How It All Began with Animals
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How It All Began with Animals

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‘How it all began’

This week I attended the 2nd World Marine Mammal Conference in Barcelona, Spain - 7-day immersion in the world of dolphins, whales, pinnipeds, polar bears, and all the other marvellous individuals who inhabit salty, brackish, or freshwater aquatic environments, or spend their time between water and land.

This scientific gathering had over 2500 people from all around the world. Some of my friends and colleagues attended too and we spend a lot of time talking about animal welfare and care, how we have seen such an evolution of programs and sciences, ranging from health care, environmental enrichment, human-animal interactions, and training. There were so many of us working with and in zoos and aquariums, as well as research facilities and universities, there to present and represent the individuals and species we care for and study.

During the conference I had not 1 but 4 colleagues tell me “you worked at a zoo and aquarium? I did not know that!” You know when you are taken by surprise and think: What do you mean? I have spent the last almost 30 years working in, with and at the service of animals and people in a wide variety of facilities around the world.

Of course, it is completely normal and it reminded me once again how important it is to tell your story, and to keep telling it - don’t worry I will not do this all in this blog! This is specifically true and important for a variety of reasons I will not go into today but will come back to at some point.

Let’s just start with ‘How it all began’:

When I was 18, I was learning scuba diving in a local swimming pool, in a town called Lelystad in the Netherlands. Super comfortable in water since I was little, almost better at swimming than cycling - which is a big deal in the Netherlands - I loved practising all the exercises we had to do. One of the people I met was Adri van der Kroon, grateful forever, thank you Adri and you are missed. He invited me to come and help him at the Artis Zoo in Amsterdam, where he was working in the aquarium. I went a few times to the zoo volunteering and helping with feeding the animals, - careful with my fingers while handing the turtles some of the food! - cleaning tanks, and importantly making sure that the manatees were getting lots of scratching and rubbing done with the soft broom. They did not seem to get enough of that, swimming slowly back and forth, turning their bodies, making sure to hit all the right places. They were fabulous and I fell in love with their nostrils – if you have not yet noticed them, go check out manatee nostrils!

Adri had contacts in many places and early 1992 he told me that they were looking for an aquarist at the Harderwijk Dolphinarium, also in the Netherlands. He put me in contact with the person in charge, Dr. John Koop, and I got an interview. Not only did I get an interview, I got the job, and soon I was wearing the typical blue uniform, red sweater and caring for the animals at the ‘Roggenrif’. This is the reef where the rays and sharks live, where public presentations are conducted on a daily basis, and where the public as an opportunity to feed the animals with fish prepared by then… me & colleagues. I will have to continue looking through my photos to find the ones of me working with the fishes. Today the reef is still operational and serving an important educational role for the visiting public, and they do some great animal training there too.

When I worked at the reef, I regularly walked over the rehabilitation centre, which was just a few steps away. The centre had a dedicated staff to care for the stranded harbour porpoises, some of which, when healthy and happy again, would be released back to the sea. In the centre there was also a lovely little California sea lion named Alexandra, engaged in cognition research. So many exciting new things to learn from all these animals.
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Photo above: Dr. Ron Kastelein and I carefully feeding an ill harbour porpoise

As time went by, I started to help out with the stranded porpoises under the watchful eye and guidance of Dr. Ron Kastelein. Caring for ill and injured animals, some only a few weeks old, is a complex task and all processes and procedures were carefully planned and executed, also together Dr. Martin Bakker, the visiting veterinarian at time. Until 1994 I worked together with many colleagues at the centre and at the park. Small walruses (you will meet them soon), seals (very fat ones!), and on a special occasion interacting with dolphins and false killer whales when trainers brought me over to meet these lovely personalities.
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Photo above: Working on your own makes you creative, I 'designed' a simple soft neoprene sling to support the animal during tube feeding

What is fantastic still: some of my colleagues from my time at the Dolfinarium, have become dear friends since
– you know who you are!

And with some of them I still get to work on animal related activities now and then, how lucky can one be. There is so much to be grateful for!
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Photo above: Veterinarian Martin Bakker, Saskia Nieuwstraten and myself caring for an ill harbour porpoise.

For 2 years the Dolfinarium was my home, my first working experience caring for wild animals under human care and I learned so much. So many committed, wonderful, and knowledgeable people who shared their experiences, and showing such a strong work ethic.

Importantly, this first job laid very strong foundations. Understanding the responsibilities and obligations that come with caring for animals in professional care.

As any job it came with many positives and some challenges, many laughs and some tears, overall an amazing time I still think fondly of.
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Photo above: Stranded harbour porpoises can differ quite a bit not only in personality but also age. Sometimes we had to protect the little ones from the older and stronger animals when playing and interactions became a little too much relative to their stages of recovery.

As I write this so many other stories, memories and details of animals and people surface, bringing more smiles to my face. So many more things to write about.

Thank you for reading and wishing you much passion, love and joy in your life and work,


PS: Actually, this is not exactly ‘How it all began’ as being positively obsessed with animals and nature started much earlier than 1992 but I will tell you about that some other time!