Kaley Hyatt ’20: Living the Dolphin Dream

Kaley with Dolphin

Kaley Hyatt ’20 orchestrates some of the most remarkable aerial feats that a mammal can perform on water.

She prompts the dolphins she trains at the Miami Seaquarium to jump, bow and execute spinning breaches for hundreds of adoring fans. She has a starring role in several seaquarium shows; one of these, a presentation of bottlenose dolphins called “Flipper,” pays homage to the famed eponymous television show. In other shows involving Hyatt, two bottlenose dolphins mix it up with a six-month-old female dolphin, and Pacific white-sided dolphins collaborate with a killer whale. Along the way, she relates fun facts about dolphins, explains why she and others train them, and illuminates what they contribute to ecosystems.

“I am so humbled by this opportunity and absolutely love getting to show the world how fantastic these animals are,” Hyatt said after a work day that also entailed such less glitzy tasks as cleaning show areas and preparing fish for dolphins to eat. “Every day is different, every day is challenging, but every day is enriching getting to work with these wonderful animals. It is all so special to be a part of. Sometimes I still have to pinch myself because I feel like I am dreaming.”

Hyatt holds bachelor’s degrees in environmental science and psychology from Pfeiffer. She has always wanted to work with animals “somehow.” She chose dolphin training after considering several other animal-related careers, including veterinary medicine, rescue, rehab and research. She volunteered at animal shelters and participated in a high school program that enabled her to serve as an assistant at a veterinary clinic. She held internships at such places as Clearwater Marine Aquarium and FurBabies Animal Rescue.

Hyatt’s love of dolphin training has its roots in the childhood visits she made to the many marine theme parks near her Central Florida home of St. Cloud. These experiences involved much more than taking in presentations. After shows at SeaWorld Orlando, for example, trainers stuck around to talk to audience members, and Hyatt would use such opportunities to ask for advice on how to get into the animal field and to learn more about the trainers’ experiences. During her senior year in high school, she also “met” a dolphin at Discovery Cove in Orlando; this entailed swimming around with it, feeding it, and playing with it.

In time, dolphin training would emerge as Hyatt’s principal career interest, especially after she landed an “awesome” marine mammal training internship at Clearwater Marine Aquarium, which she did while still a student at Pfeiffer.

Kaley with seal“If you have ever seen the movie Dolphin Tale or heard of Winter, the bottlenose dolphin with no tail flukes, then you may have heard of this facility before,” she said. “Here is where my training truly began: I learned what it takes to be a trainer and began to work alongside their animal care specialists to assist in the training of dolphins, river otters, nurse sharks, and pelicans. I was hooked and wanted to make dolphin training a profession.”

After graduating Pfeiffer, the pandemic derailed the progress Hyatt was making -- but not for long. In October 2020, she secured a six-month internship at Miami Seaquarium. Midway through this internship, in January 2021, she was promoted to apprentice trainer.

During a recent interview, Hyatt talked more about dolphin training and what her typical work day looks like. She also illuminated Pfeiffer’s considerable impact on her as a person and as a professional.

Thank you for granting us an interview, Kaley. You’re originally from St. Cloud, Fla., a small city 26 miles southeast of Orlando. How did you end up joining the Pfeiffer Pfamily?

If you don’t find Pfeiffer, Pfeiffer finds you. Being from Central Florida, I had never heard of Pfeiffer until a former women’s soccer coach from the school approached me at a soccer tournament during my senior year of high school. (I had been playing soccer since early childhood.) I toured Pfeiffer’s Misenheimer campus and absolutely fell in love with the Pfeiffer Pfamily dynamic. Once I  met members of the women’s soccer team and the numerous faculty, staff, and students who welcomed me, I knew that Pfeiffer was the place for me. I am forever thankful for the relationships that I built at Pfeiffer and the countless memorable experiences that I had while being a member of the Undergraduate Honors Program, playing soccer and lacrosse, being a Student Ambassador, and being President of the Student Government Association.

You earned two degrees from Pfeiffer: a B.S. in environmental science and a B.A. in psychology. How do these two disciplines inform your work as a dolphin trainer?

My degree in environmental science has provided me with a knowledge of many conservation techniques and related global impacts that I use every day to educate guests on how the little things that we do can have a massive impact on the world around us, including the dolphins and killer whales I work with every day.

I also use my psychology degree every day in order to better understand the behavior of the individual animals that I work with. I also use operant conditioning techniques that I learned both in the classroom and in the field to train the animals on many exercise, mentally-stimulating, and husbandry (veterinary) behaviors.

Talk about the training involved in becoming a dolphin trainer.

Whenever you become a trainer, you don’t just walk up to the pool and all of sudden get to train many behaviors and jump right in. There is so much to learn before you get to that point, from training techniques to knowing how to care for marine mammals. It also helps to have a science- or psychology-based bachelor’s degree and to have gained considerable experience from interning and volunteering.

Once you master all this background knowledge, you learn the specifics of animal training via hands-on experience at animal facilities.

What does a typical work day look like for you?

Typically, I work between 40 to 50 hours per week, and many of our shifts start early in the morning. Since our facility opens to the public at 10 a.m., our first set of trainers typically arrives around 6:30 a.m. to start the fish-preparation process. Once fish preparation is completed, we feed each animal their first cooler for the day; this is the “breakfast” that gets them up and moving each morning.

Once the park opens, we begin having public training sessions, shows, meet-and-greets with guests, and much more while also covering lots of cleaning and additional diet preparation throughout the day. We work with our animals until around 5 or 6 p.m., which is when we feed them, clean absolutely everything one more time, and get ready for the next day.

What’s involved in getting dolphins to behave in certain ways during a show?

We utilize positive reinforcement training; in layman’s terms, this means that we are finding things that our animals seem to enjoy (whether it be fish, ice, or toys) and presenting them with these things whenever they do a desired behavior. If you have a child or pet at home, then I am sure that you do this a lot; for example, when a child finishes their homework, they get television time.

We communicate with our animals via hand signals because, fun fact, dolphins and other cetaceans hear at a much higher frequency than we typically talk, so they are unable to hear us when we ask them to do a certain behavior. If they do the behavior correctly, then they will receive what is called a bridge. This bridge (for our dolphins, we use a whistle) basically tells the animal that they did a great job and that they can come back to receive reinforcement.

What have been the highlights or most significant moments of your career so far?

One of my biggest highlights so far was when I officially got promoted from being an intern to a trainer. It is a big responsibility to be a trainer, but one that I have enjoyed so much and have been so fortunate to achieve.

Some of my other favorite moments have been when I was assigned to “learn” my first animal. This is such a monumental time because this is when you start creating unbreakable bonds with your animal and you get to learn everything about them. My first official animal was a bottlenose dolphin named Denise and I am currently working with her every day to strengthen our relationship. She has taught me so much and challenges me every day with her sassy personality, but I wouldn’t want it any other way.

Talk about how it felt to appear as a trainer in your first dolphin shows.

I looked up to trainers as a child. So, getting to run out on stage and be one has been one of the most enriching experiences of my life. It makes me want to work harder and harder every day to educate guests on how awesome these animals are.

Ken Keuffel, who authored this article, has served as Pfeiffer’s Assistant Director of Communications since December 2019. He welcomes story ideas from Pfeiffer’s faculty, staff, students, alumni, and friends. The form for submitting story ideas is at www.pfeiffer.edu/newsform.​