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Find out what Colby-Sawyer alumni have been up to since graduation.

Currents: marine mammal trainer

The Brookfield Zoo

Visitors have loved coming to Brookfield Zoo, managed by the Chicago Zoological Society, since it opened in 1934. The CZS seeks to inspire conservation leadership by connecting people with wildlife and nature, and it has an international reputation for taking a cutting-edge role in animal care and conservation of the natural world. Among its historical firsts are indoor multi-species exhibits, zoo nutrition residencies, methods for animal husbandry, and medical care that includes successful brain surgery for a gorilla.

Today, there is an increasing need for conservation leaders to guide, teach and motivate people to protect the world's threatened wildlife and ecosystems. In addition to conservationists, the society inspires and engages children, students, teachers and others among the general public to make a positive impact on the natural world around them. From protecting regional wilderness to creating environmental stewardship through zoo interactions and educational opportunities, from guiding future scientists to pioneering global conservation efforts, the society sits at the apex of care for animals and their habitats.

In the Splash Zone

As she stands on the pool's edge in a wet suit and rubber booties, a whistle in her mouth and a bucket of fish by her side, Jennifer McGee '93 radiates joy across the 2,000-seat facility. Her constant smile grows wider when Kaylee, a 15-year-old common bottlenose dolphin, shoots straight up from the water to touch Jennifer's outstretched hand. The crowd of young children and their parents cheer as Kaylee swallows her reward and prepares to demonstrate another behavior when Jennifer asks.

This is not where you would expect to find a former studio arts major. The shift from thoughts of a career teaching art to a career training marine mammals is, in fact, what Jennifer McGee calls her major left turn. Though her students swim rather than sit behind rows of desks as she once envisioned, Jennifer is confident she is exactly who and where she is supposed to be: lead keeper of the Marine Mammals Department at the 216-acre Brookfield Zoo, run by the Chicago Zoological Society just outside Chicago, Ill.

Growing up the youngest of four children in Peabody, Mass., Jennifer spent as much time outside as she could, especially during summers on a Maine lake with her bird-watching parents. Shy, she navigated teen life in a high school where her class of 650 was bigger than Colby-Sawyer was when she attended. She enjoyed and excelled in art and biology, and though a childhood trip to Sea World had awakened a desire to be a dolphin trainer, art education seemed a more feasible path.

“I was always interested in being an art teacher, but I really loved dolphins and thought dolphin training was very cool,” she says. “I didn't know how to do it, though — it's not like you can go to college and major in dolphin training — so I thought, okay, I'm going to be an art teacher; I know how to do that.”

While McGee may have been less than certain about an art career, there was no doubt in her mind that she had found the right college in which to explore her options.

“I'd just gotten a brochure from Colby-Sawyer and a friend said she'd visited and thought it was really nice, that I should check it out,” Jennifer recalls. “As we were driving up, my dad kept saying, 'We can't afford this place, don't get your hopes up, we can't send you here,' but as soon we drove in I fell in love — with the town and its picturesque New England setting, with the small college feel, everything. And it was funny because my dad had that same experience with me as we walked around the campus. After the tour I looked at him and said, 'Dad, this is it, I have to come here', and he just said, 'We will find a way.'”

Finding a Way

To her surprise Jennifer's voice cracks while sharing this memory, but she recovers quickly. “It was funny because my dad was not like that, but he was adamant when he said, 'Nope, you're going, we'll make it work.' I don't know why I'm being sappy,” she laughs, adding that her father is alive and well, “but it was a big deal for my family; neither of my parents went to college and I was the first to go straight through without starting and stopping and starting again.”

A ceramics and printmaking student, Jennifer was a sophomore racking up the arts credits when she went to the New England Aquarium on one of her frequent visits. That time, she happened to talk with a staff member who told her that most people start out in the field of dolphin training as a volunteer. Adding, or switching to, a biology major wasn't possible if she wanted to graduate with her class, but by the time she graduated from Colby-Sawyer, Jennifer was SCUBA certified and had spent three summers at the New England Aquarium volunteering in the marine mammal training area and Marine Animal Rescue Program.

Jennifer decided to give dolphin training a shot, promising herself that if after a year she didn't have a job, she'd go back to the art teacher plan. Holding out for a full-time training position, she applied all over the United States and landed one in Rapid City, S.D., far from any ocean.

After three years in South Dakota working with seals, sea lions and, eventually, dolphins, Jennifer moved on to Brookfield Zoo to work in a larger institution where she could learn more and propel her career forward.

Jennifer earned her master's degree in biology from Western Illinois University and has just celebrated her 12th anniversary at Brookfield Zoo. She moves “a million miles an hour,” as she says, through days that adhere to a strict schedule of training sessions (five for dolphins, three for seals and sea lions) and performances that each require a change from the khaki zoo uniform to a wet suit; husbandry; and all the paperwork involved with overseeing a staff of ten trainers and the animals.

Addictive Communication

“Every day around here is really controlled chaos; there's always something going on,” Jennifer says. “Right now we have two new staff members we're training, and it can take awhile to get them up to speed, though I really like training new staff. When that settles down probably a new animal will come in or something. There's always an iron in the fire — there's no such thing as normal here.”

While the interactions between animal and trainer are all play and based on positive reinforcement training, the days are also hard work for the trainers. In the maze-like area below the dolphin pool, one trainer scrubs and hoses down the enormous coolers where fish is stored for the marine mammals' meals. Another trainer reaches for a clipboard to record how her dolphin performed in the show, noting behaviors performed, energy levels and pounds of fish consumed. Others, who have already changed from wet suits back to their zoo uniform of khaki polo shirts and pants tucked into rubber boots, prepare food or get ready to scrub the unstoppable algae from the pools. The dolphins' assistance has been requested with an unusual marriage proposal the next day, so Jennifer leads a strategy session on that, assigning dolphins to trainers and choreographing the operation.

Though actually the shortest part of her day, interacting with the animals is her favorite, and it doesn't matter with what species. “I'll tell you that whoever is in front of me is my favorite because there are great things about all of them,” Jennifer says. “When I'm working with the animals or talking about them, that's the best part of the job.

“Training is really exciting when you have a breakthrough because you're basically trying to communicate to another species, and you don't speak the same language, so you have to be very clear and concise. When all of a sudden you see that light bulb go on and the animal gets it, and you've made that breakthrough of communication, it's really rewarding. It's very exciting. And it's addictive,” she laughs. “Now we want to train everything. That's actually what's happened in the marine mammal field in general. People who have been in it for years have started branching out to other species of zoo animals and doing the really positive training that's rewarding for the animals and the staff in all areas of the zoo. We have a curator of behavioral husbandry here who works with training in all departments; we train our gorillas and hoofstock and it's really enriching and stimulating.”

A Standout Student

Associate Professor of Natural Sciences Ben Steele, whose own area of expertise includes animal behavior, can still remember where Jennifer sat in his classroom, and it doesn't surprise him that his former student has made it in the competitive world of animal training.

“Jen was obviously interested in biology and animal behavior,” Steele recalls. “She stood out. I remember her as curious and outdoorsy. I knew her goal was to be a dolphin trainer, and so many people say that that you kind of think, Well, good luck, but it says a lot about Jen's perseverance and talent that she actually did it. Her story is exactly what you would expect from a liberal arts education. We teach students to be critical and creative thinkers who can speak in public. The specific major isn't as important as the lessons of thinking in a wide range of areas.”

Colby-Sawyer started accepting male students when Jennifer was a sophomore, and the small classes and individualized education that all students receive today were still, at that time, charged with helping women develop their self-esteem and self-confidence.

“After going to a really big high school outside Boston, getting to that small-class environment where I could actually have conversations with my professors was really important,” Jennifer says. “I was shy, believe it or not, and being at Colby-Sawyer certainly developed my self-esteem and self-confidence. If it hadn't, I'd be in trouble now, since I work in front of thousands of people every day.

“I really think the art degree helped me a lot even though it was not what I ended up going into. As a senior art major, you have to produce enough work to come up with your own show. It makes you develop initiative and responsibility and problem-solving skills — we had maybe six seniors graduating with fine arts degrees that year and we had to fill the entire gallery, so that was kind of a first taste of the real world. I ended up staying on campus for spring break; everyone else went off to fun places and I was working in my studio all night and all day trying to come up with new things for my show.”

Professor of Fine and Performing Arts Jon Keenan, who came to Colby-Sawyer in 1990 and counts Jennifer among his first students, remembers her fondly and well as a focused, dedicated student and a compassionate person.

“Jennifer made wonderful [art] pieces. Her interest and passion for art and science informed her desire to find connections and discover the interconnectedness of knowledge,” says Keenan. “Her work life's journey illustrates beautifully that Colby-Sawyer graduates create rewarding professional opportunities and find interesting fields of study to pursue. I'm so happy that Jennifer works in a field she loves.”

Love it she does, and, after 15 years in the field, like any teacher, she often encounters former students, albeit of the animal variety.

Animal Love

“There are a lot of zoos with a lot of animals, but it's still kind of a small world and there are some great stories,” Jennifer says, getting excited. “Take Scooter here, he's a harbor seal who was actually born at the facility where I worked in South Dakota — I helped name him. When that facility was sold the animals went everywhere. A couple years later I went out to Mystic Aquarium in Connecticut — we were going to take some of their fur seals for a while — and they kept talking about these harbor seals, Rocky and Scooter, and I thought, Scooter? Wait a minute … and it was him! And I had worked with Rocky, too; it turned out that three of the animals from South Dakota had ended up there, so I got to see them all. A few years later we needed a male harbor seal and Scooter came here on breeding loan, so that was really fun for me; we're reunited. Oh, I could sing a cheesy love song … he's a good guy.”

While Jennifer really does love her animals like children and students — she even has plans to meet up with some dolphin acquaintances in Florida on an upcoming vacation — there's more to her than animal training.

“I do have a life outside of work, though this is a really important part of who I am. It's a career, not just a job,” she says, “and Brookfield Zoo is a great facility to work for that really puts its money where its mouth is regarding conservation, which I appreciate. They have been very good to me, supporting me through my master's degree, and I've been all over the country with animal transports and for conferences. They support my work with the sea lion stud book and all the work I do with the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, too.”

Beyond the zoo and its satellite activities, Jennifer trains for sprint-distance triathlons, something she's done for nine years. She predicts those who knew her back in the day will find that amusing because, she says, she was so “unathletic” in college.

“I own my own home, which I spent several years remodeling myself, and I love to garden,” Jennifer says. “I'm also very involved with my church. I lead a women's group, kind of a Bible study-type thing, and I think that goes back to my days at Colby-Sawyer and seeing how important it is to invest in women and build their self-esteem and confidence. That's something I really have a heart for.”

While at Colby-Sawyer, Jennifer frequently attended Our Lady of Fatima, and she fondly remembers the art students working with New London author and artist Tomie dePaola to paint Christmas decorations for the town. She also led campus tours as a member of the Key Club, a departure from her shy high-school persona.

“Colby-Sawyer was small and it was easy to get involved. I gained confidence,” she says. “That was built up in me at Colby-Sawyer; the college put a lot of emphasis on saying, 'You can do it, you can do whatever you want, just work hard.' That transition happened for me in part because it was a safe place to be who you are.”

After the zoo closes for the day, in an office area with windows into the dolphin pool, the mammals that inspired a young girl to follow a dream slide by the glass, rolling and spinning. Jennifer emerges from the locker room where she has showered and made her final wardrobe change of the day.

“I was just trying to figure out why I was so emotional before when we were talking about Colby-Sawyer and the time my dad and I went to look at it,” she says. “And I think it's because it was just one of those moments when I knew I was supposed to be somewhere. I think if I hadn't gone to Colby-Sawyer my life wouldn't be what it is. I was in the right place at the right time. I just knew I was supposed to go there.”

As she walks out the door, a dolphin slows to watch her exit, then glides out of sight.

-Kate Dunlop Seamans