LOGANSPORT — Alexis Miller was born near the ocean but grew up 1,000 miles inland in Logansport.
And while bottlenose dolphins don't swim through the Eel or Wabash rivers, it didn't stop her from achieving her dream of working with the nautical neighbors of her birthplace.
Miller was born in Daytona Beach, Florida. She said in an email that she's always had a love for the ocean and marine life, which she attributes to visiting family in the Sunshine State every spring break and summer while growing up.
"Visiting different zoos and aquariums was always something I loved doing with family and friends," she said.
She went on to recall visiting Marineland in St. Augustine, Florida and SeaWorld Orlando "and being totally mesmerized by the dolphins and their trainers."
"It was always something I thought about no matter where life took me," she said. "Environmental education and conservation are something I care deeply about and I believe it is because of those hands-on experiences I had at zoos and aquariums growing up."
Now Miller is one of those trainers she was so mesmerized by all those years ago. For about the past month, she's been a marine mammal specialist at Gulf World Marine Park in Panama City Beach, Florida. Her duties include the daily care, husbandry and training of 16 bottlenose dolphins, leading dolphin interaction programs with guests, participating in daily shows and connecting the public with the facility's animals "so that they are inspired to go home and make environmentally friendly choices," she said.
Miller went on to say that she loves and respects animals "because they all serve a purpose and all are important."
But dolphins have to be her favorite, she continued, calling them intelligent and beautiful.
"...I think just seeing how social and playful they are and our ability to communicate and build relationships with them as trainers is amazing," she said. "One of the best parts of my job is not only connecting the public with marine life so that they want to conserve it, but seeing their faces light up when they see a dolphin or sea turtle for the first time."
Miller graduated from Logansport High School in 2007 and earned a bachelor's degree in of General Studies/Social & Behavioral Sciences from Indiana University. She's been volunteering and working at zoos and aquariums on and off for over a decade.
Miller interned and volunteered with bottlenose dolphins in St. Augustine and then moved to Panama City Beach last summer. There, she started out by working with stingrays, sea turtles and sharks for six months at Gulf World Marine Park before being transferred to dolphins.
Getting to where she is took a lot of unpaid work, fish sorting and bucket scrubbing, she said.
"Animal care professionals have the best and most rewarding jobs in the world," she continued, adding they "also work super hard in all sorts of weather conditions, on holidays and weekends, and perform strenuous tasks."
Pursuing her passion required balancing interning and volunteering while working to make money for school and other expenses. She recalled working at a property management company and then a veterinary office in Florida while volunteering at an aquarium to save money and gain experience. Miller has volunteered, interned and worked at zoos and aquariums in various departments, including guest services, animal care and training, and education. She spent months applying to every paid animal care position at zoos and aquariums that she could find.
Miller didn't let growing up in a small Midwestern town with little exposure to zoos and aquariums or doubts from others keep her from her desired career.
"I remember meeting with my high school counselor close to graduation and being nervous to tell her I wanted to be a zookeeper or animal trainer because I didn't think it'd ever be something that would be attainable," Miller said.
The field is also very competitive, she continued, adding it's difficult to find paid full-time animal care and training jobs that aren't temporary.
"To overcome a lot of these challenges, I just had to do what made me happy," Miller said.