Q&A: Working With Marine Mammals

Marine Mammals: Dolphin by Cattie Coyle

Q: I would like to work in the aquatic area of massage or physical therapy with dolphins, etc. Where do I start and what kind of specialized training is available for that specific field?

Cattie Coyle and SadieAnswer by Cattie:
What an unusual and very interesting question you ask! I forwarded it to Lola Michelin because I know that she has worked with exotic animals in the past and might have an answer for you.

I also recalled having heard that Linda Tellington-Jones has used TTouch with marine mammals, and I contacted Robyn Hood, Linda’s sister who runs Tellington TTouch Canada, to check if that was in fact the case. Robyn confirmed this: “Yes, Linda worked with Keiko, the whale from Free Willie, while he was still in Mexico. He was nervous of strangers and needed a lot of veterinary care. He was very receptive to TTouch.” So that might be another option for you to look into.

Lola MichelinAnswer by Lola Michelin, Northwest School of Animal Massage:
Working with exotic species, marine mammals or otherwise, requires specialized training that can be challenging to find. There are no existing training programs currently that focus only on marine mammals in regards to massage, but there are practitioners across the globe who do work in zoos and aquariums. Here are some recommended steps, not in any particular order. My own experience working with exotics and marine mammals came out of a career stint as a zookeeper and conservation education specialist. The relationships I had established within those circles allowed me access to those animals when I chose to pursue massage full-time.

You might consider volunteering as a docent at an aquarium or marine biology research center. They are often looking for knowledgeable volunteers and this will help you establish contacts in the industry and learn more about the animals you are interested in. Some people also pursue a degree in marine biology, that may or may not fit into your plans.

Of course, you will need to pursue a program of massage education for animals if you have not already. Studying large animal massage would be the closest thing to what you are hoping to develop. Many of the skills will be similar but you will also need to find resources on marine mammal anatomy and behavior outside of your traditional program of study.

Most of the species you would potentially have access to are going to be captive animals in zoological parks or aquariums. Chance encounters with wild populations do occur but you aren’t going to be able to build a practice around that. The biggest concern from the standpoint of the people managing the animals is of course your safety and the safety of the animal. The liabilities associated with captive exotics are complex and for many institutions, prohibits them from allowing anyone to have close contact with the animals that is not an employee or hired contractor. If you are going to pursue work in these areas, you are going to need to establish a business that can be contracted and be willing to adhere to contractual considerations put forth by the zoo or aquarium. This is even more true in the United States, you may find that other countries have more opportunities for folks outside of their employ. I did a good amount of my dolphin and whale work in New Zealand where the situation was far different than here in the U.S.

Good luck pursuing your dream. It is doable and very rewarding. There are unique challenges and adventure to your path, but well worth the effort!

(NWSAM offers massage classes for exotics but currently these classes are only taught within certain zoological parks to qualified staff or to zookeepers.)

Amy SnowAnswer by Amy Snow, Tallgrass Animal Acupressure Institute:
We have someone who has graduated from our program that has done some work with dolphins. As we were told, after studying the dolphin’s anatomy at the library, she was working with one dolphin in the tank doing specific acupressure points. After she was done, another dolphin went over to the ailing dolphin and did exactly the same points as she had done with his nose. These are very smart and intuitive animals. Your job is to learn acupressure-massage, give a demo, and the dolphins will do the rest!

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