The next time you’re around a group of six- and seven-year-olds, ask them what they want to be when they grow up and see how many respond with “dolphin trainer.” Chances are none of them will, yet that’s pretty much what Emily Schrock has been saying since she was that age.
“I have wanted to be a marine mammal trainer since the first grade when we did a unit on whales and dolphins,” remembers Schrock, who graduated from EIU a year ago with a bachelor’s degree in Biological Sciences.
“It REALLY stuck with me all of those years, so in high school and college I did some interactions at zoos and aquariums to help solidify that that is what I wanted to do.”
So it should come as no surprise that Schrock is now at the Institute for Marine Mammal Studies in Gulfport, Miss., working as an animal care intern with aspirations to one day parlay her experience there into a career in the same field. IMMS is home to four dolphins, four sea lions and four parrot species.
“Whether it’s dolphins, sea lions, orcas, belugas, et cetera,” explained Schrock. “Working with the animals is what I really aspire to do. This internship will help get me in the door to the marine mammal training community and help me learn the dos and don'ts and what work has to be done to make it in this field.”
So what exactly does Schrock, a native of Fisher, Ill., do at IMMS? From the sound of it, a whole lot.
“There is TONS of work to do,” said Schrock. “Cleaning the bird house/cages and food prep, fish prep in the morning for all of the dolphins and sea lions, cleaning the sea lion house, and cleaning the fish kitchen. During the day there are three bird sessions, four dolphin sessions, and three sea lion sessions, so the fish have to be thawed for the dolphins and sea lions.”
Water quality for pools housing animals is also required on an hourly basis, ensuring ideal chlorine and pH levels. And of course there are actual interactions with the animals.
“During dolphin sessions, we work alongside the trainers,” said Schrock, who is also tasked with making enrichment toys for birds and dolphins to help keep their minds sharp. “Mostly observing, but as you get farther in the internship you get to help work with training. We also observe the bird and sea lion sessions.
“We’ve been getting in the water every day with the dolphins to help prepare them for interaction season, which is when guests pay to get in the water and do sessions with them. I have also started narrating the sea lion presentations to the public tours that come through.”
Every other week, interns also get the opportunity to spend time in the helping in IMMS’s vet/stranding and research departments. Work in the vet department might involve caring for rehabilitating turtles -- or dolphins if there are any -- and participation in stranding calls for live (or dead) dolphins and turtles in the Mississippi Gulf Coast. There are also necropsies on dolphins that come in when needed.
Some days in the research department include day-long boat trips to survey different areas of the gulf for dolphin populations, taking photos to include in a database to help identify them. When they’re not in a boat, interns stay and help with picture identification.
“Even though I'm mostly just observing, it's great to get to know the personalities of all of the animals and to watch them think through the learning process,” said Schrock. “Needless to say, there is A LOT to do. I am always on my feet and keeping busy, but it's a lot of fun to work with such great people and animals.”
There was actually a time when Schrock had to wonder if such a physically taxing career was even possible; during her time at Eastern, she underwent five knee surgeries over a 2 ½-year period and elected to sit out the 2011-12 academic year while she recuperated.
“I have had this goal/dream for a long time, and for those couple of years with my knee I wasn't sure it was going to happen,” remembers Schrock. “But I finally got it fixed and graduated and set out applying to different internships. This is the one that accepted me.”
The knee issues may have given Schrock pause to question whether she’d be able to realize her career dreams, but she says she never questioned her decision to attend EIU.
“College brought out a whole new person in me,” said Schrock, whose time as an undergrad included a study abroad class on subtropical and marine ecology and an “amazing” summer internship studying gray whales in British Columbia.
“As soon as I got to EIU, I knew it was the place for me. College taught me to be myself and to keep continuing to pursue that goal no matter what, and the things I learned in the field work of many science classes also helped prepare me for a lot of things I will be experiencing in this field as well.”