Guests visiting the Aquarium on any given day will see team members feeding animals, cleaning habitats, preparing enrichment, and answering questions. These team members, our animal trainers, ensure every animal is receiving the best care every day. Their passion for the animals they care for shines through in every aspect of their job. They share a special bond with the animals they work with, sometimes spending more time with them than they do their own families.
Katie Flammer, senior trainer, animal training - mammals and birds, knew early on in life that she wanted to be an animal trainer. Not only does Katie have a particularly strong bond with one animal she works with, she is also sharing a very special and exciting time in life with that animal.
Learn more about what an animal trainer’s day is like, and why Katie’s job is so special to her:
Q: Did you always want to be an animal trainer? Was there a moment in particular that inspired you?
Katie: I remember being inspired to get involved in the animal training field when I visited what is now called Six Flags Discovery Kingdom in Vallejo, Calif., previously known as Marine World Africa USA. I absolutely fell in love with dolphins and orca whales. Ever since that young age, I knew I wanted to one day be an animal trainer.
Q: Tell us a little bit about your career background. What types of internships and jobs did you have prior to Georgia Aquarium?
K: Prior to coming to Georgia Aquarium, I worked at a research facility in Santa Cruz, Calif. called Long Marine Laboratory. I was fortunate enough to work with bottlenose dolphins, Southern sea otters, a steller sea lion, and a Hawaiian monk seal. I learned so much about animal behavior, and helped train behaviors that would directly aid in the conservation of each species’ and their counterparts in the ocean.
Q: What is your favorite thing about your job?
K: My favorite thing about my job is building a trusting relationship with the animals and getting to communicate with animals through training behaviors. To finally have an “A-ha” moment with an animal where you both understand each other is an amazing feeling.
Q: Has there been a favorite moment for you while working at Georgia Aquarium?
K: One of my favorite moments while working at the Georgia Aquarium was when we found out that Qinu was pregnant. I was so excited to be able to share that moment with my team mates and Qinu and feel honored to have the opportunity to help care for her during her pregnancy and this next stage of her life.
Q: You work closely with Qinu. Tell us about your relationship with her. Do you have a favorite thing about working with her?
K: Out of all the animals I care for, I feel especially close with Qinu. I’ve known her for approximately six years, and have built a strong relationship with her. I really feel like we have a connection- I can typically predict her next move, or what her motivation might be like in any given session. I work hard to foster and maintain that relationship with her and its really rewarding to me that even other people have noticed our strong bond.
Q: How has Qinu’s care and training changed now that she is pregnant?
K: Qinu’s care has not changed that drastically since we found out she is pregnant. We continue to monitor her daily caloric intake to make sure she’s getting all the calories she needs, and we continue to provide her mental and physical stimulation through enrichment and a variety of training sessions. We have increased the frequency of collecting routine measurements of her body to observe her growth throughout the pregnancy and we have also increased the frequency and duration of voluntary ultrasound examinations as we monitor fetal development.
Q: What makes caring for Qinu during this time special for you?
K: It’s a particularly special time for me to care for Qinu while she’s pregnant since I am also pregnant. I feel like I can relate to whatever she’s going through (on a much smaller scale, of course!).
Q: What is your day-to-day job like helping to care for beluga whales?
K: My day-to-day job helping to care for beluga whales consists of food preparation, lots of cleaning, record-keeping, educating our guests, and ensuring we are providing the best care for our animals that we can by stimulating our animals both mentally and physically through a variety of different methods including training sessions, providing environmental enrichment items, and play/interactive sessions.
Q: Why is enrichment an important part of beluga whales’ care?
K: Enrichment is an important part of caring for beluga whales because it provides our animals with items that are meant to stimulate species specific behaviors. These natural behaviors include things such as rubbing, using foraging behaviors to spit and suck different food items out of a larger item, mimicry, social interactions, and often create a spike in general curiosity. In doing so, our Belugas remain engaged and motivated throughout their day.
Q: For anyone looking to pursue a career in the animal care field, what advice would you give them?
K: My advice for anyone looking to pursue a career in this field is to get as much hands on experience with animals as they can so they can begin to learn about animal behavior and what it takes to properly care for them. It takes a lot of dedication and perseverance, but to know that you are providing the best care possible for these awesome animals is a very rewarding feeling.