Meet Marine Mammal Trainer Ellen Cuppage '15

Nov 17, 2017

by Samantha Surrency '18

From a young age, Ellen Cuppage '15 knew she wanted to work with animals and marine life. Originally from Strongsville, Ohio, she chose to attend Florida Southern to achieve this dream. With a degree in psychology and minors in biology and Spanish, she is putting all that she learned to use in her role as a Marine Mammal Trainer, working and bonding with many different species of aquatic animals.

A true representative of all the great things FSC grads can accomplish, Ellen took the time to talk with us about how she got her start.

Why did you choose to attend FSC?

My visit during Scholar’s Weekend sealed the deal! The small class sizes, the professors, and the location and campus sparked my interest in FSC.

How was your experience as a psychology major?

I loved every minute of it. The professors were incredibly knowledgeable and did every thing they could to help their students succeed. I was able to participate in and run research projects, present at conferences, and gain real-world experience through the help of my wonderful professors.

“Your professors and everyone else you encounter at FSC are truly there to help you learn and succeed. Make connections with your peers and your professors, and work hard!”
Ellen Cuppage

What professors did you have the best experience with?

The entire psychology department was just wonderful! Dr. Smith, Dr. Goodmon, and Dr. Quinlivan were all dedicated to sharing their passion for the field and to their students’ success. 

Did you do any research in your field as a student?

Yes! My research partners and I presented our research on implicit stereotyping at the Southeastern Psychological Association annual conference.

What extracurriculars were you involved in on campus?

I was President of Psychology Club, a member of Psi Chi, a Head Lifeguard and Group Exercise Instructor at the Wellness Center, and involved in Intramurals and many other campus activities. I also did Junior Journeys to Spain and Bimini, Bahamas!

Did you do any volunteer work as a student?

Yes! During summer breaks, I completed two internships with marine mammals while also volunteering at an animal reserve with large carnivores.

How has FSC contributed to your success?

My professors were truly dedicated to helping all of their students succeed academically and in our post-grad goals. They took extra time out of their days to talk about my future, how I was going to get there, and what they could do to help.

What inspired your career path?

My parents took my siblings and me to SeaWorld when we were very young, and I fell in love with marine mammals. Ever since then, all I ever wanted to do was be a marine mammal trainer.

What do you do in your role as a Marine Mammal Trainer?

My primary job is to provide the best care possible for my animals. This includes daily physical exams on every one of our animals, diet preparation, and training our animals to voluntarily participate in their own health care. I train behaviors for physical and mental stimulation. I also facilitate interactions between our guests and animals, and work with our animals in entertaining educational presentations. 

What have you learned working in the field that’s different from what you learned as a student?

While at FSC, I learned the psychology and principals behind training, as well as how animals function biologically. In the field, I am applying everything I learned in school to my job.

Ellen Cuppage with a California Sea Lion.

What does the average day in your line of work look like?

The day starts early with diet prep! We sort through hundreds of pounds of fish every day to ensure that our animals are getting the highest quality food they possibly can. Throughout the day we are conducting training sessions and providing healthcare, preparing for and doing interactions and presentations, and providing our animals with enrichment. In between our training sessions, presentations, and interactions, we are cleaning the fish kitchen, the animals’ toys, and everything else you can imagine – we have very strict rules and regulations we have to follow in order to provide the animals with the highest quality care possible.

What sort of animals do you work with?

I work with Rough-toothed dolphins, Bottlenose dolphins, California sea lions, Harbor seals, and African penguins.

What is your favorite thing to do with them?

My favorite thing to do with the animals is building our relationship. The relationships between the trainers and animals are so important for their training and healthcare and require a mutual level of trust and respect. Bonding with our animals, in training, relationships, or enrichment sessions, is an excellent way to build trust and respect with them.

What do you like most about what you do?

I absolutely love getting to introduce our guests to our animals. The look on the guests’ face when they get to meet and touch an animal they have never before seen up-close is absolutely priceless! I love teaching our guests about our amazing animals and what they can do to help protect them.

What are your plans for the future?

I absolutely love my job and hope to continue to work with these amazing animals for the rest of my life.

What advice would you give current students or young alumni?

Definitely enjoy your time at FSC — I miss it every day! But remember that you are there to prepare for your future and it is a huge asset toward that! Your professors and everyone else you encounter at FSC are truly there to help you learn and succeed. Make connections with your peers and your professors, and work hard!