A day in the life of a Long Island Aquarium trainer

02/02/2017 6:00 AM |

As director of animal training at the Long Island Aquarium in Riverhead, Candyce Paparo’s responsibilities extend far beyond playing with monkeys and sea lions. In fact, Paparo spends more than 10 hours a day caring for the facility’s mammals — a job she and her team of eight trainers and assistants all relish.

“I just got into the marine mammal field and never looked back,” she said.

Growing up on a Connecticut farm, Paparo always cared for animals. She was also fascinated by water and loved going to the beach with her parents.

After studying environmental biology at Southampton College – Long Island University, her passion for marine mammals further intensified when she interned as an assistant aquarist at Woods Hole Science Aquarium in Massachusetts.

For the past 17 years, the Calverton resident has worked at the Long Island Aquarium, directing sea lions to perform at the facility’s daily shows and preparing meals for all the animals.

Paparo, 40, starts her day around 7 a.m. She begins by examining over 100 pounds of fish, making sure it’s restaurant quality for the animals, who consume it up to four times a day.

“I don’t have children at home; I have lots of fur-babies and fur-kids,” she said.

One of her main responsibilities is training the mammals so she can provide them with proper health care and teach them to perform. Gaining an animal’s trust requires spending significant time together. At first, Paparo admitted, it can be intimidating to get close to a wild animal, let alone teach it. But when they finally click, it’s a special moment.

“It’s satisfying when you are working directly with one of the animals and you are trying to train them and then see the light bulb goes off in the animal’s head,” she said.

The mammals under Paparo’s care are gray and harbor seals, California sea lions, North American river otters and Japanese snow monkeys and marmosets, plus long-tongued bats and a porcupine.

“She’s kind of been my mentor through the years,” said Nicole MacDonald, who has been a trainer on Paparo’s team for the past five years. “She’s responsible for me getting to the point where I’m at in my career now. She always puts the animals above anything else. She dedicates every part of herself to it.”

Candyce Paparo

Max the seal gives Candyce Paparo, director of animal training at Long Island Aquarium in Riverhead, a kiss on the cheek during his feeding last Thursday afternoon. (Credit: Krysten Massa)

MacDonald said being a trainer is less of a job and more of a lifestyle. Paparo is on call 24/7, she said, and if an animal is ill or giving birth in the middle of the night, she’s first on the scene.

“It really shows how passionate she is about the animals and what we do,” said fellow trainer Jeannine Vestuto.

Although Vestuto has only worked as a trainer for a little more than a year, she said she’s learned more in that short time than she ever imagined. That’s because Paparo works tirelessly with her and the other trainers to ensure they can do their jobs properly.

“This job isn’t very easy,” Vestuto said. “She reminds us to love it and that we are all here for the animals and that’s what makes it so much fun.”

Paparo’s cares about the aquarium itself, too. For example, Vestuto said, she recently facilitated a partnership between the facility and Seafood Watch, an organization that helps businesses purchase seafood that is fished or farmed in a way that protects other sea life.

“Not only does she make our department better, she also tries to make the facility as a whole better,” Vestuto said.

Although much of her work is conducted behind the scenes, Paparo said she enjoys watching her staff mature and gain experience and loves witnessing the reactions of visiting children.

In today’s society, she said, people spend a lot of time staring at screens. Venues like the Long Island Aquarium encourage people to put down their cellphones, she said — and possibly inspire children to take an interest in the environment and to “be more aware of our planet and all its inhabitants.”

Although her job is physically demanding and her team is able to juggle many of her responsibilities, Paparo has no plans to slow down.

“I’ve been here for quite a few years now,” she said. “And there are still days I tell myself, ‘Wow, this is what I do for a living. I work with these amazing animals.’ ”

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Candyce Paparo

Candyce Paparo feeds a sea lion. (Credit: Krysten Massa)

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