StoryCorps 476: Wild at Heart
Michael Garofalo (MG): It’s the StoryCorps podcast. I’m Michael Garofalo.
Jasmyn Belcher Morris (JBM): And I’m Jasmyn Belcher Morris.
MG: In this episode we’re going to do something that’s becoming something of a summer tradition here on the podcast. We’re going to listen to a story from the home of all things weird and wonderful, and one of my favorite places, Coney Island.
JBM: That’s right. And this one comes from the New York Aquarium, which is just off the boardwalk at Coney Island. And fun fact: it’s actually the oldest continuously operating aquarium in the US. Anyway, that is where Hans Walters and his wife, Martha Hiatt work. He’s a shark biologist and she’s an animal behaviorist.
MG: And they recently came to StoryCorps to talk about the path Hans took to his career, which is actually pretty unusual. See, in the 1980s, he was the singer in a heavy metal hair band called ZToyz. They had a little bit of success and moved in circles with bands like Twisted Sister.
JBM: But, as Hans remembers, sharks were always his first love.
Hans Walters (HW): When I was a kid only the really nerdy, reject kids loved animals and I was one of those kids.
And my mother always encouraged my love for sharks. When I was five, we were getting ready to leave the beach and lo and behold, there was a dead shark laying on the beach. And I said, “Mom, I wanna take the shark home.” So my mother helped me schlep this three foot shark into the backseat of the car. And I’m one of six kids and we all had our snow cones and the dead shark with the windows shut and it stank. We all got sick. I remember upchucking my banana snow cone in the backseat of the car.
So when I got to college I was studying marine biology and I’d sort of accepted my nerd-dom, you know? I think I had to play catch up in the interaction with members of the opposite sex department. Which is the main reason I joined a rock band.
And we did pretty well for nine years. But at that point I was 30 and decided maybe it was time to find something else to do. That’s what led me to the New York Aquarium.
When I got there they would call the sharks Sand Tiger 1, Sand Tiger 2, Sand Tiger 3. And I just started calling them names of dirty, rotten, stinkin’ rock and rollers.
Martha Hiatt (MH): So you went with Guns N’ Roses…
HW: Yeah, this one’s Axl. This one’s Duff. And then we got another group of ‘em and we went with AC/DC. So there’s Guns N’ Roses and Bad Company are in one pool, and AC/DC and Janis Joplin are in the other.
MH: I love when one of the keepers says to another, “OK, I’m gonna go feed Guns N’ Roses.”
HW: Or, “Who’s feeding the band?”
About three or four years ago, Dee Snider from Twisted Sister, he came to visit. And we were hanging out on the Coney Island boardwalk and he said to me, “When the music ended for you, you kind of fell right into marine biology. I always thought that was really cool that you had a backup plan.” And I said, “No, you know, music was the backup plan, marine biology was the original plan.”
MH: So, your mom, she obviously knew you became a marine biologist. How’d she feel about it?
HW: She was thrilled. Her thing was, and she always said this from as long as I can remember, “Find something you’re interested in and stick with it.”
That was it. Not, “Grow up, get a job and make a living.” — “Find something you’re interested in and stick with it.” And everything came full circle.
[MUSIC – Guns N’ Roses “Sweet Child O’ Mine”]
JBM: That’s shark biologist Hans Walters with his wife, animal behaviorist, Martha Hiatt, at StoryCorps in New York City.
MG: You were telling me that Hans still plays music?
JBM: Oh yeah. He still rocks in his free time. He’s had a few bands over the years, and even toured with Dee Snider’s side project, Van Helsing’s Curse.
MG: Okay, but going back to ZToyz, his first band, what do we know about them?
JBM: Well, Hans was in the band from 1982 until they broke up in ‘91. And ZToyz toured with bands like Joan Jett and the Blackhearts, Cheap Trick. They even had a video on MTV as part of the Basement Tapes competition, which was kind of like a star search program for bands that provided their own music videos. And the video was for a song called Miami Breakdown, which was their most well-known song. And it’s pretty amazing.
[MUSIC – ZToyz “Miami Breakdown”]
MG: You actually got to go to the aquarium recently, which I was incredibly jealous of, and there are some photos from that visit on our website. What was it like to see Hans and Martha in their element?
JBM: It was a real privilege. I mean they are pretty much the coolest couple on the planet. You’ve got this former rocker caring for sharks — badass. You’ve got this brilliant woman training 400 pound sea lions — badass. And they come to work together, they go home together, they inspire each other, respect and support one another. It was pretty awesome to see it firsthand.
MG: And did they meet at work?
JBM: They did. And that’s a whole other story. Luckily, they talked about this in their StoryCorps interview. Here’s Martha.
MH: The first time I saw you, I was feeding some whales. And I looked over at one point and I saw this guy with hair down to your waist. You just stood out in the crowd. But you know I gotta be honest, I was married at the time, so I wasn’t looking at you like, oh he’s cute — although you were. But a short time later I wound up going through a divorce, which was one of the low points in my life. And I remember moping around and one day I was washing a bucket, and you handed me a milkshake.
HW: Milkshakes make me feel better. I figured they’d make you feel better, too. I guess I was right.
MH: And after a few more milkshakes, that’s when I started noticing just how good you look in a wetsuit.
HW: Well, you know, I never wanted to be married. But I did want to be married to you. That’s a huge distinction. When we moved in together, one of the things that struck me is — all of the other relationships I’d been in, there was her CDs and his CDs and never the twain shall meet. But when we moved in together, you couldn’t tell where your CDs left off and mine started. And it was amazing.
MH: You know, we’re pretty lucky. I didn’t think I could find someone who would understand why I was on-call 24 hours a day, because who does that except for a doctor. But then, you did understand that because you do the same thing.
HW: You were always thrilled when we’d go to a bar somewhere and I’d sit in with the band. Or whenever I’d say you know I need to get back into it, I want to form another band.”
You weren’t always like, “Aw why do you need to do that?” You were like, “Yes let’s do it. What can I do to help?”
MH: So that was your chocolate milkshake?
HW: That was my chocolate milkshake, that’s right.
[MUSIC – ZToyz “Cindi”]
MG: Hans and Martha are really a kind of perfect match — not just for each other — but also for a StoryCorps interview.
We rarely know the story of how someone ends up doing an interview, or if we do, it’s really not that surprising: so and so heard us on the radio and they wanted to interview their mom, or someone at StoryCorps reached out and invited a community group or somebody with an interesting story to participate. But sometimes, people give us tips. And that’s what happened here.
Nathan Morris (NM): Yes, hi, my name is Nathan Morris. I’m a PhD student in biology. And I am the Morris in Jasmyn Belcher Morris, a producer here at StoryCorps.
JBM: Yeah, so full disclosure here, that’s my husband. And he found Hans and Martha — completely by chance. As he said, he’s a grad student in biology and he came home one day and as soon as he walked in the door, he, of course, said, “I met someone today who HAS to do a StoryCorps interview.”
MG: So, I sat down with Nathan a few days ago to get that story.
NM: The lab that I’m a member of was on a field trip to the New York Aquarium and we were being shown around the sharks. And the person giving us the tour mentioned that the sharks at the aquarium were named after rock musicians. I asked how they got those names and was told that it was a person by the name of Hans who was also a former musician himself. And thinking back to who we met earlier, I was pretty sure I knew who the rocker was.
MG: How did you know?
NM: We can just tell each other. [laughter] I, myself, am also a former rock musician.
MG: What was your band?
NM: I used to be in a band called Polar Bear Club. And whenever you hear a story about a former musician being in an interesting line of work it always kind of is like, oh, cool that guy made it out and ended up doing this. And it was just really nice to hear about another person who ended up in biology.
MG: I find it really interesting that you said, “somebody who made it out.” People think of being in a rock band as really glamorous.
NM: And, sure, and for some people, it definitely is. But the thing is that once you’re in that world for years and years it’s harder to find other types of work, because that’s all you know and all you have any training in.
MG: In what ways do you feel like being in a rock band prepared you for biology?
NM: It made me used to not making much money. [laughter]
When you’re trying to make a living making music, you really have to do it because you have a strong passion for it. It requires lots of time and dedication and it’s a lot of hard work for an unknown future. And in many ways biology is like that, where, being a graduate student, you have to be passionate about what you’re studying.
[MUSIC – Podington Bear “Fives”]
JBM: It’s funny, you know, in one conversation I had with Hans and Martha, Hans was saying, “no matter what you decide to do in life…trust that you’re the expert.”
You know, like he was saying his path was super unique, he’s probably the only rocker biologist out there. But Martha was quick to correct him and point to my husband. And suddenly there was competition.
MG: Well, maybe there’s a future in the sciences for all those former rockers or indie hopefuls, aspiring producers, or whatever. This could be the start of something.
JBM: Maybe. It all goes back to what Hans’ mom told him. Pick something you’re good at and stick with it. Some advice I’ve gotten from women in my family: whatever you are, be a good one.
[MUSIC – Podington Bear “Good Times”]
MG: That’s all for this episode. This story was produced by my co-host, Jasmyn Belcher Morris, with special thanks to Nathan Morris and the Wildlife Conservation Society’s New York Aquarium.
JBM: The podcast is produced by my co-host, Michael Garofalo, and Elisheba Ittoop. Find out what music we used, including the ZToyz song we talked about, on our website, StoryCorps.org.
MG: And thanks for all the new comments over at iTunes. It’s tons of fun to hear how you guys listen.
JBM: What’s your favorite?
MG: Well, one of my favorites so far said we’re a good podcast “for brushing your teeth and whatnot.” I had no idea that StoryCorps could improve your dental hygiene, but you learn something new every day.
JBM: Keep the comments coming. And we are always looking for tips like the one that brought us Hans and Martha. You don’t have to be married to a StoryCorps staffer to do that. If you know a character, or there’s a couple who have a great story, or maybe just someone who is a great talker, let us know! Send us an email to [email protected]
MG: Until next time, I’m Michael Garofalo.
JBM: And I’m Jasmyn Belcher Morris. Thanks for listening.