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Changing Lanes: Social Worker to Animal Trainer

CAS psychology alum trains sea lions as aqua cops


Daniell Hepting (CAS’89) with one of the California sea lions she trains for the Navy in San Diego, Calif. Photo courtesy of the Space and Naval Warfare Systems Center Pacific


How many careers does the average American worker have in a lifetime? The Bureau of Labor Statistics doesn’t keep track, but we know that millions change careers at least twice. From what to what? You’d be surprised. This week, in “Changing Lanes,” BU Today takes a five-part look at BU alums who studied for one career, but are now doing something radically different.

Daniell Hepting isn’t a criminal, but she played one last May. She was among several swimmers treading the tea-colored waters of San Francisco Bay as part of a demonstration on the city’s emergency response program. One minute she was floating freely, the next thing she knew a leg cuff had been snapped on her thigh.

The underwater “cop” who cuffed her? A California sea lion.

“It’s a lot of fun,” says Hepting (CAS’98), one of the sea lion’s trainers. “It’s almost like an advanced game of hide-and-seek.”

Hepting is an animal trainer at the Space and Naval Warfare Systems Center Pacific, in San Diego, Calif. Animal trainer ranks high among dream jobs—like astronaut, rock star, or professional sports player—kids cite on their what-I’d-like-to-be-when-I-grow-up list. Yet it wasn’t this alum’s lifelong goal.

“The seed was planted a long time ago,” says Hepting, when as a kid she saw dolphins in Pensacola, Fla. “But I didn’t really realize it was a real job you can have.”

A New Orleans native, Hepting moved north to attend Boston University, where she majored in psychology. Her first job out of college was as a receptionist, but for a long time she’d considered graduate school to train as a therapist. In 2001, she earned a master’s degree in social work from Simmons College and then worked for two years as an adolescent psychiatric social worker at Dorchester’s Caritas Carney Hospital.

On a whim, she started volunteering at the New England Aquarium in its animal interaction programs. “The training of animals is very similar to kids learning how to not do a particular behavior,” she says. Within a couple of years, she was a full-time staff member responsible for the care and training of Atlantic harbor seals, northern fur seals, and California sea lions.

She found out about the Navy’s San Diego program from former aquarium colleagues, who urged her to apply. She has been at the Point Loma base since September 2008.

The Navy facility is home to 80 bottle-nosed dolphins and 26 California sea lions trained to work in one of three areas: underwater mine detection, identification and retrieval of underwater objects, and a diver defense program like the one demonstrated in San Francisco.

Hepting trains baby sea lions, which are all male, weigh about 80 pounds, and come from places like SeaWorld Orlando or rescue and rehabilitation facilities. Under her guidance, they get used to people brushing their teeth, checking their mouths and eyes, and drawing blood. They also become accustomed to everyday activities around the naval base, like riding on boats, walking on docks, and swimming around piers or vessels.

Once they master these skills, sea lions move on to train as aqua cops or experts in detecting and tagging submerged objects. (Only the bottle-nosed dolphins are trained to identify underwater mines.) They are perfect candidates for the job, considering they can dive several hundred feet, see well in low light, and have acute directional hearing underwater.

Sea lions in the diver defense program patrol piers to identify suspicious swimmers. Once a swimmer is spotted, the sea lions speed back to their handlers’ boat and touch their nose to a paddle indicating a find. Trainers then give them a bite plate with a leg clamp attached. Within seconds, sea lions return to the intruder, affix the clamp, and book it back to the boat. “It’s very quick,” says Ann Dakis, a public affairs specialist at the base. “They’re in and out before you even know what happens.” Authorities in a nearby boat haul up the suspect by an attached cable.

Dakis can’t say how many arrests sea lions have made, only that they have a “100 percent success” rate. They were deployed with the U.S. Naval Forces Central Command in Manama, Bahrain, from 2003 to 2005 and are currently stationed at the Naval Submarine Base in King’s Bay, Ga.

Sea lions are also trained to identify fake bombs dropped by Air Force pilots during training exercises. They can either flag them to test pilot accuracy or attach a clamp to the device so it can be removed from the ocean floor.

Each time sea lions perform a task correctly they get a pat and their favorite treat—fish. Hepting calls the snack a reinforcement, not a reward. “We don’t want to indicate that they’re doing something wrong,” she explains. “We’re the ones that need to communicate the behavior we’re looking for.”

Some critics regard the training program as animal cruelty, a claim Hepting and Dakis strongly refute. Specially trained Navy divers perform all dangerous aspects of mine identification and removal. And most sea lions under the military’s care live 30 years in and around San Diego Bay, longer than they would in the wild.

“The Navy is committed to caring for them their entire lives, even if they’re not working,” says Hepting, who is a Navy contractor, but does not serve in the armed forces.

If playing with and training baby sea lions sounds like a good gig, Hepting has advice on how to get there. Find an interesting marine mammal facility, start as an intern or volunteer, and apply for open jobs. Many places hire from within.

And yes, Hepting gets paid for this: “Animal training is a real job.”

Leslie Friday can be reached at lfriday@bu.edu.

Tomorrow Changing Lanes looksat a one-time COM aspiring filmmaker who is now brewmaster at one of 1,700 craft breweries in the United States. Read more about body painter Diane Spadola (GSM’86).

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