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A special world, filled with aquatic games, dolphins’ smiles and sea splashes

Training with dolphins

A special world, filled with aquatic games, dolphins’ smiles and sea splashes

It’s a full time job looking after the sea mammals at Minsk’s Nemo Dolphinarium. Those who care for the animals have to love the aroma of fish and feel comfortable in a wetsuit. Among the ‘artistic inmates’ are fur seals Goroshek and Yelochka, sea lion Nicolas, and five Pacific bottle-nosed dolphins: Gerkules, Vita, Hugo, Dzhun and Taka. All enjoy showing off before an audience.

Senior coach Yevgeny Fishchuk tells us more.

What’s the difference between the work of a coach and an animal trainer?

An animal trainer uses a system of rewards and punishments while coaches base their training on the interests of the animal. We do not force dolphins to do anything. They swim for a while, playing with the cheerful two-legged creature, who likes to stroke, scratch, feed and entertain them. It’s fascinating to build a close relationship with an animal, although certainly not easy. Your bond must be based on more than extra feeding; rather, you need to rely on amusing the animal you’re working with. They like to jump and dance, so we simply reveal their natural disposition. Dolphins become bored easily, so you have to be inventive, or they’ll just swim away.

How do you communicate with animals in a language clear to them?

We learn dolphin language! In truth, dolphins have a slightly higher IQ than humans, so they perfectly understand gestures. To show them a point in space, we use a long pole, as an extension of our hand. Each coach has a whistle, which is audible even underwater. Our other methods are a trade secret, transferred from senior coach to pupils...

Dolphinarium shows always inspire great emotions in the audience, regardless of age or disposition. Even serious men in suits are moved, although some complain about being splashed. Others are disappointed not to have gotten wet!  Of course, the coaches’ foremost concern is to protect the dolphins from harm. They sometimes have to stop mid-show to remove undesirable items thrown into the 5m deep pool: popcorn, bread rolls, cookies, bottles — even car keys! Naturally, this disrupts the performance, so audiences are warned beforehand. Likewise, there are strict rules to follow when swimming with dolphins. Placing your fingers into their eyes or mouth is never wise, and you should be careful not to scratch or bite them. The coaches do their best to train the dolphins to return any ‘foreign’ items found in the pool though, giving a ‘fishy treat’ in exchange: best quality sea fish, frozen right after being caught.

On average, dolphins consume about 12kg of fish daily, varying by sex, age, weight, and physiological state. Fish are carefully defrosted, examined and cut up before being offered, to ensure that nothing harmful is present.

There are few days-off when caring for animals at Minsk’s Nemo Dolphinarium, who demand full-time attention from their coaches

Yevgeny, how long is your working day?

It varies by day, given tasks, the state of the animals and, even, their mood. There are days when we’re all tired: pupils and staff. When that happens, it’s best to call it a day. At other times, you arrive at 9am and stay until midnight, wanting to spend time with the animals after a show, swimming together, relaxing or, seeing that they are keen to work, taking advantage to learn a new routine. Staff on night duty might sometimes notice something unusual, in which case we return, being on 24-hour call. Quite often, we only return home to sleep, and then dream of our ‘pets’.

Each artiste has their own coach, who knows their character, habits and abilities intimately. These experts understand their charge’s mood. While a skilled expert can work with any dolphin, the animals themselves only ‘trust’ their handler, and can be aggressive if they feel threatened.

Yevgeny recalls, “Sometimes, ridiculous situations happen. Once, while working with sea lion Nicolas, I broke the bones in my foot. To get round the problem [of needing to appear with his charge], I appeared in a pirate costume, with a crutch, so the audience would think it was all part of the show!”

No special education is needed for the job of coaching animals; most importantly, you need to have true love for them and the ability to interact, as well as being willing to devote yourself utterly. You need to be physically fit, with some courage, good health and no other occupations in life. All the rest, you can learn from senior coaches. Yevgeny graduated from the Odessa College of Arts and Culture (named after K.F. Dankevich) and the Odessa State Agrarian University. In his last year, he began working at the city dolphinarium and realised that it gave him the perfect combination: working with animals and performing on stage. He then met his wife, psychologist Yulia Fishchuk, who was keen to engage in dolphintherapy and ended by becoming a sea mammal coach too. The youngest in the team is Yelena Selivonenko, from Minsk. Just two years ago, she couldn’t even swim; after six months, she was performing in the show...

Opinions differ on the subject of dolphinariums, since some think them ‘cruel’. Coaches at the Minsk sea theatre are convinced that their work is beneficial though, since their charges are all ‘rescued’ animals who would otherwise have died. They are safe from nets and hunting and their contentment is evinced by often having offspring while living in captivity. Yulia smiles, “I’ve asked Vita to give birth to a little dolphin, but she has not agreed yet.”

By Nadezhda Dekola
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