John Kirtland- ABMA's First President (Graciously written by Gary Priest) John was one of a handful of founding directors of ABMA and the organization’s first president. Although John has been gone for some years, it is difficult to write about him because those of us who had the pleasure to work with him, still miss him deeply. If you didn’t know John, I write this especially for you. I know that you would have liked him. Although John and I never worked for the same company, we became close friends over the years. We kept in touch between various conferences. At one point I thought I would be able to hire him to work with elephants at the San Diego Zoo’s Safari Park. But I couldn’t guarantee that I could give him time off for his responsibilities on the IMATA board, so he passed up the opportunity. He was that kind of guy. John had principles and understood the importance of a commitment. I always kidded John about the fact that he graduated from college with a degree in English Literature instead of a more “manly” major like biology or zoology. But John was a gifted writer. That gift, coupled with his intellect and passion for animals and their welfare combined to make him a formidable opponent of those who believe that non-human animals should have the right to vote. John was always pretty good natured but he did have a couple of triggers. John was always respectful in confrontation, but he didn’t suffer fools lightly. As close friends sometimes do, I took some perverse pleasure from time to time in pulling John’s trigger for him. All that John required was to be directed towards someone who needed to be enlightened on animals, their welfare, training or conservation…and then… just then get out of his way! It was fun to watch him engage, listen, teach and usually convert the poor misinformed soul. John was a passionate man and in those particular areas, he wore his passions on his sleeve. I had the pleasure of sharing with John the changes I could see taking place in the zoological industry. People were beginning to apply the principles of operant conditioning to a variety of exotic animals. He was seeing the same thing and we agreed that these people needed support and resources. John and I began to share with others with similar vision and within less than a year, a working group was formed with people from all over the country who saw the same need and opportunity. The idea for something like ABMA had been sparked. Years earlier, when I first met John, I saw him as the consummate bachelor. He was 6’4” with a muscular frame, slim, always tanned and blessed with movie star good looks. He was the kind of guy that other guys don’t want to see on the beach. I never thought John would marry, although as our friendship deepened, I knew he was lonely and was wanting more in his life. As it turned out, he would meet the love of his life when he was in his late forties. Charmaine was a dolphin trainer living in South Africa. John was general curator at a Safari Park in Oregon. The two had an impossibly difficult long distance relationship. But their love grew and became much stronger than the thousands of miles that separated them. John and Charmaine were nuts about each other and were soon married. They bought a home in Orlando near to the headquarters of Feld Entertainment where John had taken a job as Feld’s Director of Animal Stewardship and to Sea World of Orlando where Charmaine worked as a trainer. Charmaine came with two children a boy; Joe and girl: Lara from a previous marriage. It turned out that my concern over whether or not John was up for the challenge of marriage, let alone assuming the responsibility for an instant family, was completely unfounded. He absolutely loved his kids. In fact, I don’t believe John was ever happier in his life than he was during the short time he, Charmaine and the kids were together as a family. By nature, I am an optimist. I see few things in life that are truly tragic. However, John and Charmaine’s story qualifies. Life is a gift and every day is precious. I was reminded of this truth again when in October; I received the news that John had cancer. My God! Just weeks before, we spent some great time together in San Diego and he was the picture of health. In fact, we went flying together and he had a ball piloting the plane all over San Diego’s back country. How was this possible? But it is possible and it was true. We all soon learned that it was an aggressive cancer. Other than leaving Charmaine and the kids, John never shared any regrets with me. As far as I know John didn’t have any. By the spring, John was compelled to say goodbye to his wife and kids and to us all. If you would really like to get a sense of the man, take the time to read the ABMA by-laws. John Kirtland and Tim Sullivan, ABMA’s second president, both had some significant experience serving on committees and on the board of IMATA. John and Tim’s experience, patient guidance, attention to detail with the formation of the fledgling ABMA, can be seen on every page of that document. We are all fortunate to have had such experience and wisdom available at that particular moment in time. I have learned that true friendships are often born and fostered in organizations where people come together to grow and celebrate achievement. I reckon that in the ABMA and in each of you, John’s dreams and passions continue on. I’m certain that John would have liked you. I knew you would like him too, now that you know a little more about him.
JOHN MELVIN KIRTLAND JUNIOR – THE ROMANTIC PERFECTIONIST (kindly submitted by Charmaine, John's wife) What an honor it is to write something nice and true about my incredible husband. Luckily I am typing this bio so the T’s are automatically crossed and all the I’s are dotted - one of his gripes about handwriting. I will endeavor to write this as perfectly as possible. This is how John was. I was working in South Africa and having serious dolphin training problems. We had no computers, international calling was a challenge. So, I wrote him and several others from IMATA asking for help. Within weeks I received one letter. One of the most romantic (in the true sense of the word) letters I have ever read. Being an English Master, need I mention that the letter was perfect, not only in the valuable training materials, solutions and ideas that it was offering, but in the extremely perfect application of the English language, spelling, grammar, punctuation was perfect. He did the Oxford Dictionary proud. I fell in love with him that day – had no idea what he looked like. We communicated over three more years bantering eventually on the phone, and email, always talking training and conservation. We finally met at an IMATA conference; suddenly we did not only talk training. The magic was instant, one small problem: I lived in Africa and he lived in the USA. I also did not come solo; I had a huge package, two kids and three dogs. His favorite saying was “nothing is insurmountable” and it was this word, said by this man, that made me make some major life altering adjustments to me and my children’s lives. Four years later; dogs, kids and I were heading across the Atlantic Ocean to join our John forever. We were married and both worked in the Animal Training business. Needless to say the kids were raised with Operant Conditioning, we sometimes clashed on some of the training stuff and by the time we were trying to figure out how we were going to correct the unwanted behavior – they were already reinforcing themselves and moving on. John belonged to everyone who had an interest in Conservation, training and writing English. He used to spend hours at night networking to people all over the world, making new pen friends always answering and replying to mail – nobody was ever kept waiting – he always felt that everyone deserved to be answered even if they were new to the field. People were answered with beautifully written letters. However, if you asked his help you had to be prepared for some of his tactful replies. My first attempt at asking him to edit a paper that I was writing left me shocked to say the least. It came back with red ink scribbles all over the place, looked like spaghetti. Once I scraped my pride off the sidewalk and actually read the suggestions, I was in awe at the masterpiece that unfolded. Many of you may remember something similar happening to you. Organizations like IMATA and ABMA were his passion, he dedicated his life to the cause, serving on the boards, coaching, and giving his expert advice and writing beautiful articles and papers. Ironically John died of colon cancer and I will never forget his last IMATA conference where he won the Sonny Allen Lifetime Achievement Award. He stood up and gave a riveting speech, he knew he was dying, he had the opportunity to thank everyone who had helped and supported him in his life, and then with a dry sense of humor he ended by saying – “yes, I am no longer partial to the colon”. There was not a dry eye in the ballroom. He was a perfectionist and a romanticist. As per the Oxford dictionary a perfectionist is: “a person who refuses to accept any standard short of perfection” and romanticism is: “a movement in the arts and literature that originated in the late 18th century emphasizing inspiration, subjectivity, and the primary of the individual”. John also loved deeply. Love your lives, reach for stars and be the best you can be is what John would have wanted for all of us. He was still typing on his computer, having to finish coaching a friend in some important matters merely hours before he passed on May 2, 2004.
Sue Hunter- President Thank you to Heidi Hellmuth for compiling this tribute to Sue! On September 1, 2014, the animal behavior world and the ABMA lost a great friend when Sue Hunter passed away. Sue dedicated the majority of her life to animals and animal welfare. She worked at the National Aquarium – Baltimore for 26 years, and for much of that time was the Director of Animal Programs and Marine Mammals, overseeing the care and training of the dolphins, education animals, and the Aquarium’s facility-wide behavior management program. Sue was a charter member of the ABMA, and served on the board of directors from 2002 – 2008, including roles as 1st Vice President planning the 2004 conference in Baltimore, and serving as the President in 2006-2007. In addition to these activities, Sue was also co-founder and President of Misfits Animal Sanctuary, whose mission is to provide a home for unwanted animals and to emotionally connect people and animals, creating better lives for both. For those lucky enough to get to know Sue as a person, you quickly learned that her stoic exterior hid a razor sharp wit and wry sense of humor. If you were fortunate to become a friend, her caring nature and willingness to help anyone – human or animal – any time, and in any way possible was soon evident. A visit to Sue’s farm quickly revealed her passion for helping and sharing her life with animals, as you might meet dogs, horses, goats, guinea pigs, rabbits, rats, a parrot, or even a wallaby. She didn’t just talk about animal welfare, she lived it every day of her too short life. A coworker at the National Aquarium summed it up perfectly in an article several years ago, “When it comes to animals, Sue is tireless. Whatever the animal needs she will provide.”
Lee Nesler- ABMA founder Thank you to Gary Wilson for writing this tribute about Lee!
The first sentence in the meeting minutes from the first meeting of the ABMA, dated April 13-15, 1999, reads, "The meetings were generously hosted by Lee Nesler and the Pittsburgh Zoo." Lee had a pivotal role in the creation of our organization. She recognized the importance of what we wanted to do, namely, as the minutes describe, "...spend the next two days establishing the framework for the creation of an international organization that focused on the training of all animals."
Lee gave us a place to do this important work and, perhaps even more importantly, she set the tone for the meetings through her open, caring, and professional demeanor. When you spoke to Lee, you knew you were in a safe environment because she cared about you. Lee ensured that our meetings allowed the free exchange of ideas. She also made sure we didn't take ourselves too seriously, interjecting a light-hearted comment if the discussion got a little heated.
It is impossible to determine the number of animals whose lives were made better by Lee. The roles she played in the many organizations in which she worked gave her the opportunity to help lots of people to help lots of animals. I feel so lucky to have known Lee and to have been inspired by her dedication and compassion for animals. The ABMA is lucky to have had her as a founder.
We would also like to recognize Leaders in the Field that have been involved with the ABMA.
Dr. Hal Markowitz
Dr. Sophia Yin