Micah, was frequently dropped off by their babysitter just before the end of Callie’s shift. Most of us on the animal-care team knew Micah well, and we took turns watching Micah and keeping her busy. Micah loved watching her mom swim with the stranded dolphin, and I remember how we regularly commented on how Callie was a real mermaid. 

Micah had been waiting and waiting during every bath for her feet to turn into a tail like her mom’s.
Callie later shared with us that one day during bath time Micah asked Callie when she would get her own mermaid tail. Micah had been waiting and waiting during every bath for her feet to turn into a tail like her mom’s. When Callie explained to Micah that her feet would never actually turn into a tail, Micah began to cry she was so distraught. Despite Callie’s attempts to comfort Micah, she was inconsolable. As it turned out, Micah didn’t quite understand that mermaids weren’t real. Instead, finding out that her feet would never become a tail led Micah to deduce that Callie was not really her mother!

Micah’s mind was finally put at ease when Callie brought her to work and showed her the artificial fin. Callie was even able to find a small fin that Micah could wear so she could swim alongside her mom, just like a real mermaid.

Quarantine comes to an end

Most of our stranded dolphins did not need us to stay with them overnight, and we were able to go home at the end of our shifts. There were restrictions, however. We were not allowed to interact with our resident dolphins, we remained isolated from other staff, and when our shifts were over, we had to shower onsite and change clothes before we could go home, free to interact with the world once again. I hated showering onsite; the water pressure was not as strong as I liked and the shower stall was tiny. 

I remember one day in particular: quarantine was over, and we were no longer required to shower before leaving. I had just come off an extra-long 16-hour shift and I was eager to go home. I really needed a shower—the sick dolphins ate cut fish, which are smellier than whole fish, and I couldn’t change my clothes at the facility before leaving or wash my arms and face because I didn’t have access to the cleanup area. Since I was around fish all day I was so used to the smell that I didn’t notice it anymore, but I longed to wash off the grime of the day and take a nice long hot shower in the comfort of my own apartment. 

As I drove home, I remembered that I needed a few things from the supermarket, so I made a quick stop at a large grocery store. At the checkout line, a mother and her young daughter were in front of me. I noticed the little girl pinched her nose and asked , “Mommy, how come this store smells so bad?”

Her mother replied, “I think their seafood has gone bad. Remind me never to come to this store again. It is putrid! I think I’m going to gag.”

I never left work without taking a shower ever again!
I realized they were smelling me! I quietly put my items to the side and promptly left the store. I guess I could have defended the store and explained that the awful smell was me, but I decided to just leave. I never left work without taking a shower ever again!

I hope these memories made you smile, and that we will all be able to leave quarantine behind us soon.

Until then, Happy Training!




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