Paddock to pool, trainer job-hops

April 17, 1995|By Ross Peddicord | Ross Peddicord,Sun Staff Writer

The woman dangling a fish in front of an obedient dolphin at the National Aquarium also might be training your next winner at Pimlico.

Trish Phelps, 25, is Baltimore's "Galloping Mammalogist," a former bio-psychology major at UMBC whose dual careers combine her talents with her love of animals.

By dawn, Phelps exercises thoroughbreds at Laurel Park, assisting trainer Graham Motion as an exercise rider.

She guides the horses through their morning calisthenics, harnessing their desire to run into a systematic, rhythmic training pattern that not only makes them responsive to their riders, but keeps them competitive enough to want to reach the finish line first.

By midafternoon, Phelps has changed from jeans and paddock boots into swimwear and a wet suit. She is one of about a dozen men and women involved in the dolphin training program at the National Aquarium in Baltimore.

Four to five times a day, Phelps participates in the dolphin shows at the aquarium, helping put the marine mammals through a 25-minute series of tricks and acrobatics before packed crowds.

On cue from a series of hand signals and body movements, the dolphins squeak and chirp, shake their fins, feather backward and leap from the water in unison.

All goes without a hitch if the animals are on their best behavior.

But there is Nani, Phelps said, a 22-year-old dolphin with an intake of 10,929 calories a day, "who can take you to the cleaners. She's very challenging."

Instead of obediently following her trainers, Nani, the dominant female in the pool, occasionally asserts her independence.

In a way, Phelps said, Nani is like Waqueen, one of the thoroughbred fillies she works with.

"Every morning, Waqueen has to get her buck in, and sometimes that buck can last up to a sixteenth of a mile," Phelps said.

Phelps also is involved in some of the less glamorous, behind-the-scenes activities at the aquarium. She fills the pails of mackerel and herring that are fed as rewards to the dolphins at training sessions and shows, logs the dolphins' carefully monitored activities into a computer and dons scuba gear to clean algae from the tanks.

Phelps said that since she was a child she has had an affinity for training large animals. She was riding a pony by the age of 3 or 4.

"But by the time I was 6, I knew I wanted to work with dolphins," she said. "I was completely fascinated with them after my parents would take me to marine parks or exhibits to see them. But it's easier to ride horses than to be around dolphins, so I kept up my riding and then worked as a volunteer and eventually as an intern at the aquarium during high school and college.

"Dolphins are my career. It will take years, but I hope to one day work my way up to being a curator [head trainer]. I exercise the horses in the morning simply because I love it. It's fun and it's a way of relaxing and staying in shape."

Phelps' co-workers attribute her ability to get along with the animals -- who are asked to perform in an unnatural environment either at the track or in a tank -- to her even temperament and kind disposition.

"The worst thing I've ever heard her say, even if she's been bucked off a horse, is 'He's a real butthead,' " said Anita Motion, Phelps' morning galloping partner and the wife of the trainer. "She's always cheerful."

Said Graham Motion: "She's also not intimidated by the tough ones."

At the aquarium, positive reinforcement is used to train the dolphins. Trainers teach them right from wrong by using a series of three-second timeouts if they do something incorrectly, and rewards such as toys, rubdowns, food and tickles on the tongue if they are good.

Phelps finds positive reinforcement works with horses, too.

"They are all individuals, and you have to let them be individuals," she said. "You learn all their little tricks, the things xTC they try to get away with, and you find ways to reinforce them when what they're doing is correct."

She finds that she has more control with a horse "because you're on his back. After all, you can't hop into the water with a dolphin."

The shows at the aquarium, Phelps said, display the agility, grace and power of the dolphins.

It's the same sort of feeling many racing fans say they get from watching thoroughbreds run.

Only you can't put $2 on a dolphin to win.

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