Helping people to care for our ocean

An innovative in-house training program.

By: Gabrielle Harris and Debbie Kuhn

QUESTION:  How do you develop staff to be a jack of all trades

CHALLENGE:  Not only is competence required.  Passion, purpose based on conservation and love for animals is also a basic fundamental to work in this environment.

COMPLICATION:  Staff are from a multitude of backgrounds and cultures.

ANSWER:  An innovative in-house training program

Staff in the mammal and bird department of uShaka Sea World are paid to care for amazing dolphins, seals, penguins and parrots.  To achieve this end, they not only need to love what they do, but be qualified in a multitude of skills which includes being talented to inspire each other and the guests who visit our park.

Key Performance Areas for the job include

  • Taking care of animals
  • Behaviour Management of animals
  • Taking care of the environment in which animals live
  • Presenting animals to guests with a view to inspiring conservation in public

Each skill requires very varied theoretical knowledge and practical insight.  In the department, there is a career path.  Opportunity to progress from entry level to more senior positions means they need to master all elements of what we do.  Everything from rehabilitating a penguin that washes up in distress, to taking care of young and elderly animals to entertaining and educating school groups to enriching lives of dolphins and parrots, to proactively ensuring the health and well-being of all means there needs to be varied insight.  Staff need to understand how to project their voices, use body language in front of audiences, be passionate about conservation, have insight into different diseases that threaten the animals and even what blood values mean. 

And the list goes on and on.

Primary is staff safety.  Many previously disadvantaged people are not good at swimming, and need to be taught to be highly able in the water.  We offer the lessons and assess the progress.

Taking care of animals is specific to the species we are looking after.  One does not look after a dog and a cat in the same way. The principles are the same, however the physiology and natural history of the animals means that their care needs to be customised. Staff need to have an understanding of the species.  We are also always learning new things in our industry.  We are connected to international experts through association with various groups, specialists and scientists.  Therefore, staff need to learn how to do research and how to implement and master new technology as it arises.  From the basics to strategizing new process – requires innovation, ingenuity, flexibility, and most of all, passion to do right by the animals for which we care so deeply.  Interfacing with veterinary specialists is part of the work we do.  Understanding their language and translating their direction into practical implementation is all part and parcel of the skill required.

Behaviour management is a science.  Looking after animals means we need to understand the effect that the environment, staff and social groupings have on the animal.  Animals need to be appropriately stimulated and have the ability to exercise their natural behaviours.  They also need to be trained to work with us to help us look after them.  And of course, when we present them to our guests, we need to ensure we do so in a way that inspires the guests.  Psychology is a vital competency to ensure that we achieve our goal.  Once again, reading, researching and staying abreast of current trends requires skill that is greater than simply doing what one is told.  Questioning and critical thinking are part and parcel of effective training and enrichment.

Taking care of the environment is essentially ensuring the life support system for the animal is monitored.  Their water is filtered and kept appropriately clean.  This needs to be measured and maintained, and liaison with our technical team facilitated to be factual and effective.  Hygiene is not only done, it is understood, and hence a whole different microbiology skill set is theoretically understood by the team.

Presenting to guests may appear fun.  However it is commonly known that one of the greatest fears for most humans is public speaking.  Public speaking is a part of the job that people in this department are expected to do well.  New staff, to ensure that they fit directly into the team, are tasked, for their first assignment to do a sober karaoke performance for fellow staff.  From here their dramatic art training will intensify.

Besides the clear competencies, there are other important traits that we need to develop.  Team skills, mentoring, openness to feedback and desire to succeed are a few of these.

So – how did we rise to the challenge of achieving this arduous task?  Almost 20 years ago, we put together an in-house training program.  Over the years this has developed into a streamlined certification process that takes staff six years to complete.  They study and learn as they work.  Every year they have the opportunity to achieve a new level in the certification.  When they complete the course, they are qualified to become curators of animal collections.  This has led to a number of our staff over the years being granted senior positions in other facilities around the world. 

The certification process includes training staff in a variety of ways.  Many are sent to experience other animal care processes so they can gain objective insight into how the different competencies are relevant to what we do.  Annual assignments on a variety of topics are expected.  Practical assessments are objectively assessed in all relevant disciplines.  Exams measure theoretical knowledge.

We are really proud of the process.  It is tantamount to a tertiary qualification.  It is a way to motivate and educate staff, which is good for them, and for the department, which – is good for the animals and for conservation.