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Chatham's Sam Kelly Lives Her Dream by Training Sea Lions at Turtle Back Zoo

Ed Barmakian

Sunday, August 18, 2013 • 2:10pm

WEST ORANGE, NJ – Samantha Kelly loves her job, which she describes as working with a “big, wet dog.”

During her work hours, the Chatham native gets to brush teeth, clean up poop, handle smelly fish, hang upside down to wash windows and scrub algae from the side of a pool.

Oh, yeah, she also gets to train Sea Lions.

“Loving the job is what makes it all worthwhile,” Kelly said. “The relationship with the animals is what drew me to it. It’s something I wanted to do my whole life. You go to Sea World when you’re five-years-old and you see the dolphin show and say, ‘That’s what I want to do.’ “

Kelly lives her dream at the Essex County Turtle Back Zoo, where she helps train 23-year-old Sea Lions “Wiggy” and “JR” in the 82,000-gallon pool at the new Sea Lion Sound Exhibit.

Essex County Executive Joe DiVincenzo has been behind the revitalization of the zoo, which celebrated its 50th anniversary with the opening of the Sea Lion Sound Exhibit in April. Gov. Chris Christie was in attendance for the opening.

The zoo – open all-year round - is on pace to draw 600,000 visitors this year, according to Anthony Puglisi, director of public information for the zoo.

Kelly is right in the middle of the action, feeding Wiggy and JR three times a day while visitors watch. During the feedings, Kelly talks with the sea lions, getting them to come out of the water, wave with their flippers, twirl around and bark. The sea lions eat up to 30 pounds of fish per day.

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“We’re not just throwing fish to them, we train them using positive reinforcement and conditioning,” said Kelly, who studied Marine Biology at the University of Rhode Island. “It’s cooperative husbandry. We train them to open their mouth to brush their teeth, show us their flippers so we can check them. They get vitamins, eye drops and checkups.”

While the 400-pound sea lions from Florida were waiting for their home at Turtle Back to be completed, they were housed in Mystic, Conn. Kelly was on location with the seas lions and cared for them for four months in Connecticut, prior to the move to New Jersey.

“Sea Lions are almost like a big, wet dog,” Kelly said. “They’re very trainable and have an eager-to-please attitude. They recognize who you are and they want to work with you. They all have their own personalities. I’d say they’re pretty charismatic.”

Kelly, 29, didn’t just have her dream job handed to her. She volunteered at a lot of zoos and traveled the country, pursuing her goal.

“My parents were very supportive and I never gave up on it,” said the Chatham High graduate. “It’s a very competitive field and there is a lot of rejection. I’m a big advocate for following your dreams. If you put your mind to it, you can do it.”

A Jersey girl through and through, Kelly pointed out the fringe benefits of landing a job in her home state.

“I’ve lived all over and each place is different,” Kelly said. “I’m back in Jersey, where they make the best pizza and bagels.  I’m in heaven now.”

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