“Un pequeño.” Those are the words I repeatedly said through my two weeks in Cozumel, Mexico. It means “a little,” and it was my response to being asked if I speak Spanish. I have taken Spanish in college and high school, but I still struggle when listening to it. Almost all of the employees at Dolphin Discovery are bilingual, some of them being trilingual or multilingual. Every employee was very kind, and did their best to ensure I had a good time, and they taught me some Spanish along the way.
Dolphins have been my favorite animals since I was a young girl, and this trip cemented that fact. As if I couldn’t love them any more deeply, dolphins play with basketballs. My favorite sport, and my favorite animal: It was perfect.
The basketball was used as enrichment for the animals, and they would catch, push, and dive with the ball. The main reward for dolphins is, of course, fish, but I was surprised to see how much they enjoyed attention as their reward too. The bond these trainers had with their dolphins, sea lions, and manatees was amazing. The dolphins would jump when they saw their trainer, and talk to them, as if asking them to come play. Even the love the trainers put out to the dolphins was palpable, and I constantly caught myself walking around with a dopey smile on my face from the environment.
All of the animals are trained with operative conditioning, and, boy, are these animals trained! Everyone knows how intelligent dolphins are, but the manatees and sea lions could give them a run for their money on training. I spent a lot of time with the manatees, and they were quite impressive. My personal favorite trick, that I probably did too often, was pushing on their nose under water causing them to blow bubbles. While dolphins are still my favorite, these large, handsome manatees jumped up near the top.
Let’s not forget the sea lions too, the show they put on was outstanding full of flips, high fives, dancing, and singing. Plus, the trainers were fantastic, too!
Dolphin Discovery always has a full-time veterinarian on staff, which is not as common as you may think in Mexico. There was not a lot to do beyond preventive medicine, which was great for the animals, but meant slow days for the veterinarians. Manatees are notoriously healthy creatures, and the dolphins and sea lions are handled so many times a day any change in behavior or appearance is noted immediately and addressed that day. The routine tests are blood, gastric, and respiratory samples, and all of the animals are trained to need minimal restraint to give these samples.
I think one of the most important things to remember as a veterinarian is the human-animal bond. It can come in hundreds of shapes, but no matter the shape, it carries an indescribable sensation. The love the animals and their trainers gave each other was incomparable, and it gives being a veterinarian meaning. These animals are there to do a job, but they were still treated as though they were personal pets and cared for with the most love. This was a new aspect of medicine for me, and I can now appreciate the amount of work that goes into this company. These two weeks have also taught me that every day you touch a dolphin is truly a good day.
—Rachel Hallman, Class of 2019