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Following Dreams

"Dolphin Trainer"

Taylor: What did you have to do to become a dolphin trainer? Did you have to be an assistant first?

Tami: A girl who wants to work with marine mammals needs to get a college degree in either biology, animal behavior, or some type of related field. I originally became a trainer in birds and reptiles and then transferred to dolphins. I had to work on my public speaking skills too, as well as, be a strong swimmer and have a scuba diving certificate.   A girl, who is interested in this field, can do an internship at a zoo or an aquarium. Once the she shows that this is really what she loves, she can get into an aid position and work her way up. The national aquarium has a very good program for that. It is a lot of hard work, but it’s worth it!


Taylor: While you were learning about dolphins, who were your mentors and who encouraged you through the process?

Tami: I have had many mentors since joining the National Aquarium in Baltimore! I had some while I was in the exotic animal training program and more recently Sue Hunter, the curator of marine mammals, has been a great mentor. She has taught me a lot about training and the various mammals in the aquarium.


Taylor: What were your dreams when you were younger and what did you want to be around the time you were twelve years old?

Tami: I always knew deep in my heart that I wanted to work with animals, but I didn’t know how to do it. Instead, I followed my mother’s path. She was a special education teacher. I grew up going with her to school and helping her with the children. Later, I went to college and into that field. However, I always had the heart to work with animals.  When I was in education, I felt like I was missing a piece. I think the animals were that missing piece in the sense that I still wanted to educate, but in a different way.


Taylor: When did it all change and when did you decide to be a dolphin trainer?

Tami: I left teaching at age 29 and went to Moorpark College. I said to myself, “I’m going to try this and see what happens!” That is when I found my true passion. While other people were going out to lunch and hanging out, all I wanted to do was be with animals.  When I came back to the east coast and did my college project, I realized that I wanted to be at The National Aquarium.


Taylor: What is the most fun you have while being a dolphin trainer?

Tami: I really enjoy getting in the water and interacting with the animals. I think it’s a great way to build a relationship with them. I really enjoy playing with the dolphins and the toys we use with them.


Taylor: What is one of the hardest behaviors (tricks) to teach a dolphin?

Tami: They all learn at a different pace. You can go up to one dolphin and have a plan and they will do it great and then another dolphin will have no idea what you’re trying to teach them. Teaching them to flip does take time, because we do everything in very small steps. Dolphins realize that what they are doing is learning, but it’s fun and they are getting reinforcement (fish), so it’s a positive experience. Once you have completed a behavior, it’s very rewarding because you have built trust with that animal.


Taylor: What is one of the scariest things that happened while training a dolphin?

Tami: Animals and dolphins do bite. People think dolphins are cute and they do all these fun behaviors, but they are wild animals.  You can’t take them home and have them in your house. So, when they bite it’s their way of saying, “I’m frustrated right now.” That can be a pretty scary situation!


Taylor: As a girl, what were some of the peer pressures you remember having?

Tami: It was difficult in school because it was always about who had the right clothes or the right hair and it was a lot of pressure to keep up with everybody else. These days it’s that, as well as, having a cell phone. I was very shy and quiet. I used to think kids wouldn’t like me because they thought I was a dork for being so shy. I thought that if I did say something it was going to sound stupid, so that caused a lot of peer pressure for me.


Taylor: How did you overcome those peer pressures?

Tami: I looked to my family for support. They were always there to give me tips on what to do. I had an older sister, so I could always go to her for help. Sometimes I would go to the mall with a couple of my friends and buy something that was in style. I would try to get a few things that I was secure with just to help my self esteem.


Taylor: What is one of your fondest memories growing up?

Tami: I would have to say my animals! This kind of makes sense (laughs) because we always had dogs in my house.  I remember each of the animals we had during the stages of my life and the relationship that I built with them.


Taylor: Were you involved in any school programs when you were a kid?

Tami: I was at a private school all the way up through the fifth grade. There were small group things that we did, but nothing too big. I was on the basketball team in high school and that was what I liked to do.


Taylor: What kind of friends did you try to surround yourself with when you were growing up?

Tami: I tried to surround myself with friends that talked a lot because, like I said, I was very shy. Also, the friends that I had liked to have fun, but in a good way. There was never a situation where I felt pressured to do something that I knew was wrong.


Taylor: You are going to speak to girls all around the world through Are there any words of encouragement that you would have for them?

Tami: Just know that whatever you do, it won’t be easy and there will be a lot of challenges that come up as you are getting to your goal. It’s not always going to be the easy road, but stay strong. Sometimes I had to wait five or six years until I got to my dream. But in the end, it all worked out! Also, if your plan is not going the way you hoped, don’t be afraid to change it. Once you reach your goal, you will feel great about what you are doing and the road it took to get there!


Click to play a video "shout out" from Tami


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