Future Marine Mammal Trainer – Erin McKinney
Erin introduced herself through Facebook and after some chatting back and forth, she was asked to write a post for our website. Erin shares her tips on preparing for a dream career and all that she has learned on her road in becoming a marine mammal trainer. Thanks, Erin, for the great content and inspiring story! I am sure you will be a dolphin trainer in no time!
Like many people of all ages, I have a dream to train marine mammals. I’ve known I wanted to be a trainer ever since my first visit to SeaWorld, when I was 12 years old. Ever since then, it’s been my passion, working with the world’s most amazing and charismatic creatures, playing and learning with them, and showing off their wonders to the public.
But a dream, though it’s very important, isn’t enough all by itself. It takes devotion, determination, a belief in yourself and an ability to work hard to make a dream come true, especially one in the competitive and challenging world of animal training. In addition to passion, aspiring trainers should work hard to develop the skills that are essential for work in the field: public speaking, strong swimming, teamwork and leadership, and studies in the fields of psychology and biology. A good trainer is at once a keeper, teacher and performer. They care for and study their animals while simultaneously teaching others about them and why they are special, as well as sharing the spotlight with fins and flippers to bring high-energy, entertaining performances to the audience. However, it’s important to understand the truth about a lot of the training world. Especially at the entry level, a lot of it is cleaning. And food prep. And note-taking. The glamorous stuff doesn’t come until later, and even then it’s only a very small part of a challenging and physically tasking job.
Even at 12 (and later into my teens), there are things anyone can do to start preparing for a career as an animal trainer. I began to hone my public speaking skills in my high school’s debate club and in productions in a local community theatre. I kept my grades high and joined my school’s student government to work on leadership and problem-solving. I swam, a lot, working particularly on lung capacity and breath holds. (All that swimming paid off when I was the only kid in Camp SeaWorld to make it across the dolphin pool underwater!) And, importantly, I kept my dream alive with regular visits to SeaWorld’s adventure camps, by making friends with similar interests, by contacting some friendly trainers via social media and by learning more about the animals and the field of animal training itself.
But the most important thing I’ve done in pursuit of my goals was to join the New York Aquarium’s docent program. As a docent, I’ve had many invaluable opportunities. Aside from my basic jobs teaching the public about the animals on exhibit, I’ve gotten an in-depth and working view of how a marine facility functions. I’ve gotten more hours interacting with and speaking to the public then I can count. I’ve learned more then I could have imagined about animals, training, education and even myself . Through demonstrating over 2 years of dedication, interest and passion (most teen volunteers work only for a few months), I earned opportunities to represent the Aquarium at outside events, help the Animal Care department out on several occasions, write and present material for the new volunteers, and even give impromptu talks during animal feeds to crowds of between 10-50 guests, all before I was even 18! Now I’m a 17 year old junior in high school, and I can see that the experiences I’ve gotten from the docent program have been wonderful. I’m hugely grateful to everyone there for the opportunities I’ve gotten and can get in the future.
Having the dream to train marine animals has changed my life more then I could have ever imagined. I’ve challenged myself physically, mentally and even emotionally at times. I’ve learned to stay true to myself and stand up for my beliefs. I’ve made wonderful friends and gained some of the strongest, most wonderful heroes and role models I could have ever imagined. I’ve gained a new appreciation for the environment and our world. Chasing my dream is a wonderful adventure, and I feel confident that if I believe enough in myself, nothing can stop me from working with these marine mammals, and someday giving my dream to someone new.
Links and More Info
Some of my favorite examples of trainers performing in shows can be found here:
SeaWorld Orlando’s sea lion show, “Clyde and Seamore Take Pirate Island.”
The sea lion show at the newly renovated New York Aquarium’s Aquatheatre.
SeaWorld Orlando’s “Shamu Rocks” – Possibly my favorite marine mammal show of all time, and one of the first things I saw that convinced me to be a trainer!
Sites where I’ve gotten animal/training info can be found here:
SeaWorld’s Infobooks – in-depth, detailed information about TONS of different animal species, very helpful to me when I started my work in the education department at the New York Aquarium!
An interesting (but old) article relating training whales to training human workers can be found here: