Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Ask a Zookeeper: Can ANY Animal be Trained?

As many of you know, I am the Zookeeper-in-Residence on Jobstr.com--a website where "you can ask people anything about their jobs and answer questions about yours. It’s as though [they] took the classic 'What do you do?' cocktail party question and turned it into a website…minus the awkward small-talk."

I have been having a great time hosting my Zookeeper Q&A so far, and I have decided to reprint one of my favorite Jobstr questions on my blog every Tuesday. (Do you have your very own "Ask a Zookeeper" question for me? Ask it HERE!)

Here is this week's question, a follow-up on last week's question about a particularly gifted dancing walrus. (See last week's post here!)

Q. Can ANY walrus be trained [to tango and play the saxophone], or is that one especially intelligent? How about other animals; can pretty much any species be trained to perform a routine? -coryschneider

Photo Courtesy of Wiki Commons
A. Theoretically, any walrus could be trained like that. However--just like some people enjoy the spotlight while others shy away from it--it often depends on the individual animal.

First and foremost, keepers train their animals for practical "husbandry" or medical behaviors--like shifting in and out of pens so we can clean, presenting their paws and teeth so we can check for injuries, presenting their shoulders for injections, etc. Once our animals have those behaviors mastered, we begin to shift our focus.

If an animal seems to enjoy our training sessions, we often continue with other behaviors to keep the animal's environment dynamic and enriching. If the animal doesn't, we often leave them mostly to their own devices.

If an animal REALLY seems to respond to our training sessions, we sometimes make the decision to train that animal for a show or presentation. It certainly takes a special animal to thrive in a public venue like a stadium--just like it takes a special keeper to thrive in that environment as well.

As far as your species question, it depends. Animals with higher relative intelligence often respond more quickly than other animals, but that's not always the case. Generally speaking, it is also easier to train aggressive animals than it is to train shy animals, because aggressive animals are already hard-wired to approach us. It is fairly easy for us to redirect their energy once they do, but it is difficult to overcome the barrier of an animal that is hard-wired to run away from us. It takes a lot of initial training just to get them to feel comfortable being near us.

Friday, October 26, 2012

Healthy Writers Club: Stand-Up Paddleboarding

Photo Courtesy of Shallee McArthur
Happy Friday, everyone! I hope you achieved your fitness goals this week, and I can't wait to tell you about my foray into the world of stand-up paddleboarding.

I have decided to segment my milestones into three different categories each week: body, mind and spirit. Here is my progress:


I attended my first stand-up paddleboarding lesson on Sunday, and I also rented a board and went paddleboarding through the mangroves with a good friend yesterday. I was completely nervous the first time I paddled out, but the boards are way more buoyant and stable than I expected. It wasn't long before I made the leap into actually standing on the board, and paddling came fairly naturally once I figured out the proper stroke technique.

Photo Courtesy of ingridtaylar
The physicality and grace was exactly what I thought it would be, and I felt determination solidify inside me as I balanced and stretched and succeeded.

I want to be good at this.


I have been between manuscripts for a few months now; the stress of my everyday life has been so overwhelming that the last thing I have wanted to deal with is a new project. However, a conversation with my fabulous agent this week finally inspired me to jump back on the wagon. I decided to start a project I've been marinating on for about a year now, and I can already feel those creative juices beginning to flow again.

The project will be a YA Magical Realism called THE PUREST SHADE OF WHITE, and it will star polar bears, zoos, ghosts and snow. I think this picture pretty much sums it up:

Photo Courtesy of Me
I have been playing with this novel's characters for so long that they already feel like good friends. I can't wait for them to finally tell me their story.

(Want more story hints? Check out my brand new Inspiration Board on Pinterest: THE PUREST SHADE OF WHITE.)


As part of my journey of getting reacquainted with myself, I made it a point to stretch myself this week. I visited the Lowry Park Zoo and the Florida Aquarium, and I took my parents on a Tampa Ghost Tour. I spent time with amazing friends I've barely seen since college, and I allowed myself to be distracted by beautiful things like oak trees and art festivals. I soaked in soul-soothing music, and I took time to listen to the things I was feeling--even when they weren't happy or convenient. I'm keeping a journal again these days, and that has been helpful, too.

Here are my weekly Healthy Writers Club milestones:

1. Weekly Stats: Two paddleboarding sessions; two cardio sessions; two ab, bun, arm and leg workouts; three long walks

2. In-Flight Entertainment Favorite: I'm the type of person who puts a lot of weight in songs and song lyrics. The Zac Brown Band came through for me at the perfect moment this week with the entrance of "Goodbye in Her Eyes" into my life. I have played that song many times since then, and I have smiled and cried and sung along with it more times than I can count.

Here's a link if you'd like to check it out:

3. Coolest moment: Feeling that knot of determination solidify inside me when I stepped onto that paddleboard on Sunday... I was a little afraid I'd been putting too much emphasis on how important this lesson was going to be to me, but that moment told me I'd been exactly right all along.

4. Hardest moment: The two-year anniversary of the car accident that nearly killed my husband, our two dogs and me was this Tuesday. (You can read more about it here.) So many things have changed since that moment that I couldn't decide which facet I should mourn first.

How did your week go? Any healthy milestones or set-backs? I'm looking forward to visiting your blogs, and I hope you have a great weekend.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Ask a Zookeeper: That Dancing Walrus

As many of you know, I am the Zookeeper-in-Residence on Jobstr.com--a website where "you can ask people anything about their jobs and answer questions about yours. It’s as though [they] took the classic 'What do you do?' cocktail party question and turned it into a website…minus the awkward small-talk."

I have been having a great time hosting my Zookeeper Q&A so far, and I have decided to reprint one of my favorite Jobstr questions on my blog every Tuesday. (Do you have your very own "Ask a Zookeeper" question for me? Ask it HERE!)

To kick things off, I will start with one of my very first questions:

Q: Have you ever seen this clip? Can you explain just how they train an animal to do that? Obviously they give him treats, but how do you even begin to teach a walrus how to step forward and back to a beat? -coryschneider

A: I love this question, and thanks for the link, Cory. I actually hadn't seen that video before, and it is fabulous.

Complicated behaviors like the ones shown in this clip often take months--if not years--to perfect. What you are seeing is the result of many, many hours of hard work and dedication, both on the part of the trainer and on the part of the walrus.

In order for a trainer to teach an animal something that complicated, the behavior must be broken down into many tiny steps. In the case of the tango, the steps would be something like 1) right flipper forward, 2) left flipper forward, 3) right flipper forward again, 4) left flipper forward again, 5) right flipper back, 6) left flipper back, 7) bow to the crowd, etc.

When the trainer first begins training, he approaches each behavior individually. For example, if he wants to train "right flipper forward," he will reward the walrus with positive reinforcement (treats, rubs, etc.) every time he successfully moves his right flipper forward.

This is done much like the "hot/cold" game we played as kids. The moment the walrus moves his flipper forward--even if it's on accident--the trainer will blow a whistle to signal success and then will quickly give the walrus his reward. Eventually, the walrus will make the connection, and he will happily move his flipper forward whenever directed--usually through a verbal command or a hand signal.

Once the walrus has this behavior mastered, the trainer will move on to the next command: "left flipper forward." Eventually, the trainer will string these two behaviors together, and the walrus will realize he only gets his reward when he completes both behaviors in sequence.

The trainer will teach this over and over and over until the walrus can perform this entire sequence on command. Once this is perfected, the walrus and his trainer can perform the illusion of a spontaneous musical number to the beat of a song, even though the walrus isn't actually paying attention to the song at all. He is watching his trainer, and he is waiting for the subtle commands that will undoubtedly lead to his reward at the end of the number. (Notice the attention and that juicy fish he got right before they walked off-stage!)

Friday, October 19, 2012

The Healthy Writers Club: True Confessions

Photo Courtesy of Shallee McArthur
True confession time.

When I joined Shallee McArthur's Healthy Writers Club three weeks ago (see my first post here), I mentioned my life has been filled with stress, and my fitness has fallen by the wayside lately. I told you I was making some life changes that would hopefully conclude by October 12th, and I promised I would begin a resurgence of my healthy living at that time.

Well... There is no reason to be coy anymore. Thanks to my Two Roads Diverged post, you all now know that my stress and life changes center around this question: Are my husband's and my lives are still heading in the same direction?

While we attempt to figure out the answer to that question, I have relocated from Colorado back to my home state of Florida. I am now living in the Tampa Bay area--just arrived on October 10th--and I hope to spend the next few months getting back in touch with myself and reconnecting with my spirit.

(I would like to give a special shout-out to Lora Rivera for supporting me so much during this transition. She is one of the most thoughtful and encouraging people I have ever encountered, and I feel honored to call her a friend.)

It's funny how your essence burns down in times of stress and sadness. I used to feel full of life and rich, and now I feel a bit like a shadow of myself, like the fire that was my spirit has begun to weaken into an ember. More importantly, I feel I've become disconnected from my body--like I've retreated so far inside myself that I can no longer see or hear or feel things like I used to.

So, my entrance into the Healthy Writers Club is particularly significant to me. Not only do I pledge to begin treating my body with the respect it deserves, but I pledge to likewise treat my mind and heart and soul and spirit with respect.

Here are the goals I have accomplished so far this week:

Photo Courtesy of Wiki Commons
1. Return to the ocean. I have always lived near a coast, and I feel a deep connection to salt water and all its creatures. I have felt my gills drying up the past two years I've lived in Colorado, so I took a trip to the ocean earlier this week and sunk face-first into the waves. The feeling of the current and the tides against my hair and skin is one of the best soul therapies I have ever discovered.

Photo Courtesy of Wiki Commons
2. Figure out my food allergies. My sensitive stomach has plagued me for years, so I finally broke down and spent the money for a proper Food Sensitivity Test. Tampa Rejuvenation took my blood samples earlier this week, and I should be receiving my food allergies results within three weeks. (They apparently test for 100 different types of foods, so I'm crossing my fingers they figure out SOMETHING for me to remove from my diet.)

Photo Courtesy of Wiki Commons
3. Start putting healthy foods into my body. When my life is out of balance, I subconsciously (and sometimes consciously) sabotage my healthy eating to get my body out of balance as well. (It seems strange to have one in line and not the other, so I inhale everything I possibly can to make my outsides better reflect my insides.) I decided this week that the time for food mourning is officially over. It's now time to start pulling myself back together.

Photo Courtesy of Wiki Commons
4. Start an exercise routine. My sister is in way better shape than I am, so she and I have been working our abs, buns, legs and arms this week. I also found a stand-up paddleboard shop and signed up for my very first paddleboarding lesson this weekend. (I was never very good at surfing, but I love being on the water, so perhaps this will be a better fit.) This paddleboarding shop also apparently offers paddleboard yoga and core workout lessons, so maybe I'll dive right in if it feels like a good fit.

Here are my weekly Healthy Writers Club milestones:

1. Weekly Stats: Two ab work-outs, two bun work-outs, two leg work-outs and one arm workout... A couple of nice walks, and one (very) short bike ride

2. In-Flight Entertainment Favorite: I have been listening to the 180 Degrees South soundtrack pretty much non-stop lately. Beautiful, meandering ocean-inspired melodies... Perfect for my return to the coast. (Check out the full playlist here.)

3. Coolest moment: Taking the plunge and finally reconnecting with the ocean

4. Hardest moment: Pretty much every single thing about this week has been hard--especially those few days when my immune system finally shut down on me. I have been trying to get sick for weeks, and my body finally collected on that debt earlier this week. Still trying to recover from that.

How did your week go? Any healthy milestones or set-backs? I'm really excited to officially be part of the Healthy Writers Club now, and I'm looking forward to all the motivation we can give each other.

P.S.- I'm going to start using the #healthywriters hashtag when I post about fitness on Twitter. Would love it if you guys would use it too, so we can all find each other!

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

My "Next Big Thing" Interview

Photo Courtesy of fostersartofchilling
The "Next Big Thing" Blog Interview is an idea from SheWrites meant to help female authors promote their WIPs. The lovely Alex Villasante tagged me in her interview two weeks ago, and I very am excited to spill the beans about my latest manuscript.

1. What is the working title of your book? ESSENCE

2. Where did you get the idea? The inspiration for ESSENCE came to me randomly. (See my full pitch here.) I was in Vail with my husband last winter, and we were watching a friend of ours get inducted into the Snowboarding Hall of Fame. There were tons of early '90's snowboarding legends there, and I was struck by how poorly many of them had aged. Some had mobility issues (thanks to the beatings they put on their bodies), some had substance abuse withdrawal issues, and many others just seemed "different."

I turned to my husband at one point and said, "It's weird. It's almost like these guys were given a certain allotment of life, and they've already used theirs up."

BAM. The rest of my story came to me like lightning.

3. What genre does your book fall under? My brilliant agent calls it a YA Near-Future Thriller, but I just called it a YA Adventure while I was writing it.

4. Which actors would you choose to play your characters in a movie rendition? I am a very visual person, so I pegged my male protagonist right away. His name is Ryder Stone, and I imagine him as a slightly more wiry Alex Pettyfer:

Photo Courtesy of Wiki Commons
My female protagonist (and narrator) is a little harder to peg. Her name is Autumn Grace, and her favorite feature is her wavy, strawberry-golden hair (which gets chopped off in one of the very first scenes). I could see her as a red-haired Lily Collins:

Photo Courtesy of Wiki Commons
5. What is the one-sentence synopsis of your book? When seventeen year-old Autumn Grace stumbles upon a group of Outsiders living in the abandoned remains of Yosemite National Park, she must say goodbye to her cult-like Centrist upbringing and push herself to become one of them. 

(Wow! I've never whittled my pitch down to ONE sentence before! Thanks, Next Big Thing, for pushing me to make that happen!)

6. Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency? ESSENCE is already represented by Hannah Bowman of Liza Dawson Associates. I'm crossing my fingers a traditional publisher will some day like it as well!

7. How long did it take you to write the first draft of your manuscript? This novel is a personal record for me. I wrote the first draft in just under five months, and I spent an additional month and a half revising it before I sent it to my agent. 

8. What other books would you compare this story to within your genre? My agent says: "ESSENCE's wild setting and edge-of-your-seat action will appeal to fans of Alex Garland and Veronica Roth." (Definitely humbled to even be compared to either, but I think ESSENCE combines THE BEACH's illusion of paradise with DIVERGENT's adrenaline-fueled adventures.)

9. What else about your book might pique the reader’s interest? ESSENCE is set in the near-future abandoned remains of Yosemite National Park, and I actually spent the summer of 2004 living in a tent and working in Yosemite. I have based nearly all of my characters' experiences on something I either experienced or knew of others experiencing there, and all the behind-the-scenes details of the park are dead-on accurate--with only a few minor name changes to protect my favorite secret places. :)

Now it’s my turn to tag some fellow writers! Hopefully we will learn all about their WIPs next!

Shallee McArthur

Thanks for tuning in for my "Next Big Thing" interview, and I hope you have a wonderful day!

Friday, October 12, 2012

Two Roads Diverged

Photo Courtesy of swimparallel
Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;

Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim
Because it was grassy and wanted wear,
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,

And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I marked the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way
I doubted if I should ever come back.

I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I,
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.

In other words, I have started down a different path now. Different from the one that took me across the country eight years ago, different from the one that shaped me from a wide-eyed college kid into the woman I am today.

I have experienced so much in the past eight years that it's hard to know where to begin. I graduated from the University of Central Florida and moved to California, and I met a boy and kissed him while snow drifted through the air and settled like lace on our shoulders and in our hair.

I rescued sea lions and served martinis in Monterey, swam with dolphins and released sea turtles in Florida, and I packed up everything I owned when I decided to marry that California boy. We loaded our truck and headed north to Alaska, and we spent nearly four years hiking, drinking micro-brewed beers, and exploring the Great White North. I raised mountain goats and baby bears at the zoo, I watched stars and trained one particular camel who still owns a big piece of my heart.

We made friends and said goodbye to them, and we headed south again when my heart started pulling me back to Florida. That California boy would have stayed in Alaska forever, but we settled on Colorado, and we decided it was a good compromise.

But it wasn't. My heart strings still tugged me home, and the birth of my new nephew made the pain unbearable.

What do you do when you realize you'll lose yourself if you don't follow your heart? What do you do when the California boy--who is now a man--realizes he'll lose himself if he comes with you?

Do you sacrifice your path? Does he? Do both of you give up on the intrinsic essence that makes you who you are?

Or do you start down your paths alone? Do you leave your relationship in the hands of fate, in the belief that your love will survive if it is meant to survive?

And if it isn't, are you strong enough to handle that? Are you strong enough to say goodbye, to know that you will always love and care about this man, even if your destinies are no longer entwined?

The answer: I sure hope I am.