Neptune, a 6-year-old California sea lion, had a harrowing youth.
In 2015, he was found stranded and starving on a California beach. Further examination showed hooks embedded in his front flippers and bullet fragments in his head.
Neptune is now happy, well-fed, and in a forever home, thanks to the Georgia Aquarium and marine animal trainers like Liz Maxwell, ’13.
Maxwell is a full-time assistant trainer who works at the Georgia Aquarium with pinnipeds, or animals that have front and rear flippers. This includes sea lions, seals, and walruses. The public aquarium in Atlanta, which is the largest in the Western Hemisphere, houses thousands of animals representing hundreds of species.
Maxwell and her colleagues care for Neptune and 13 other sea lions, as well as three harbor seals.
Many of these animals are rescues, unable to survive in their natural habitat, she said. One cause is increased water temperatures and changes in currents. Because of this, fish swim farther and deeper off shore making it difficult for newly weened sea lion pups to find and catch enough food. They strand on beaches too malnourished and underweight to survive without intervention.
Maxwell — who majored in biology at Ball State with concentrations in zoology and in wildlife biology and conservation — does her part to make sure the animals have happy, healthy lives.
“My main job as a trainer is to provide the best care possible for our animals while connecting with the public in ways that inspire them to care for animal well-being and the environments in which they live.”
As part of that care, Maxwell and the rest of the sea lion team prepare restaurant-quality fish for the animals. Sea lions are also vulnerable to bacterial infections, so keeping their aquarium home clean is essential.
Then there’s the fun part: training the animals. “My team and I work hand-in-flipper with our animals every single day to build close, strong relationships with each individual sea lion or seal. The time I am able to spend with these animals is the best part of my job.”
During these interactions Maxwell learns each animal’s individual characteristics to build mutual trust. “It is truly an indescribable bond and understanding that we as trainers share with these animals.”
Despite growing up in landlocked Crown Point, Indiana, Maxwell has known she wanted to work with marine mammals since she was 8. A trip to SeaWorld Ohio (now closed) brought her face-to-face with her first sea lion.
“I was hooked. I saw trainers feeding the animals and interacting with them and I could not believe that someone could actually choose to be a trainer.”
When it was time to go to college, her father told her she could go to any school she wanted — as long as it was in Indiana. She chose Ball State.
No plan B
“Any university provides an opportunity to get an education,” she said. “You can learn biology anywhere. But Ball State offers opportunities way beyond the classroom.”
Those experiences included a field trip to a sea turtle rescue facility, behind-the scenes tours of area zoos, and a study abroad experience in Australia where she focused on marine biology.
Experiences after graduation — including jobs at Chicago’s Shedd Aquarium, SeaWorld San Diego, and Mystic Aquarium in Connecticut — led her to the Georgia Aquarium.
“I only realized the breadth of my knowledge after I began my career and working as a professional in my field. Many co-workers I’ve had throughout my career have been surprised at the diversity of my science-based course load from college. I am so glad I chose Ball State.”
Beyond those experiences, Maxwell said her professors pushed her to bring her skills and knowledge to another level.
“They dedicated so much time and thought to me as a student that I honestly felt like I was the only one they could be doing that for. They instilled so much drive within me when many other people thought I was crazy for pursuing this career.”
Though Biology Professor Tim Carter didn’t think she was crazy, he did encourage her to consider a plan B.
“This is a dream with a huge supply and limited demand, but she would not even entertain anything less,” said Carter, who chairs the Department of Environmental, Geology, and Natural Resources. “Other students might have given up, but Liz would see it as ‘I am almost there.’”
Another faculty mentor agreed. “Animal trainer positions are some of those most competitive in zoology,” said Gary Dodson, professor emeritus of biology. “Getting one, especially at a premier zoo or aquarium, requires years of toil, relocations, and apprenticeships. In other words, tenacity.”
Dodson was Maxwell’s instructor for a zoo immersion class. In behind-the-scenes visits to zoos and interviews with staff, Maxwell learned what the job was actually like — not just what she thought it might be. “This class developed me intellectually and professionally far more than I ever thought possible within one semester.”
A heart for animals
Now it’s Maxwell’s turn to educate others. She and the rest of the sea lion team teach visitors about the pinnipeds’ ocean home and what people can do to help preserve it. Even the smallest of changes, such as recycling, can have a positive effect. And Maxwell doesn’t take for granted the role she has in making sure people walk away from the performance theater asking questions about what they can do to make a difference.
“I became interested in this job because I love animals, but I have become dedicated to my career as a trainer because I can contribute to changing the world and inspire others to do the same. My heart is for the animals I care for and the world they need to survive.
“Lucky for me, I have found a career that unites my passions and greatest joys in one bundle. Plus, on a daily basis, a 500-pound sea lion agrees to spend time with me. That is just plain amazing!”