9 Harsh But Helpful Tips on Rocking Your Internship With Animals! (#7 = Must Read!)

sea lion trainer

9 Harsh But Helpful Tips on Rocking Your Internship With Animals! (#7 = Must Read!)

By: Kyle Kittleson

I got my first internship the summer after I graduated college. Out of 30+ interns, I was the only one offered a job as a full-time trainer immediately after the internship ended. Since then I have coached other interns and have developed these 9 tips to help those who want to succeed in their animal internship.

If you are an aspiring marine mammal trainer, you understand the importance of getting animal experience (especially if you have read my book). Experience not only gives an inside look on what it is like to care for animals, but also connects you to influential leaders in the industry. If you are lucky enough to have landed an internship, you are well on your way to achieving your dreams. However, not everyone can be a trainer, so how you perform during your internship could determine whether or not you’ll be swimming with dolphins for a living.

Why Are You Interning?

In order to best understand and utilize these 9 tips, you must first understand why you are doing this internship. While there are many reasons to complete an internship (making friends, memories, etc), there is a defining reason that you should keep in the forefront of your mind.

The primary reason you are interning is to make you a more attractive job applicant to potential employers.

Keeping that in mind, here are 9 tips on how to rock your internship.

1. Understand (and slow) Your Role.

The reason interns exist is to make the lives of the employees easier. You are there to do the work that nobody else likes doing. This may include scrubbing toilets, shoveling animal poop, or filing documents. You will be compensated for this work by getting opportunities to observe, and possibly, participate in sessions with the animals.

You do not exist as an intern to fulfill your dream of swimming with dolphins, or nursing a baby tiger cub (although that could happen). You were not hired as an intern to give the working trainers someone to teach and coach (although that could, and should, happen). You are simply there to make the jobs of the actual staff easier.

Now, with that being said, a good internship will give you hands on experience working with animals, and teach you about the field and industry.

Show up everyday knowing that your job is to make everyone’s lives easier. If you do that, you will be rewarded.

intern-in-hawaii-sea-life-park2. Expect Nothing.

I don’t know another scenario where I would suggest someone to expect nothing. However, in the competitive world of animal internships, as soon as you expect something, you have lost. The internship is designed to make you a better future candidate, not to give you time playing with birds. When you start expecting certain privileges, you have taken your eyes off the prize. Don’t forget, you are there to make the lives of others easier.

Expecting nothing will also make the tough times easier. Interns have a thankless position. You will rarely be told, “great job.” You will go unnoticed. You will not be rewarded for doing well (at least not at first). You will be used. You will be overworked.

And that’s okay! Don’t expect to be thanked, coddled, or appreciated. Then, if you are shown gratitude, it will be an unexpected bonus!

I have seen so many interns expecting to be built-up and have their hand held throughout the entire day. Just because your parents told you were great, doesn’t mean managers will tell you the same thing.

Expect nothing. You’ll be happy you did.

3. Don’t Ask What To Do. Just Do It!

Environments surrounding animals are busy, hectic, and often times, stressful. My blood would boil when an intern would approach me during the middle of a session and ask, “Hey, Kyle, what should I be doing right now?”

There is always something to be doing! Clean the buckets. Wash the fish house. Clean out the office. Reorganize the filing cabinet. Prep the food for the next session. Get ready for a show. Clean the showers. Go answer guest questions. Pretend to organize the toy bin if you have to! I don’t care what you do, just do something!

Asking what you should be doing proves you don’t know what is going on. It tells the staff that you need to be told what to do. It indicates that you are not a self-starter and that you require constant supervision. Who wants to hire someone like that? Nobody.

During certain circumstances asking a staff member what you should be doing is okay. Perhaps you need clarification on what task would be more beneficial. For example, “Hey, Kyle, the fish is all prepped. Would you like me to input the records or go clean the glass?” Even then, be careful with how often you are clarifying. Otherwise, you are going to come across as not having a clue about what tasks are more important.

Tip 3.1: Tell, then ask. <— This is huge!

It’s easy to go undetected as an intern. In order to keep yourself on the staff’s radar, check-in with them once or twice a day. Do this by telling them what you are about to do, and then ask if there is anything else they need. For example, “Hi Trisha! I am going to go clean the toy box, unless there is anything else you need from me.” Trisha will feel important that you checked-in with her. She will also tell other staff members that you were being productive (yes, you are being talked about). And, often times, this technique of ‘tell, then ask’ gets you time with the animals! How?

Well, since Trisha noticed you have been working hard, you have given her the perfect opportunity to reward you for this work by asking her if “there is anything else [she] needs.” While Trisha may tell you to go clean the toy box, she also may tell you, “why don’t you come help me with this play session?” Score!

Note, you’ve never asked to participate in the play session. You only asked what you could be doing after telling them what your plan was. You showed them you were a self-starter, didn’t need to be told what to do, and gave them the option to reward you. (Now who’s the trainer?)

In short, stay busy and find something to do. When in doubt, clean. If everything is clean, clean it anyway. Don’t ask what to do.

4. Be One Step Ahead

I was well liked as an intern because I was one-step ahead of the trainers. I wish I was liked because they thought I was funny or nice, but it wasn’t. It was because I made their jobs easier by being one-step ahead.

Once I became a trainer, I understood why they liked me. I liked interns who made my life easier, didn’t have to be told what to do, and were one-step ahead of the game.

Want to standout? When a staff member says, “okay, now we need to get that fish ready.” You say, “I already did it.” You will instantly be the star intern.

During your first week, learn the schedules and preferences of the staff. Maybe someone prefers their fish in a bucket instead of a cooler. Perhaps another staff member always wants to clean the habitat after a training session. If you know this, you can prepare the supplies and labor. Be one step ahead of them.

This goes along with not having to be told what to do. If you can do that, you are sure to stand out as a star intern.

5. Take Credit Where Credit Is Due!

Notice in the example above that YOU took credit for preparing the fish. If you do something, take credit for it! If you and another intern cleaned the stage, share the credit! If you didn’t clean the glass, don’t take credit for it! Be honest and truthful. We can smell a fake from a mile away.

Taking credit doesn’t mean you should send out a group e-mail detailing how you cleaned the shoe rack. It just means that you should be proud of the work you are doing and the powers that be should know about your work!

One way you can show off your work, (and improve for next time), is by asking for reviews.

Occasionally, when I was given a new task as an intern, I would ask my work to be reviewed. This way, staff members could see I was actually doing the work, and I would get feedback on where I could improve. Next time, I would be better able to complete the task. Of course, I only did this for new tasks. I wouldn’t ask for a review every time I did a task.

6. Network, Network, Network!

sea lion mother and pupStaff Members

This internship is your chance to make connections in the industry. The animal industry is small. If you know one person, you know everyone. Chances are that someone at the facility you are interning knows someone at a facility who could hire you. One good letter of recommendation could mean the difference between getting the job and not getting the job. Conversely, an unflattering letter or phone call is almost certain to keep you from becoming employed.

  • If a staff member takes time to teach you something, make sure to thank them. It may be beneficial to hand-write them a thank you card. Those go a long way.
  • Find a mutual contact between you and a staff member at your internship. Maybe you know a trainer at your local zoo that knows your manager. It is perfectly acceptable to approach your manager to let them know the two of you have a mutual contact or friend. This often breaks down walls and allows staff members to see you as an actual person…not just an intern.
  • If you are able to develop a professional relationship with staff members, make sure to ask for their contact information before your internship ends. You have to ask as nobody is going to offer up their phone number and e-mail address. If they don’t want you to have their information, they’ll simply ask for your phone or e-mail address instead… and never contact you. That shouldn’t happen, however, if you have actually created a relationship.

Interns

You should also be networking with other interns. You never know who knows who. Additionally, you never know who your fellow interns will become. My internship produced plenty of working marine mammal trainers who are now leaders in their field. The first internship group I had as a staff member produced a senior trainer at SeaWorld Orlando (who later became my roomate), a supervisor at my former place of employment, and a group of life long friends. You need to be networking with other interns, because they are the employers of tomorrow!

Perhaps more importantly, these are people just like you who are passionate about caring for animals. They are going to understand you more than your best friend does. You will be able to relate with them more than anyone else. Working with animals is an incredible experience that only other people who have worked with animals can relate to.

Social Media

Be very careful on social media! It is not uncommon for your boss to “friend you” on Facebook or “follow” you in Twitter. If you call in sick and then post pictures of your day at that beach on Facebook, your boss will not be happy. Similarly, Facebook could reveal that you and your boss have different political views or disagree on how the season finale of True Detective ended. While these shouldn’t change your work environment, they can.

Personally, I like to keep work and social media separate.

[You can follow me personally on Twitter and Facebook though – I won’t judge you!
You can also follow marinemammaltrainer.com on Twitter and Facebook.]

7. Be Likeable!

While “being likable” goes hand in hand with networking, it deserves its own number on my top 9 list. It is perhaps the most important piece of advice I can give you on rocking your internship.

People want to spend time with people they like. Therefore, people hire people they like.

Are you great at cleaning buckets, know everything about training, and have the experience to back it up? If you do, it wont’ get you a job if you aren’t likable. Animal people spend a lot of time at work. They often spend days on end without leaving in order to care for a sick animal or prepare a new habitat. During that time they will be spending a lot of time with fellow co-workers. You better believe that they rather spend time with someone they like! So, if you want to rock your internship and put yourself in a position to get hired, then be likeable. Being likeable doesn’t necessarily mean being funny, or being kind, although it might.

“Likeable” may mean not being you! Let me explain. Whether you agree or not, you are not always yourself. You act differently around your parents than you do your group of friends. You behave differently during spring break in Mexico than you do Sunday at church. So, in your internship, you may need to modify your behavior to better suit your environment.

Here is where the ability to understand people and human behavior becomes priceless. You may work with people who are loud, funny, and extroverted. They, naturally, will want to be around more people like that. You may work around quiet and introverted types, and thus, they will want to be surrounded by more of the same. It is your job to behave according to your environment. That is being “likable.”

People hire who they want to work with, so, be someone they want to work with.

Personally, I could never work with a group of people who were introverted and barely spoke. However, during my internship I wanted to be highly thought of as my co-workers would be a good reference down the line. Regardless of the types of people at your internship, work on being likable.

You should seek employment that makes you happy – that includes working in environments that are reinforcing to you. I am not advising you to seek permanent employment with people who don’t allow you to be you! I am simply offering advice on how to make your internship as successful as possible.

After reading my book on how to become a marine mammal trainer, I highly suggest reading Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People. These two pieces of work will make you an almost unstoppable force.

8. Listen and Don’t Ask Questions!

Working with live animals has inherent risk when it comes to safety. Because of this, it is crucial you listen and act, rather than listen and start asking questions.

I am reminded of a story that was told to me by one of the smartest animal trainers I have ever met. He told me this story when I was an intern.

He said that while he was working with killer whales in France, he was doing a water work session with one of the whales. During the session, a gate opened, giving a whale (who often became aggressive with new people in the water), access to the trainer. He immediately called for the gate to be shut. A trainer near the gate asked, “why?” The intern near the gate closed it immediately. The intern did exactly what he should’ve done. He listened and acted. If the intern were to have wasted time by asking a question, (like the idiotic trainer), it could’ve lead to disastrous consequences.

You should assume, especially if you are an intern working with animal trainers, that the training staff knows exactly what they are doing. If they ask you to do something, and it doesn’t seem “right,” do it anyway as the trainer is probably three steps ahead of you. Afterwards, you may ask questions. Do not ask during the event, as there is no time to be questioning professionals who do this for a living. Remember, you are there to make the lives of the staff easier, not to question their decisions.

Treat asking questions like eating an entire tub of ice cream in one sitting – you shouldn’t do it all the time, but once in a while is okay. Make the questions you ask count. If the answer is something you can look up or get from another intern, then leave the trainers be. Make your questions intelligent, and high quality. This will put you in the best possible light.

9. Enjoy Every Second!

There will be a moment at 5am when you are are getting up to go to work and you will be sore, irritated, and unmotivated. Don’t let that get you down. There are thousands who would give their left arm for the opportunity to work next to animals… in any capacity. You should enjoy yourself. Smile. Picture yourself giving advice to interns years from now. Picture yourself landing that dream job working with animals. It isn’t about the destination, it is about the journey, and this internship is part of the journey. So, enjoy every second.

How to Find an Internship

How to Become a Marine Mammal TrainerCheck out these organizations and associations for information on available internships.

For those who have purchased my book, remember, you have access to a full list of US facilities that house marine mammals. Use that list to contact facilities near you to see what volunteer or internship opportunities are available.

4 comments

  • Hey Kyle! I’m a 14-year-old aspiring SeaWorld killer whale trainer in Southern California! I just wanted to let you know that I love the Marine Mammal Trainer Minute on the Unofficial SeaWorld Podcast, your in-depth interview with them, your Blackfish video and this website! I also look forward to purchasing your book soon! Thanks! 🙂

  • How old do you have to be an intern? Please tell me its 16! I don’t want to wait 7 years instead of just 5!

  • Hello, I am a 17 year old aspiring marine mammal trainer. I would like to work with Walrus’, however, I would love to work with anything they can throw at me. The only problem I have with obtaining an internship is my location. I live in Ohio so as you can imagine, there is no where close to me to let me work with them.

  • # 8’s title should be reworded to something like “Listen, act, ask questions later”. Asking questions is very important, acting when directed is also.

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