My husband, me, and my daughter in my ultimate happy place.
Nancy, How did you end up as the President of DPMMR?
There are no dolphins in Kentucky.
I know this because I was born in Lexington, KY. As a child, my family moved around a lot, but if you ask me where I’m from I will say Louisville, KY because that’s where my family currently resides.
However, I actually consider Miami, FL to be my hometown, where I spent my formative years from 3-10. Miami inspired my passion for the ocean and for marine mammals. On any given weekend, you could find me dragging my family to the beach, Miami Seaquarium, Sea World, or Theater of the Sea. You could say I was (am) a marine mammal addict. We ended up in Knoxville, TN for my middle school years, where I also fell in love with the mountains, but still longed for the ocean, and then Kansas City, MO for high school years, where, again, I yearned for the sea. During college at Emory University in Atlanta, GA, I finally got a taste of the ocean when I volunteered for the Dolphin Project, a 10-year population survey of bottlenose dolphins along the coast of Georgia. This sealed the deal. I was hooked. I knew I wanted to work with dolphins in some capacity. However, after graduating with a Bachelor of Science degree (co-major in Biology and Human and Natural Ecology), there were no magical dolphin jobs awaiting me, nor were there dolphins in Kentucky. (Funny how that works)
Now, I love all animals: dogs, cats, horses, raptors, wolves, elephants, great apes, and more. You name it, I love it. But there is something incredibly intriguing to me about dolphins that had me captivated. Realizing that dolphins were not in my immediate future, after graduation, I moved back to where my family lived in Louisville, KY – where there are no dolphins – and got a job as a veterinary technician at a small animal hospital. This job taught me more than I could ever imagine about veterinary medicine, animal behavior, exotic animal species, and dealing with and managing people. Inspired by larger animals, I began working for an equine vet (after several years at the small animal hospital), and was then hired at Kentucky Veterinary Specialists Hospital, where I learned more about oncology, radiology, theriogenology, and opthamology. Coming from a family with a medical background, I realized felt at home in the veterinary world. Yet, there was still something nagging at me. This love of dolphins.
Using my old-school dial up internet, I researched a few dolphin facilities and sent resumes to Sea World and Dolphins Plus, simultaneously. I got an interview and swim test at Sea World right away, but did not land the job. One week later, I received a call from Dolphins Plus Oceanside, asking me to come down for a two-day interview. I flew down and almost cried the first time I laid eyes on the dolphins. I knew this is where I was meant to be. To my surprise, I got the job, jumped at the opportunity, and moved my entire life and two dogs down to the Keys in two weeks.
Learning from the best teachers... the dolphins.
This was (is) my happy place. I could feel it. Not only were the dolphins more incredible than I could have ever imagined, but the staff was warm, empathetic, and inspirational. My new family. I began my dream career working with the resident dolphins in the Natural Swim (snorkel program), which taught me everything I needed to know and more about dolphin body language, and greatly assists in deciphering dolphin behavior. This swim allows you to dive underwater into the world of the dolphins, where you immediately learn that humans are awkward swimmers. However, if you listen to the dolphins and study them closely, they will teach you how to immerse yourself into their realm and become mesmerized by their sights, sounds, and behavior. I learned so much in the first few years of working at Dolphins Plus and then just when you think you know it all, the dolphins teach you that you know nothing, and you have a lot to learn.
You know how you know something’s meant to be? Well, in addition to acquiring my dream job and feeling like I had won the lottery becoming a dolphin trainer, I also met the man of my dreams at Dolphins Plus. Kismet is a thing. A real thing. I started the job in 1998 and we were married in 2001. He likes to tell people that he hired me, and then he married me, but I am hopeful that my qualifications and the other person interviewing me, had something to do with me acquiring the job. He taught me an incredible amount of information about dolphins and still teaches me to this day.
Happily Married for Nearly 20 Years!
I was lucky enough to also participate in our rescue work with sick and injured whales and dolphins. I remember the first stranding I participated in, involving 50+ bottlenose dolphins in Long Key. I knew nothing, but followed directions and learned on the job. Nothing warmed my heart more than watching those animals safely return to their ocean home. This was followed by occasional rescue work involving pilot whales, rough toothed dolphins, and manatees. Year two of my career at Dolphins Plus embarked me on a lesson in hands on training with the sea lions and then the dolphins. Year three I earned an Animal Care and Training Supervisor title, managing staff and animals, and then year 5, I became the Director of Training. I realized at this stage in my career, that everything happens for a reason, as I began using my veterinary experience on a regular basis to help draw blood on the dolphins and become more involved in their medical care.
Being a dolphin trainer prepared me for the best job in the world, being a mother!
Despite working full time and being a wife and a mom, I decided to go back to school as an adult (OMG) and get my Masters degree in Marine Biology and Fisheries at the University of Miami RSMAS, with a focus in marine mammals. Why? Because you can never stop learning. Fast-forward to year 22 and I can honestly say that I learn every day and have learned more in the last two and half years than I ever thought possible.
January 1, 2018, Dolphins Plus Oceanside converted to a not for profit called Dolphins Plus Marine Mammal Responder (DPMMR) and suddenly I was propelled to the position of President of this newly not for profit organization. Once again, just when you think you know some things, you realize you know zero things…. and you never stop learning. The last few years have been years of growth and resilience for the organization and for me, personally.
What have you learned recently that has impacted you the most?
Hurricanes are devastating physically, financially, and emotionally. Only the heartbeats matter. Life is better without clutter. You can do almost anything with a roll of duct tape and tie wire. The Keys are a tight community full of people who care. DPMMR has the BEST volunteers and supporters …. seriously….ever. The DPMMR family is small, but mighty and we can survive anything.
Maybe when a storm rolls in we should follow the path of the dolphins’? Stay together, tucked under one another, because we are stronger together. Stay low. Only come up for air when it’s calm. Keep moving forward and love each other.
What are you most proud of?
I am proud of our amazing resident dolphins and how they teach humans everyday. I am proud of my amazing team of peeps who give everything they have to our dolphin family. I am proud to have the best swim with the dolphin program (hands down) anywhere in the world. I am proud of our rescue organization and all of the paid and unpaid individuals who make rescues happen. I am proud of the level of education and research accomplished regularly at DPMMR. I am proud that we have survived Hurricane Irma and the Corona virus (so far) and we are still smiling. I am incredibly proud of the DPMMR family and how far we have come.