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Conversations with Cassie Malina

Today we’d like to introduce you to Cassie Malina. 

Hi Cassie, please kick things off for us with an introduction to yourself and your story.
In April 1998, a few months after graduating from the Pennsylvania State University, I moved to Orlando from New York to start my career with Natural Encounters, Inc. We were contracted to produce and perform free flight outdoor bird shows at Disney’s Animal Kingdom. I began working at Disney’s Animal Kingdom 2 weeks before they opened to the public and performed in the bird shows there from the park’s inception through March of 2020. As I grew with NEI, I eventually settling into my well-fitting role as the Director of Staff Development, where I grew a community of animal trainers and caregivers. 

During my 2 decades working with Natural Encounters, Inc., I produced and performed in free-flight bird shows in zoos across the country, including the Virginia Zoo, Toledo Zoo, Oklahoma City Zoo, National Aviary, and Houston Zoo. I also consulted on bird and animal programs in Singapore and Portugal and taught others the art and science of animal training at numerous workshops, seminars, lectures, webinars, and presentations across the country and abroad. 

I had been coaching animal caregivers independently since 2000 and, after parting ways with NEI in 2020, my own animal training and consulting company, Awesome Animal Solutions, LLC, was born. Currently, I work both virtually and in person, in the US and abroad, collaborating with animal caretakers in both the private and public sector, helping them achieve their goals and increase animal welfare by employing the most positive, least intrusive effective solutions to behavior challenges. One of my favorite current roles is as the School Counselor of Parrot Kindergarten, a membership-based virtual school for those that share their homes with parrots. 

I maintain my CPBC certification from the International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants (IAABC) since 2015 and my CPBT-KA certification from the International Avian Trainers Certification Board (IATCB) since 2013, and I completed Dr. Susan Friedman, Ph.D.’s Living, and Learning Course. I’ve been an active member of the International Association of Avian Trainers and Educators (IAATE) since 1998 and have been an Executive Board Member since 2004. As part of the IAATE’s Professional Development Committee, I serve as a mentor to other avian trainers and educators. In 2020, the IAATE presented me with a Lifetime Achievement Award. 

When I’m not working, I’m caring for my own family and enjoying my neighborhood, community, and the outdoors. In 2017, as a single parent, I began fostering children 0-5 years old with the hope of one day adopting. I have currently raised and loved 7 foster children, the most recent coming to me upon her release from the hospital at 7 days old. I am a huge proponent of Rachel Coleman’s “Baby Signing Time”, as it has exponentially helped me help these little ones learn, grow, and thrive. Helping all creatures live their best lives is my passion. 

Alright, so let’s dig a little deeper into the story – has it been an easy path overall, and if not, what were the challenges you’ve had to overcome?
Wow! Soooo… many struggles. Picking up and leaving home at 22 years old, on my own, moving to Orlando, and working and eventually managing a team in a fast-paced work environment, outdoors, year-round, for two decades is definitely one that comes to mind. It is an extremely physical job, and, training free flight birds outdoors, fly-offs are a rare but regular part of the business. Tracking birds is the first part of the challenge. If birds don’t return home when the workday ends, the workday continues until the sun has set and resumes the following day before the sun rises. If the fly-off involves an owl, the workday continues through the night. 

Being a single mom with no boots on the ground family support has been challenging. I managed well-raising toddlers. Most recently, I began fostering my first newborn. I now understand clearly why sleep deprivation is used as a torture technique. It’s no joke! It is near impossible to raise a newborn completely on your own, without support. I’ve learned a lot about asking for and receiving support and am so blessed to have the support of my community. 

As a foster mom, I’ve agreed to share my life with my foster children, their caseworkers, Guardians Ad Litem, the licensing agents, and the biological family. I’ve loved each child as if they were my own while simultaneously working towards a successful reunification with their biological family. As you can imagine, I’ve experienced quite a bit of loss. Each little one that I’ve had the honor of raising has a piece of my heart. 

My best friend and co-parent was my hound dog, Oliver. Oliver was 10 years old when I became a foster parent. Each child has a piece of his heart as well. One little girl was with us for a year and a half. Just days after she was reunified with her family, Oliver had a seizure. In 2021, just days before the world shut down due to COVID, I took in a 14-month-old foster girl. All of the sudden, I went from a single mom to a single, stay-at-home mom. Quite a different challenge! Almost exactly one year later, she was reunified with her family. Just days after she was reunified, Oliver had a severe stroke, his last. 

Not long after Oliver passed, I adopted a hound puppy, Dakota. He tragically had to be euthanized at just 1-year-old due to a rare, genetic, degenerative, untreatable illness. Living through that, the end of life of a 1-year-old has been one of the hardest things I’ve had to endure. 

I’ve learned from each struggle, and cherish each day, doing my best to live in, acknowledge, and enjoy the moment. 

Appreciate you sharing that. What else should we know about what you do?
Growing up an only child, my best friends were the animals in my life. I dreamed of being Dr. Dolittle, spending my life communicating with animals. After high school, I went to the Pennsylvania State University and graduated with a B.S. in Wildlife and Fisheries Science. During that time, I did a summer internship as a zookeeper at the same little zoo I visited as a toddler, the Bear Mountain Zoo, in N.Y. I assumed I’d have a career as a zookeeper. 

As a child, my favorite family vacations were to Florida. I dreamed of moving there, where I could be outside, around animals, 365 days a year. When I heard that Disney’s Animal Kingdom was opening, I attempted to apply for a job but, being fresh out of college, was not going to land a job opening a new Disney theme park, or so it appeared at the time. As I was searching for zoo-keeping jobs during my last semester at PSU, I stumbled upon a job for a company called Natural Encounters, Inc. Not only did this company operate in Florida, they offered animal training, travel, and the opportunity to support conservation of wild animals, all goals of mine. I’d soon find out that I was being hired as part of the opening team performing in free-flight outdoor bird shows at Disney’s Animal Kingdom. Off to Orlando, Florida to live and work at Disney’s Animal Kingdom, I went. 

Not long into my career, it became clear that my boss, Steve Martin, was considered one of the best animal trainers in the world. And, he deserves the accolades! I saw, first hand, his intense sensitivity to animal behavior, desire to increase welfare for birds and animals in educational programs, in homes, and living wild across the globe, and his generosity in sharing his knowledge with the world. Working with Natural Encounters, Inc. for two decades, I experienced how we, as a team, grew our knowledge and skills, increasing the welfare of our own vast collection of birds, and spreading that knowledge to increase bird and animal welfare worldwide. 

Being grateful for the experiences and education I received; my passion was to give that to every staff member that walked through our doors. And, to give that to every person that wanted to learn more about animal behavior. My childhood passion was to save the animal world. I learned that the way to do that is to educate those that care for and about animals. I have been fortunate to inspire professional trainers, pet owners, and, through my performances on stage at Disney’s Animal Kingdom, millions of future animal crusaders. 

Part of what defines experience is time and repetition. Natural Encounters, Inc. has, on average, 600 birds, if I had to guess. Each show at Disney housed 100-150 birds and each collection performed in 5-7 shows/day, as did I. I produced and performed in free flight outdoor bird shows both at Disney and at numerous zoos across the country with traveling collections of approximately 30-50 birds, for 22 years. And, I attended and taught training workshops alongside Steve Martin and Dr. Susan Friedman, Ph.D. Dr. Friedman taught us the science of behavior change and how understanding the science can help us further increase the welfare of animals living in human care. I am blessed to not only call Dr. Friedman a mentor but a dear friend, whom I love like family. 

Another thing that defines experience is overcoming new challenges. Not only have I experienced many new challenges, but, importantly, I’ve had numerous opportunities to make mistakes in my career. As Steve Martin says, “Mistakes are opportunities to start over with more information.” As Maya Angelou says, “I did then what I knew how to do. Now that I know better, I do better.” 

Since parting ways with Natural Encounters, Inc. in June of 2020 and launching Awesome Animal Solutions. I continue to learn every day from each interaction with each animal and person in my life. When I dreamed of starting my own consulting company, I never dreamed of consulting and training animals virtually. Covid taught us so much about the abilities of the virtual world. In addition to my in-person clients, I virtually consult with animal caregivers and mentor them in real-time and via video feedback while they train their companion and educational animals. I see animal welfare increase in real-time and have clients spread across US and abroad. And, I continue to mentor professional animal trainers, all while having the time to spend with my foster baby. I am proud of these accomplishments and proud of all the caregivers that give their time to their animals. 

What sets me apart from others is that I truly understand and have compassion for the uniqueness of each situation. With each unique situation, there are unique possibilities and I enjoy the opportunity to collaborate with each client and find solutions that work for their unique situation. 

Can you talk to us a bit about happiness and what makes you happy?
Helping others makes me happy. Inspiring the next generation makes me happy. Helping my foster babies overcome and learn to cope with trauma makes me happy. Watching them experience every first makes me happy. Their happiness makes me happy. I’m grateful for all the positive opportunities I’ve had in my life and I want to give to the next generation. I want to share all I can with them and hopefully inspire them to continue working towards protecting and improving this incredible world. 

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