Editor's Note: On June 21, Newsday staff spent the day chronicling "A Day in the Life of Long Island" through photos, videos and social media posts. As a follow-up to the project, we are spending the day with people all over Long Island to learn about the responsibilities, experiences and challenges that come with an average day. If you'd like us to check out what your day on Long Island is like, email email@example.com.
Caroline Walsh has two families: the one that raised her, and the one that includes a prickly Prehensile-tailed porcupine, a 400-pound sea lion and a blind seal named Gray Beauty.
As a mammal trainer at the Long Island Aquarium in Riverhead, Walsh, 25, has established close relationships with her animals over the past seven years. As a child, she said she visited the aquarium about once a month.
“I’ve always been that kid that was obsessed with aquariums and zoos,” said Walsh, who now resides in Sayville. “My obsession started [when] I went to SeaWorld when I was 5 years old. My mom has video footage of me saying that I would be the trainer one day.”
As a trainer, Walsh’s job involves caring for 10 different species of mammals. Most of her day consists of diet prep — checking the fish fed to the animals four times before it reaches their mouths — and cleaning the exhibits. In between those blocks of time, she’s training and feeding sea lions, seals, otters and her personal favorite: Alex the porcupine.
Walsh was first hired at the aquarium as an intern, and was promoted to a position in the education department. Now, as a mammal trainer, she sometimes works 65-hour weeks, plus days when the aquarium isn’t open to the public, like Christmas and Thanksgiving.
“We start work literally the second we get here and we don’t stop moving until 5:30,” Walsh said. “It’s from one thing to another. It’s pretty strenuous and very tiring sometimes, but obviously you look into [the animals’] faces and it’s completely worth it.”
A trainer’s main goal is to keep their animals comfortable in a steady routine, although the staff tries to shake things up to keep them physically and mentally active.
“We change out their toys every single day,” Walsh said. “Then we get new toy shipments every few months to make sure that our animals don’t look at the same toys over and over again... In addition to that, we bring out different scents, bubbles, movies, just to kind of switch it up and keep them thinking all the time.”
Walsh participates in four sea lion shows a day, a feat that requires trainers to wear many hats. They rotate between announcing the performance, for which they must memorize four different scripts full of fun facts for the audience and cues for another trainer and the sea lion. Another trainer is there to conduct a training session for the animals following the performance, which is open for spectators. In the coliseum where the show takes place, trainers may also assist families with strollers, answer questions about the animals from eager children and help folks find seats before the show.
And like any live performance, sometimes there are mishaps.
“Right now it’s actually breeding season, so Java, our male sea lion, has other things on his mind than coming out for shows and training sessions,” Walsh said with a smile. “Which, for us as trainers, is fine. His health and happiness [are] the first, top priority for us… So in the middle of the show, he’ll leave and he’ll go swim around and go look at the two girl sea lions, and he won’t come back for minutes at a time. And all of our announcers have to fill.”
As for Walsh’s favorite part of the day, that’s when she gets to visit Alex. The 12-pound porcupine arrived at the aquarium three years ago from the Buffalo Zoo, where she was hand-raised after her mother’s death.
“You think of porcupine and you think of this really scary thing with quills that couldn’t be cute, but she’s one of the cutest animals I’ve ever seen,” said Walsh, lighting up. “She has rodent brain, so to other people [she] wouldn’t be considered as intelligent as some of the other animals, but she’s brilliant.”
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Walsh gushed about how Alex follows her around the exhibit, goes on her scale, and can give “both of her paws.” Walsh also works with Alex on her painting skills: While she chews on a piece of bamboo, Walsh will dip the other end in a bit of paint and Alex can stroke it against a canvas or a glass, resulting in an abstract creation.
“I don’t know what it is about her,” she said. “We just have a great bond. She trusts me fully.”
There’s also Gray Beauty, a blind seal who trusts Walsh solely by the sound of her voice. They work together daily; Walsh will pet her lovingly and challenge her to perform an “innovative behavior,” a trick or movement that Gray Beauty must come up with on her own, on the spot.
“What’s really cool about our job here is that our department is in charge of all different species, whereas a lot of others zoos and aquariums that I know of, you’re just very department-oriented,” Walsh said. “So we work with the sea lions, seals, otters and monkeys, whereas normal zoos and aquariums have a monkey team, a sea lion team, and a seal team. At 25, I’ve worked with 10 different species of animals, which is really cool.”
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She doesn’t see herself leaving the aquarium anytime soon.
“After a while, because of all the relationships I’ve built with the animals, I would pretty much be moving away from my family,” she said. “Which, of course, is possible. If I ever needed to, I’m sure I would. But this is where I’ve grown up. I love it more than anything.”
And as for all the curious youngsters visiting Walsh’s second home on a daily basis? “We do our best to answer all of the questions that we can, because we all remember how it feels to be the little kid in the crowd who wants to do this and is inspired."