Lionhearted: Profile of Angela Petesen, a sea lion trainer at West Edmonton Mall

First published in the Edmonton Journal’s ed section on January 23, 2006.

“We’re essentially janitors,” laughs Angela Petesen, describing her job as a marine life animal care supervisor at West Edmonton Mall’s Sea Lions Cove.

Sure, Peteson and the other sea lion trainers spend lots of time interacting with the malls three California sea lions, working on new behaviours and maintaining old ones. But, 50 to 70 per cent of our time is doing grunt work.

Welcome to the not-so-glamorous world of animal care.

Petesen’s been in this world since Grade 9 when, as part of a school work experience program, she started volunteering at the now-defunct Dolphin Lagoon.

The experience hooked her for life. All through high school and university, she stayed involved with the lagoon, initially as a volunteer and then as an employee. Once she’d completed a bachelor of science at the U of A, Petesen started working full-time as part of the team that cared for WEM’s four bottlenose dolphins.

The dolphins were both a huge attraction and subject of controversy. Maria died in 2000, followed by Gary in 2001 and Mavis in 2003. Along the way, five calves were stillborn or died young.

That left Howard by himself. Animal welfare groups protested his lonely plight and, in May 2004, the mall sent him to Theater of the Sea, a Florida saltwater lagoon.

Peteson says Howard’s departure from the mall was a joyful time, because he was going to a natural environment to be with other dolphins. But saying goodbye, she says, was difficult.

“There’s always a sense of sadness,” she says. “It’s like your best friend moving away. Its going to be more and more difficult to talk to them and see them because they’re far away.”

Howard died a year later. Peteson takes a fatalistic view on the sad turn of events, saying that getting attached to very mortal animals is a hard part of her job.

“He couldn’t have been transported to a better place,” she says.

After Howard was gone, the trainers focused their efforts on the penguins until October 2004, when the three adult sea lions arrived from a safari park in Scotland. Like the dolphins, they were smart, curious and eager to learn. But there was one big difference.

The sea lions could come onto land!

That meant teaching the animals to station where each sea lion waits at a pre-designated spot quickly became a goal.

While the sea lions arrived with some training, Petesen and the other trainers have been busy adding new behaviours to their repertoire, like teaching each sea lion to respond to their own name.

Training, or co-creation as Petesen puts it, is done using operate conditioning  doing the same thing over and over and positive reinforcement. “We take really small steps that are achievable,” she says. “As (the sea lions) achieve these steps, we reinforce them.”

And in the world of sea lion training, there’s no punishment for making a mistake. Instead, the animals get a kind of time-out what Peteson calls a three-second least reinforcing scenario break.

“When the animal does succeed, he or she gets a reward,” says Peteson’s colleague Ava Johnson. Often the reward is food, Johnson adds, but it isn’t always the number one reward. “The reward can be touching them or letting them play with a new toy.”

Like Petesen, Johnson first became involved with WEM’s marine animal department as a work experience volunteer and then stayed involved in a variety of roles after finishing high school. In 2002, after returning from several years abroad, Johnson started full-time in the aquarium department where she cared for the fish and reptiles. Last January, she started working with the sea lions.

In all, there are five trainers at various levels working at the mall.

Level one trainers don’t have a lot of hands-on experience with the animals. After learning the basics of animal care, they would move up to level two.

Peteson, as a level three trainer, is among those who teach new behaviours to animals.

But whatever their level, all trainers have to spend at least part of their workday on routine tasks like checking the water quality, preparing the food and cleaning the fish room.

Then there is working with the sea lions themselves. Training takes places during four to six different sessions throughout the day.

These sessions, which include the sea lions’ twice-a-day show called Hollywood Casting Call, can be a short as five minutes and as long as 20. And while training can involve a lot of repetition, its quite rewarding.

“My favourite part of this job is when the lightbulb goes on. When youre teaching an animal a new behaviour and they get it,” says Petesen.

That said, the polemic questions that arise from keeping animals in captivity and teaching them tricks lurk between the lines of an animal trainers job description.

Peteson says most trainers have to reckon with ethics and purpose at some point during their careers.

“Sometimes you let some of the controversy get to you. You do that self-analysis and you say to yourself, Am I in the right place? Am I pursuing the right role? Am I making a difference? That questioning of yourself is uncomfortable.”

She’s has had to walk away from animal activists who call her names and won’t listen to her take on issues. But she doesn’t take it personally. She says the animals welfare is always her top priority, and that’s what keeps her passion alive.

“You have to listen to your heart and you have to listen to the animals,” she says.

“When you come into work and there’s an animal there and its excited to see you, thats the greatest feeling in the world.”

For anyone interested in working with marine animals, post-secondary studies that deal with animals or animal sciences are key. Petesen has a major in psychology and a minor in biology while Johnson studied marine biology at Hawaii Pacific University.

Potential marine animal trainers also need first aid skills and their scuba license.

While scuba diving does come in handy when you want to spend more time underwater with the animals, its mainly for the maintenance of the pool, says Johnson.

Maintenance that includes scraping algae off the sides of the tanks.

Ah yes, the glamorous world of animal training.

With files from Elizabeth Withey