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UW-Eau Claire Student Works With Marine Mammals at Navy Program

RELEASED: Sept. 24, 2008

Kristine Funk with sealion
Kristine Funk with a dolphin
UW-Eau Claire student Kristine Funk became friends with the sea lions and dolphins during her internship with the U.S. Navy Marine Mammal Program.

EAU CLAIRE — A University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire senior psychology major spent the summer working with sea lions and dolphins at the U.S. Navy Marine Mammal Program in San Diego, Calif.

"It was incredible," Kristine Funk said of her internship. "I loved everything about it. It was hard work but it was a great experience. It was a blast."

Funk was one of 16 interns selected from throughout the country to participate in the 16-week program.

"The internship program, like the marine mammal training field in general, is very competitive," said Erika Putman, coordinator of volunteer opportunities for the U.S. Navy Marine Mammal Program. "It's a very attractive field to a lot of people, and unfortunately, there are not as many open positions for internships or paid positions as there are candidates. This fact does allow us to be selective and choose only the highest caliber interns and employees."

Interns provide support to marine mammal program staff while gaining experience in the field of marine mammal care and training, Putman said, noting the program provides students with knowledge and hands-on experiences that they can't get in a classroom or lab setting.

"The interns play a very big role in our program," said Putman. "They perform a lot of support tasks for the animals, like preparing food, and keep our facility and animal areas clean. This not only helps keep the animals and work environment healthy, but also allows the training staff to spend more hands-on time with the animals each day."

While her days included doing routine chores like weighing buckets of fish and cleaning out sea lion pens, they also included one-on-one time with trainers and quality time with the animals, said Funk, who also got a behind-the-scenes tour of Sea World as part of the internship.

"When I was with the trainers, I would do whatever the crew was doing that day," Funk said of her internship. "I learned a lot from them about the animals and about the profession. And I got to work with the animals' health care and training, which was really exciting."

The Navy has found that dolphins can be trained to locate sea mines and that sea lions can mark and retrieve objects in the ocean, Funk said of the reasons for the training program. Working with the young sea lions that were being trained to retrieve equipment from the ocean floor was a highlight of the internship, she said.

"It was just amazing," Funk said of her work with the animals. "I actually liked the sea lions a lot more than I was expecting. One of my favorites was a young sea lion pup. I got to see him make a lot of progress and that was really cool."

Also among her duties was providing support to the animal care staff during animal physicals, Funk said. As the trainers gained confidence in her abilities, she was able to be more actively involved in the care of the animals, she said. At one point, she and the trainer reversed their roles, with Funk providing the primary care to an animal while the trainer supported her.

"That was unbelievable," Funk said. "That was a very exciting day for me. It gave me my first real glimpse at what it felt like to be the trainer. And it meant a lot that the trainer trusted me enough to let me be in her shoes."

The trainers and others were impressed with Funk's skills and work ethic during her summer internship, Putman said.

"She was a really hard worker, and caught on quickly to all the tasks that were thrown at her," Putman said. "She was highly regarded by each and every crew that she worked with. I would love to see her working for us in the future."

Funk does plan to apply for a position with the Navy's Animal Care and Training Program when she graduates in December.

"This is what I've wanted to do since I was 6 years old," said Funk, a native of Mound, Minn. "I've always loved animals and the outdoors. When I was 6 we went to Sea World and I knew then that someday I would be a marine mammal trainer. I've been working toward it ever since that Sea World trip."

While in high school and college, Funk volunteered at the Underwater Adventures Aquarium in Minneapolis, the Minnesota Zoo and the Eau Claire County Humane Association.

"Everything I've done has been geared toward making it possible to do this someday," Funk said of working with marine mammals. "By the time I was out of high school, I had a resume. I worked hard in school because I knew exactly what I had to do to get into this field."

Those earlier experiences are what made Funk such a strong candidate for the internship program, Putman said.

"When selecting interns we look for people who have some past experience working with animals," Putman said. "Marine mammal experience in particular is not necessary, though it is helpful. Experience working at an animal shelter, vet clinic or even a pet store can be beneficial as working with animals is not all fun and games. It is a lot of hard work, and is oftentimes very dirty and involves a lot of cleaning. Interns that come into this having done some of that hard work in the past typically integrate into our program really well."

UW-Eau Claire's psychology program, with its applied behavior emphasis, was the perfect academic program for her, said Funk, noting that her primary interest has always been in training animals.

"This is the best place I could have gone because the program is so relevant to what I want to do," said Funk. "The classes have really prepared me well. A lot of the trainers I met this summer were really impressed by what I already knew and the professional vocabulary I've acquired in classes here. It's the perfect fit for me."

To talk with Kristine Funk about her summer internship, contact her at



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