Even when you're surrounded by thousands of beautiful, exotic fish all day, there's still nothing quite like that mammal-to-mammal feeling.
And no warmblooded vertebrates with hair know that feeling better than Jenny Theodorou and Debbie Prevratil. The pair are mammalogists at the Aquarium of the Pacific in Long Beach, which opens Saturday.
Ticket-buying land mammals can witness a heartwarming encounter between the handlers and their plucky sea mammals at least twice a day. Lugging buckets of herring and Icelandic capelins, the mammalogists will trot out in their calf-high black rubber boots and hand-feed the aquarium's seven California sea lions and harbor seals.
"I love the animals, and I love my job," says Theodorou, 28, the aquarium's senior mammalogist.
Though it sounds like the dream job of a sitcom character, Theodorou and Prevratil claim there's a lot more to it than sunshine, seasides, highly intelligent animals and smiling every morning on their way to work. In fact, a mammalogist's dander gets up ever so slightly at the suggestion that his or her seaside occupation is all fun and games.
"People have a lot of misconceptions about our jobs," Theodorou says. "They think all we do is swim with dolphins and play with sea lions all day."
Apparently, there is no dolphin or sea lion swimming for these mammalogists. But there are plenty of other demanding tasks in caring for the crowd-pleasing sea animals.
For starters, there's feeding, which is no day at the beach. The animal's food routine can take on an almost Dr. Suess-like rhythm: sort fish, clean fish, load fish, feed fish.
The mammalogists pick through hundreds of pounds of semi-frozen fish each day checking for eye discoloration, broken skin or anything else that could potentially pass along an illness to the sea lions or seals.
"I won't feed these animals anything I wouldn't eat myself," Theodorou says.
After the fish are deemed edible, a bullet-sized vitamin for the mammals is jammed into the mouths of some.
"They wouldn't eat these pills straight; they'd spit them out just like a kid would," says Theodorou.
Feeding time can sometimes mean playing psychologist more than mammalogist. One recent morning saw a routine feeding turn into a titanic test of wills when a sea lion named Dino was misbehaving.
Dino, who can eat up to 24 pounds of fish a day and weighs about 250 pounds, was disrupting his tank-mates' lunch hour. In spite of mammalogists barking at him to knock it off, Dino kept chasing Verne, another sea lion, and trying to steal extra food.
Frustrated, the mammalogists finally suspended his feeding and retreated from the 206,000-gallon tank area.
"[Dino's] a typical teenager," says Prevratil. "He's trying to assert his dominance, but we don't want to reward his bad behavior."
After feeding, it's cleanup time in the kitchen. Scrubbing buckets, sinks and floors. Also, for health purposes, a detailed log must be maintained listing exactly what the animals eat each day.
"It ain't all glitz and glamour," jokes Prevratil.
By the end of a day's work, a mammalogist usually smells more like a fish than a mammal. Luckily for them, the mammalogists are around fish so much, they're practically immune to the odor.
Unfortunately for them, others are not.
"I had my hairdresser say, 'Oooh, what's that smell?' " laughs Theodorou. "I said I had no idea."
"Yeah," adds Prevratil. "I use a lot of heavy-scented bath and body oils, and it can still be embarrassing."
Apart from basic training, the mammalogists won't spend their time teaching the seals, sea lions or sea otters tricks. While a couple animals have performance backgrounds, most of the aquarium's mammals were rescued by marine rehabilitation centers and would not be able to survive in the wild today.
"The idea is to show the animals in their most natural behavior," says Theodorou. "We don't want to have them jumping through hoops."
Theodorou began jumping through hoops of her own to work with sea mammals after reading a 1992 National Geographic article that focused on endangered species. Within a couple years, the UC Berkeley graduate relocated to Hawaii and began research on the endangered Hawaiian monk seal--so named for its preference for solitude and a blubbery layer that resembles a monk's robe.
It was hard to leave tranquil Hawaii for frenetic Los Angeles, and even harder to leave behind her favorite monk seal, Nuka Au, which means "sleek swimmer" in Hawaiian.
"I'd love to think he knew me and that he'll miss me when I'm gone," Theodorou says. "But I know when I had the [feed] bucket I was a lot more popular than when I didn't."
Prevratil knew exactly what she wanted to do with her professional life by age 7 when she saw a dolphin show.
"I just knew right there and then that's what I wanted to do. And basically that's what I've been doing ever since," says Prevratil, 35, who worked with dolphins at Knott's Berry Farm for eight years before joining the aquarium's three-mammalogist staff.
In addition to loving their jobs, Theodorou and Prevratil never have to take work home with them. Although for Theodorou, it may seem like she never leaves work--she lives in Seal Beach.
"I couldn't resist the irony," she says.
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What, Where and When
Aquarium of the Pacific, 100 Aquarium Way, Long Beach.
Hours: 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. daily.
Admission: Adults, $13.95; seniors, $11.95; children (3-11), $6.95.
Information: (562) 590-3100.
Web site: http://www.aquariumofpacific.org.