Cynthia Lee (Winter's former trainer)
Q: What was your first thought the first time you walked into the aquarium/saw Winter?
A: At first I was just in awe of her! I couldn't believe that I was looking at a dolphin without a tail, swimming around, vocalizing like crazy, and just so full of life. I loved her energy.
Q: Who was your favorite dolphin at the aquarium?
A: I could no sooner pick a favorite dolphin than I could give up chocolate! ;) Each and every one of the dolphins I worked with: Winter, Panama, Nicholas, Indy and Hope have their own personalities or "dolphinalities" as I like to call them, and there was just something unique about each one that made me love them all the same.
Q: What made you decide you wanted to be a trainer? How old were you?
A: When I was nine, I saw a dolphin training session at a local zoo up north and I wanted to be that trainer. I saw the bond the trainer had with the dolphin she was working with: one based on trust and understanding. This in itself was so appealing to me that I couldn't imagine living my life without experiencing that for myself.
Q: What was it like at the Dolphin Tale premiere?
A: The 'Dolphin Tale' premiere was quite the event! There were cameras everywhere, reporters from news stations, magazines, etc and just as filming the movie was, it was an experience of a lifetime. I was chosen to escort one of the actors we worked with down the red carpet, which was nerve wracking and exciting at the same time, as I had to make sure to keep him moving along to the carpet as reporters interviewed him. I'm sure you are wondering who it was and it was Michael Roark who played Donovan, Kyle's competition in the film, and he was a pleasure to get to know. Once inside, there were many people sharing in merriment and there were a number of speeches given before the showing of the film. There was even a live feed from the aquarium where some of the trainers I worked with were having some fun with Winter! Of course the best part of the evening was getting to see 'Dolphin Tale' for the first time; to see four months of long hours and lots of hard work come together. That feeling was indescribable!
Q: What was the best thing/best memory from working at CMA?
A: There are so many that come to mind as I have been blessed to meet and help some amazing people through my work with the dolphins and especially Winter! I would have to write a novel to to share with you all of the memories, of interactions with kids like Cody McCasland who had to have both legs amputated due to several birth defects, war veterans who were my age and suffered a terrible injury serving our country, or those who came to see Winter with a fatal illness because interacting with a dolphin was one if their last wishes. Of course there are many interactions with the animals as well, the movie experience and so much more, but choosing a favorite is like choosing that favorite dolphin. It's just not possible. I will however give you one that looking back now, always stuck with me: I was in the water with Winter and she was so vocal, splashing around and curling up in my arms. As this was going on I hear a small voice get really loud and she said, "Mommy! Mommy! Look! Oh mom, I wanna be her! I wanna be her when I grow up!" I looked up at that little girl and she just smiled from ear to ear at me. I will never forget it because she reminded me of myself at that age, seeing the trainer that I saw.
Q: Do you still visit the aquarium often?
A: A few months after I started my new position at Busch Gardens, I did go back to volunteer at the aquarium two days a week. I missed my flippered and furry friends so much! Right now I am on a break as I work on publishing my book and Aerial Arts school at BB's Dance and Circus Arts of Tampa Bay, but I plan to volunteer again this summer.
Q: What was your favorite part about training dolphins?
A: Working on a new behavior and watching it take shape is an amazing part of training and probably my favorite part. You can understand all of the text book principles of training, but applying them when you have an animal in front of you is a whole different ball game! I always loved when I could literally see a concept click with the animal I was working with, and how when I became excited when they got it right, they seemed to feed off of that energy. Winter and especially Nicholas seemed to pick up on that the most and I loved working on new behaviors with them!
Q: What is your favorite part about working with animals?
A: Most definitely the relationship: that bond that I built with each and every one of those animals. It brought me great pride and joy to know that I was enriching their lives as much as they were enriching mine
Q: What advice do you have for people who might be interested in a career in training either marine mammals or animals like big cats, etc.?
A: For those who are interested in a career in working with animals, I would suggest going college for a degree in any of the biological sciences and/or psychology. I have my degree in psychology, emphasizing animal behavior and biology. As animal behaviorists, we use all of the principles of Operant Conditioning in training so psychology has been very beneficial to my career. Aside from a degree, look into volunteer positions where you live in a local shelter or wildlife rescue, a zoo, etc. I volunteered at a wildlife rescue in Wisconsin while I attended college to gain hands on experience with animals. It doesn't matter what kind because any experience is helpful! Also, look into Internship programs at various zoos and aquariums. Most of them are unpaid, but they are kind of like a working interview where you gain experience and prove yourself in the field. I completed my internship at The Clearwater Marine Aquarium before I was hired as a staff Marine Mammal Trainer so you never know! If marine mammals are your primary interest, you can join IMATA to see listings for these internships. There are also some great career based programs offered at places like The Dolphin Research Center, where you can take Dolphin Lab and learn all about enrichment, training and marine mammal care. I attended their career series and thoroughly enjoyed the hands on experience I was given.