February is here and love is in the air. Happy Valentine’s Day to all of you, and also to all of the animals that we love here at Dolphin Connection and all around the Florida Keys. Luckily for these animals, we’re not the only ones who love them; many organizations here in our island chain are dedicated to the rescue, rehabilitation, and release or long term care of the local wildlife.
Just down the road from us is the Marathon Wild Bird Center. Located at Mile Marker 50 at the Crane Point Hammock, the Marathon Wild Bird Center is dedicated to animal care and community education. Whether it’s the native, year-round bird population or the seasonal, migratory population, the Marathon Wild Bird Center is here to help them. Typical issues causing a bird to need assistance are entanglement in fishing line, injury due to ingesting fish remains from fishermen, starvation, or premature separation from parents. While the Wild Bird Center does a wonderful job with all of their patients, we could all make their job easier by doing our part to make the Keys a safer place for birds to live.
Are you a fisherman? If so, the simple act of keeping your used fishing line and fishing hooks on board until you find a proper trash or recycling receptacle can save so many animals’ lives. Fishing line is designed to be invisible: that’s why it works so well with fish. Unfortunately, it’s also rather invisible to birds and other wildlife. Fishing line that is discarded from boats, bridges, marinas, etc. ends up floating in the water, tangled around pilings or electric lines, or wound around rocks or seaweeds. All of these final resting places for the line are also resting places for the birds, and one wrong step places the bird’s foot right into a pile of line that works just like a snare. Simply pledging to not let our line loose in a bird’s habitat can make such a difference.
Now, after you’ve had your successful fishing trip and all of your used fishing line has been placed in the recycling bin, you need to clean your fish. It seems completely natural to discard the skin, bones, and other unusable parts of the fish right back into the sea. It’s even satisfying when other animals like fish, sharks, and birds come to enjoy these remains. Unfortunately, most predatory marine life, including pelicans, are not meant to eat fish in pieces. Instead, they eat the fish whole. This means that their delicate bodies are protected from the fish bones until these bones are safely decomposing in the animal’s stomach acid. Pelicans who scavenge from a fisherman’s spoils can tear their fragile throat pouch on these bones. Throwing your fish bones into the trash rather than giving them to the begging birds is so much safer, despite what the birds might try to tell you!
Past the Marathon Wild Bird Center is the Turtle Hospital. Just like the Bird Center, the Turtle Hospital focus on wildlife rescue, rehabilitation, and release or long term care. Also, just like the Bird Center, one of the primary causes of injury to the wildlife that they see is ingestion of, or entanglement in, fishing line. So many of the patients at the Turtle Hospital have ingested a fishing hook and line and are now suffering as it tries to make its way through their system. Other common injuries are due to boat strike by boaters who are going too fast through the sea turtles’ home. Luckily, just like with the wild birds who need our help, the solutions to the sea turtles’ problems are so absolutely within our power. Care with our fishing gear, appropriate speeds on our water ways, and awareness of our impacts on the planet: these are all wonderful Valentine’s Day gifts that we can give to our fellow Keys residents this month.
We wish you all love, sunsets, romantic visits to Hawks Cay Resort, and of course fun times swimming with dolphins. But most of all, we wish for health and happiness for the wonderful animals walking beside us, swimming around us, and flying above us.
Here at Dolphin Connection, we know how lucky we are to be able to spend our days training dolphins. We also know how lucky our dolphins are, because it’s training that allows us to provide them with the very best animal welfare in the way of health care and enrichment. In fact, you’re pretty lucky too. Did you know that it’s thanks to trained dolphins that you’ve been able to learn all that you know about dolphin behavior, natural history and adaptations? Last month we were reminded that it’s not just us and our flippered friends who benefit from training; many other people and animals around the world make the most of animal training as well. We all know how valuable a service dog can be for a visually impaired person or even a person with a seizure disorder or other health concern, and of course dogs are frequently used in the military or by the police force. It was one of these amazingly well-trained dogs who spent some time at Dolphin Connection recently, bringing a whole new view of animal training to both our trainers and our dolphins!
In December, Deputy US Marshal Smith and his explosives detection dog, K9 Wanda, came to visit the Florida Keys and we were lucky enough to have them stay right here at Hawks Cay Resort. Wanda is one of only sixteen dogs certified with the Explosives Detection Canine Program and she lives in Atlanta, Georgia. K9 Wanda started her career training to be a guide dog for the blind in New York but once it was determined that she was better suited for law enforcement, she began her training with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms & Explosives (ATF) Canine Training Center. K9 Wanda can detect 19,000 different types of explosives and firearms and it’s daily practice with Deputy Smith that keeps her skills so sharp.
K9 Wanda and Deputy Smith were here in the Keys on duty, but they had a little bit of free time to swim with the dolphins and exchange some trade secrets with our training staff. As it turns out, whether you’re training dogs or dolphins, and whether you’re training them for health care or safety or detection, the techniques used and the relationships developed are just about the same.
The Dolphin Connection training team spent some time introducing K9 Wanda to our dolphins from out of the water, and then Deputy Smith had a chance to climb into the lagoon to meet the dolphins in their world. Finally, and this was the most exciting part for those of us who work with dolphins every day but who love all animals, K9 Wanda demonstrated her detection skills and Deputy Smith walked us through the training process and showed off some of the most impressive trained behaviors.
Every day we are grateful for the opportunity we have to spend our lives caring for our dolphins. The science of animal training provides a system we can use to communicate with them, take care of them, and safely bring them into contact with so many people who can learn from them. Discussing the amazing benefits of positive reinforcement-based training with someone who is just as passionate and knowledgeable is the kind of stimulating conversation we dream of. Having that opportunity while also snuggling with a dog…well that’s just the icing on the cake of another perfect day in the Florida Keys.