13 Secrets of Pet Groomers

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Pet grooming is a multi-billion-dollar industry that’s growing each year. More and more pet owners have come to rely on groomers, who—in addition to top-notch trimming and clipping skills—must know animal anatomy, calming techniques, and the best way of avoiding potentially dangerous scratches and bites. We spoke to several to get the inside scoop.

1. PET GROOMING CAN BE RISKY BUSINESS.

Whether it’s an aggressive dog who bites or a nervous cat who scratches, groomers must be constantly aware of potential threats.

“Even the sweetest and most docile cat has the potential to scratch or bite,” says Jared Gorton, who owns Rhode Island Cat Grooming with his wife, Mandi. Most groomers are able to keep themselves and their animal clients safe by wearing gloves and using muzzles when necessary, but some groomers also protect themselves by turning away animals with a history of aggressive behavior.

2. THEY PREFER DOGS (USUALLY).

A black schnauzer dog near grooming tools

While some pet groomers focus exclusively on cats, most avoid them. There’s one big reason: In general, cats are more unpredictable, and many groomers don’t want to risk a scratch or bite.

According to Mandi Gorton, that’s why most groomers start out working with dogs only. “There are many feline-exclusive groomers who started as dog-exclusive groomers; I was one of them. I thought ‘cats groom themselves’ and didn’t want to be one of those groomers who had a career-ending bite by a cat,” she explains. “Some [groomers] will shave cats or offer to brush cats, but don’t understand the basics of cat behavior, breeds, or grooming. They see it more as a necessary evil than a field to thrive in.”

Mel Brink, the owner of Club Meow, a cat boarding and grooming facility in Iowa, explains that in his region, many grooming shops won’t take cats at all. “And the ones that do [groom cats] only take easy cats and are primarily dog-oriented,” she says. “There are a dozen Petsmart and Petco stores here, and only one takes cat clients!”

3. THE CONDITIONS ARE QUIETER THAN YOU MIGHT THINK.

A fluffy dog being blow-dried.

Barking dogs, running water, and blow dryers can make pet grooming shops noisy places to work. But keeping the volume as quiet as possible is integral to making sure the animals feel safe. “Animals feed off the energy of others and easily go into flight or fight mode,” Brink says. “I keep my shop very quiet and peaceful. I diffuse essential oils and keep my own energy low.” Some cat owners also prefer to patronize feline-exclusive groomers because the smells and sounds of dogs can stress out their cats.

4. CATS AND WATER AREN’T A BIG PROBLEM.

A black-and-white cat being bathed.

While most dogs jump eagerly into the water to swim, cats are more timid, and there’s a common belief that cats have a phobia of water. But the pet groomers we spoke to insist that’s just not true. “Most cats are not afraid of water like so many people believe,” Brink says. “They are actually afraid of loud noises, so if you keep your spray nozzle low, especially at first, most cats tolerate water with no issue.”

According to Mandi Gorton, cats are afraid of drowning, rather than water per se. “Cats drink water every day, lots of cats even play with water or follow people into the shower. Getting a cat to trust you enough to bathe in it is a cat groomer's super power,” she notes.

And there’s another pro trick when it comes to pets and water: Many dogs dislike when soap and water get in their eyes and ears, so good groomers are careful to wash an animal’s face last and rinse it first. This method ensures that soap and water have the least time to irritate an animal’s sensitive eyes.

5. THEY’RE EXPERTS AT GETTING ANIMALS TO TRUST THEM.

Pet groomers are often called dog and cat whisperers for good reason. Their ability to quickly connect emotionally with a new animal, establish control, and convince the animal to trust them takes a great deal of skill, knowledge, and experience. Like horses, cats and dogs read people and pick up on body language cues. A calm, confident groomer will encourage pets that they’re not in any danger. “The first step is to begin with that feeling that the cat can trust you not to harm him in any way. After that, you have to be compassionate and understanding,” Jared Gorton says. “Most cats are fairly compliant when treated with kindness, mutual respect, and a ‘matter of fact’ attitude,” Mandi Gorton adds.

6. LOVING ANIMALS IS KEY, BUT PEOPLE SKILLS ARE ALSO A MUST.

A woman on the phone next to a dog on the floor.

As Massachusetts pet groomers Kathy and Missi Salzberg explain, many people enter the profession because they prefer to spend time with animals rather than people. But although pet groomers have a rapport with animals, they must also be able to converse and connect with their owners. “People skills are a necessity,” the Salzbergs write. Besides having customer service capabilities, successful pet groomers must effectively communicate with pet owners about what type of hair cut they want and clearly instruct pet owners how to take care of their pet between grooming sessions.

7. COMBS ARE THEIR SECRET WEAPONS.

A pile of pet hair in between two grooming combs.

While groomers may reward good behavior with dog treats or distract insecure cats with catnip, their number one secret weapon is a simple comb. As animal groomer Margaret Campbell tells Angie’s List, most brushes only reach the top of an animal’s coat, but combs get further down to the skin, where tangles and mats can hide. Besides bathing an animal and applying a conditioner, groomers comb the animal’s hair from head to toe, gently working out any tangles. That’s crucial, because if fur gets too matted, the animal may have to be shaved or buzzed in order to safely remove the knots—a process that can be painful.

8. THEY CHUCKLE AT THEIR CUSTOMERS’ LIMITED PET VOCABULARY.

Much like hairdressers, pet groomers work to fulfill their client’s wishes and create a cut that is aesthetically pleasing. Grooming styles vary based on breed and range, from a puppy cut to a lion cut. But pet owners often don’t have the vocabulary to describe exactly what kind of style they want for their pets. “I laugh at times to myself when a client tries to describe what they want done,” Brink says. “I recently had a lady call and ask for a ‘backsplash.’ I was perplexed until I realized she meant a sanitary trim around the bum. We both had to giggle about that and I may just use her terminology!”

9. THE CERTIFICATION PROCESS CAN BE INTENSE.

A cute dog being dried with an orange towel.

Depending on the state and city in which they work, some pet groomers may need to be licensed and certified. Organizations such as the National Dog Groomers Association of America and the International Society of Canine Cosmetologists teach groomers about everything from clipping styles and cutting nails to anatomy and behavior. According to Certified Feline Master Groomer Lynn Paolillo, who works as an instructor and certifier for the National Cat Groomers Institute of America, cat groomers who want to become certified learn about feline temperaments, how to recognize breeds, correct color terminology, handling techniques, and common health concerns and symptoms. “This information combines to create a cat groomer who is knowledgeable, confident, and proficient with cats of varying temperaments and needs,” she says.

Groomers who certify with the National Cat Groomers Institute of America must also pass four written exams and five practical exams, proving that they have mastered clipper skills, bathing and drying, and safety. “I think most people would be surprised to know how creative cat groomers need to be. Working with cats is primarily about problem-solving, so the groomer must be able to think quickly on their feet in order to keep both cat and groomer safe and as low-stress as possible,” Paolillo says.

10. THEY PROBABLY SUFFER FROM VARICOSE VEINS.

Working as a pet groomer can be extremely physically demanding. “Groomers are prone to back problems from lifting heavy dogs and carpal tunnel syndrome from the repetitive motion of scissoring, brushing, and hand stripping,” the Salzbergs write. “A groomer’s legs can suffer from standing all day over a long period of time. Circulation problems, varicose veins, overstressed tendons and ligaments—these are common ailments in this profession.” To counteract the physical demands of their job, pet groomers may learn to groom while sitting on a stool and/or hire assistants to help with lifting heavier dogs. For many, staying physically fit is also a priority.

11. THEY MIGHT SAVE YOUR PET’S LIFE.

It’s essential to take your pet to the veterinarian for regular check-ups, but groomers also use their knowledge of animal anatomy to observe your pet’s health. Besides looking out for ticks, fleas, and ringworm, they can often spot infections and life-threatening lumps. One groomer who tried to empty a cocker spaniel’s anal sacs (small pockets used for scent communication) noticed that the dog was unusually distressed, so the groomer told the owner to take the dog to the vet. The dog was diagnosed with anal sac carcinoma, a malignant cancer that disproportionately affects cocker spaniels. Because the cancer was caught and removed early, the cocker spaniel survived her illness, all thanks to an observant and knowledgeable pet groomer.

12. THEY WISH PET OWNERS WOULD BETTER EDUCATE THEMSELVES.

A white cat on a black-and-white pillow.

Because pet groomers love animals, it can be particularly difficult to see cats and dogs in bad shape. Whether a cat is severely matted or a dog has sores on his skin, animals in distress are a troubling reality of the job. Paolillo laments that many cat owners hold common misconceptions about grooming, such as that cats hate water, they groom themselves, and they shouldn’t be bathed. “[Grooming] doesn’t have to be stressful, and cats definitely benefit from regular bath and grooming appointments. However, when a cat has never been groomed or bathed, and then it becomes severely matted at an elderly age, the groom becomes not only difficult but dangerous,” she says. “It can be frustrating to be working against many myths involving cat grooming.”

Jared Gorton echoes Paolillo's point, explaining that matting is entirely preventable. “Matting hurts, plain and simple. While we don’t have magic wands to just make the mats disappear, we have tools and skills to get rid of them,” he says. “After that, it's about educating the owner because matting is entirely preventable. Once that education has been given and received, there are no excuses for it to happen again.”

13. THEY FORM DEEP ATTACHMENTS TO THEIR CLIENTS.

Pet groomers love making a living by caring for animals, and receiving affection and gratitude from their animal clients gives them true joy. “The best thing about being a cat groomer is when the cats realize how much we are helping and how appreciative they are,” Paolillo says. “Getting head butts, purrs, and kisses from our kitty clients is the best part of the job!" Some pet groomers even form bonds with more difficult, less appreciative animals and mourn their passing. “I had a cat who was Satan to groom, just a hissing, spitting, biting, baiting devil. But when he passed away his mom called me and we both cried hysterically,” Mandi Gorton admits. “When cat owners share their furry treasures with you there is a bond that is deep and profound.”

All photos via iStock.

13 Behind-the-Scenes Secrets of Dog Show Handlers

Dog handler Kellie Fitzgerald poses with her English Springer Spaniel 'James' after winning Best in Show at the Westminster Kennel Club's Dog Show in 2007
Dog handler Kellie Fitzgerald poses with her English Springer Spaniel 'James' after winning Best in Show at the Westminster Kennel Club's Dog Show in 2007
TIMOTHY A. CLARY/AFP/Getty Images

Every year, roughly 3000 dogs from around the country flock to Madison Square Garden to strut their stuff at the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show. In all, some 190 breeds can enter the ring, each competing to look and act exactly as required for their breed’s ideal standard. But it takes a lot of hard work from dedicated handlers to produce a dog that can compete with the best of them. “What you see at Westminster, that’s the very final touch,” says Karen Mammano, who handles dogs with her husband Sam. “That’s the final product of everything we do.” We talked to a few handlers who have been at Westminster about what goes into training a dog with a shot at Best In Show.

1. The dogs have treadmills.

Among the qualities the judges take into consideration is the dog’s trotting pace. Many handlers put their pups on doggy treadmills set at a certain speed to get them used to keeping a particular trot. “It teaches them foot timing and the right kind of gait we want them to have,” Mammano says.

Some doggy treadmills cost more than $1000. But, according to dog handler Sharon Rives, that’s just part of these athletes’ training routine. “They’re developing their muscles just like any athlete,” she says, “any runner or football player or any athlete that has to train muscles to do something over and over again.”

2. Soup cans might be a dog handler’s best friend.

Judges also look closely at a dog’s stance—how it holds itself while standing still. “It’s kind of their supermodel stance,” says Rives. Every breed has an ideal stance, but teaching a dog to maintain that position while a judge pokes and prods often takes some creative training techniques. According to Rives, when her parents trained dogs in the 1980s, they used to have the dogs stand on four soup cans placed the correct distance apart.

“Everybody has their own way of doing it,” she says. “Now I have what we call stacking blocks, sort of a wooden device with four feet on it for the dogs to stand on and it’s adjustable. I start when they’re puppies with that and they stand on it for a couple minutes and as they get older they spend more time on it, maybe 15 or 20 minutes a day, to help train their muscles and body to remember to stand in that correct position.”

3. The dogs have ridiculously long names.

'Flynn' the Bichon Frise, with handler Bill McFadden, poses after winning 'Best in Show' at the Westminster Kennel Club 142nd Annual Dog Show in 2018
'Flynn' the Bichon Frise, with handler Bill McFadden, poses after winning 'Best in Show' at the Westminster Kennel Club 142nd Annual Dog Show in 2018
TIMOTHY A. CLARY/AFP/Getty Images

Professional pups have very fancy monikers that reflect their pedigree. For example, Rives’s Australian Shepherd answers to “Wiggle” but her full name is “Veritas Sexy and I Know It.” “Typically the prefix of the name is the kennel the dog is from,” she explains. “Veritas is my kennel name, so whenever I breed a dog, every dog has the word veritas in their name.” As for the rest of Wiggle’s full name, Rives says the litter theme was Top 40 Songs, so every puppy had a different song title in its name.

4. Handler cars must be inspected.

According to Mammano, the American Kennel Club inspects handlers’ vehicles before they can be listed as a "registered handler." What are they looking for? A car that could keep a dog alive in the most dire of conditions. “We have a generator, air conditioning, heat, a 30-gallon water tank,” she says. “We have to have fire extinguishers that haven’t expired and a heat monitor in the vehicle so if the air conditioning goes out the monitor knows. We’re pretty much self-contained.”

5. Dog shows aren’t natural.

Handlers are the first to admit that dogs weren’t made to trot around a ring. “Golden retrievers were never meant to run in circles in a show ring,” Mammano says. “They were meant to be out hunting and doing that job and other breeds were meant to be out pulling sleds. So I try and make it as fun for them as possible.”

6. There’s one quick way to get disqualified.

“If a dog bites a judge or a handler or another dog, that’s pretty much it for the rest of its career,” Rives says. “Aggression is not ever acceptable.”

7. You’re not a real handler until …

... you trip and fall in the ring. “I think we’ve all had a moment where we’ve fallen,” Rives says. “That’s always embarrassing. But I think I like to say that’s sort of like the dog show hazing. You haven’t been fully initiated into dog showing until you’ve completely wiped out in the ring.”

She also shares a hilarious story of one of her earliest shows, when she was just 16 years old. “Normally I use hot dogs or string cheese as bait, something I could put in my mouth, and I happened to only have liver that day, which I’m not gonna put in my mouth. I was wearing a suit that didn’t have pockets, but I had panty hose on so I thought I’ll just real slyly stick this in the waistband of my pantyhose under the flap of my jacket and when I need some bait I’ll just break off a little piece. Well, the liver made its way down the waistband of panty hose to my ankle and dog starts licking it. The judge is going, ‘Ma’am, the dog is licking your leg.’ I was just mortified.”

8. Handlers’ wardrobe choices are strategic.

When deciding what to wear for the big day, handlers have to make sure they’re not overshadowing the dog with fancy flair. “You want to dress to compliment the dog’s colors,” Rives says. “If you’re showing a black dog you don’t want to wear a black skirt because then you’re obscuring the dog.”

The more prestigious the show, the better the handlers dress. “We always joke that last week was fashion week for us because we were all trying to get suits for Westminster,” says Mammano.

And for the bigger shows, they invest in nice footwear, not only because they’re on their feet all day, but because their feet and ankles are going to be on TV. Rives is wearing the shoes she wore to her wedding. “They’re little silver ballet flats that have sparkly crystals on the toes,” she says.

9. It’s hard on the body.

Co-owner and handler David Fitzpatrick holds Pekingese Malachy after winning Best in Show at the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show in 2012
Co-owner and handler David Fitzpatrick holds Pekingese Malachy after winning Best in Show at the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show in 2012
Michael Nagle/Getty Images

“A lot of my peers have had their knees and hips replaced,” says David Fitzpatrick, a professional handler who works with the Pekingese breed. “You get tired just from being at the show.” And because dogs are always making left-hand turns in the ring, the handler’s left leg tends to take a beating.

10. They have lucky leashes, toys, and rubber bands.

Dog show people are quite superstitious. Fitzpatrick, for example, has a lucky leash. “I have one I’ve been using probably since 2004 because I know many dogs have had great success with it.”

Mammano won’t re-use a leash once it’s been used on a winning dog, opting instead to retire it. And she always wears three rubber bands around her arm to hold her number.

Also, Fitzpatrick says some owners carry around special toys for dogs, similar to the “busy bee” in Best In Show. “Most of these dogs do have a favorite thing and when you go into the ring and you can’t find that toy you do kinda go crazy like ‘Where is the busy bee?!’”

11. The dogs eat whatever they want.

Well, in the ring at least. “I had one dog way back in the early 2000s and all he wanted was filet mignon,” says Fitzpatrick. “He wouldn’t take chicken or liver, but the filet he would eat. So they get whatever they like. Or I had a Pomeranian that only liked potato chips. I had another dog who liked apples.”

12. Chalk and dryer sheets keep the dogs looking sharp.

Show dogs are some of the most pampered, well-groomed dogs in the world, but it takes a lot of work. “Every breed is going to have their own quirky thing they do to make the coat look a certain way,” Rives says. “One handler told me you should put dryer sheets on a wavy coat. Others say you should wash your dog’s coat in Dawn dish soap if you want it to be straight.”

Chalk is often used to make a dog’s coat look whiter, Fitzpatrick says. “Whatever it is to make the dog look better for the show, there’s probably a product out there for it.”

But according to Rives, grooming is a taboo topic among handlers because “people don’t want to share their secrets, and because there are things that are not allowed.” Indeed, too much grooming is considered cheating, so owners keep their tips and tricks to themselves. And if a handler sees another handler crossing the line, they’ll snitch. “It’s a self-regulating sport,” Rives says. “If you see somebody doing something they shouldn’t be, you’d report it.”

13. Best in show doesn’t come with a cash prize.

“You don’t win any money,” says Fitzpatrick, who won Best in Show at Westminster in 2012 with his Pekingese Malachy. “You get trophies and a lot of swag. We came home with bags of loot, but not one penny. It’s not about the money. It’s about competing at this historic event.”

This list first ran in 2016.

8 Secrets of Air Traffic Controllers

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iStock

As the United States enters into the second month of a government shutdown that began on December 22, 2018, federal employee shortages are becoming an increasing problem. On the morning of January 25, 2019, the FAA announced that due to air traffic control staffing shortages along the east coast, they were halting flights into New York City's LaGuardia Airport. It's a potent reminder that while pilots and flight attendants are key to making air travel safe, air traffic controllers—though less-visible—are just as essential in getting you from Point A to Point B.

The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) employs more than 14,000 of them to choreograph the flow of airplanes on the ground and in the sky, whether that means using radar and other tools to direct aircraft at take off, communicating with pilots about flight paths and weather, or helping pilots land their planes safely. Take a look at these secrets of air traffic controllers to learn about their unique lingo, high degree of job stress, and occasional UFO sighting.

1. Many of them don't work at airports.

When you imagine an air traffic controller, you probably envision someone working in a tall glass tower at an airport. However, many controllers toil at either a Terminal Radar Approach Control (TRACON) facility or at a route center, which may be located far away from an airport.

According to air traffic controller Chris Solomon, who controls planes for the military, controllers in each of the three types of facilities have different responsibilities. “The typical tower controllers get the planes from the gate to the runway and then airborne to within five or so miles of an airport. The aircraft then becomes under the control of the approach controllers [TRACON],” he told the website Art of Manliness.

These TRACON controllers usually control the plane during its ascent and descent from the airport. When aircraft reach an altitude above 18,000 feet, the route center controller takes over, using radar to guide aircraft at cruising altitudes until the plane begins its descent. Then the approach controller takes the reins, followed by a tower controller who guides the plane’s landing.

2. Age is a major factor.

Some air traffic controllers begin their careers in the military, while others apply to the FAA’s Air Traffic Control Academy. But no matter how they enter the profession, they must have good vision, a sharp mind, and the ability to think quickly and clearly under pressure. The FAA requires that applicants be 30 years old or younger when they apply to the job, and controllers must retire at age 56, before most of them experience any age-related mental decline.

3. They have their own lingo.

Inside an air traffic control room

Pilots and air traffic controllers around the world must speak English to communicate (it's required by the International Civil Aviation Organization), but they also have their own flight-related language. This phonetic alphabetic and numerical system, which replaces letters (A to Z) and numbers (zero to nine) with code words, minimizes confusion and misunderstandings between air traffic controllers and pilots.

For example, controllers say “bravo” instead of the letter “B,” “Charlie” instead of the letter “C,” and “niner” instead of the number “nine.” (Theories explaining the origin of the code word “niner” differ, but aircraft enthusiasts speculate that the extra syllable differentiates it from the German word for “no” or distinguishes it from the pronunciation of the number “five.”) Air traffic controllers also have their own slang and, for instance, use the phrase “souls on board” to refer to the number of people on a plane.

The phonetic system is spelled out in detail in the FAA Order 7110.65 manual [PDF], along with other key code words, phrases, and procedures. Controllers call the manual their "bible," study it during training, and review it regularly to keep apprised of any updates and additions.

4. Pilots with heavy accents can frustrate them.

Although English is the official language of aviation, not all pilots speak it well. Air traffic controller Brandon Miller, who works for Potomac Terminal Radar Approach Control (TRACON) in northern Virginia, tells Mental Floss that it can be difficult to communicate with foreign pilots. “However, we are in the business of communication,” he says, explaining that learning to solve potential communication issues is part of their training. When talking to a pilot who has a heavy accent, controllers may speak more slowly, enunciate words more dramatically, and try to avoid changing routes as much as possible.

Stephen, an air traffic controller with the FAA, echoes Miller’s point. “We mainly just bitch amongst ourselves, say things very slowly, and do the best we can” when dealing with pilots who have heavy accents, he wrote on Reddit.

5. They alternate between stress and boredom.

An airplane and an air control tower

Because they’re responsible for thousands of lives 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, most air traffic controllers experience a high level of job-related stress. “We often miss birthdays, we work on holidays and weekends, and often operate on alternative sleep cycles,” Miller explains. Staying focused is essential, especially during times of busy traffic and bad weather, so most air traffic controllers take a break every hour or two, depending on the rules at their facility.

According to Miller, the diversity of tasks in his work day keeps his job challenging. At any given time, he may be directing Air Force One or other VIPs (from our country or a foreign one), sequencing commercial passenger jets into a variety of airports in the Washington, D.C. area, assisting police or paramedic helicopters, expediting military fighters and military transport planes, or looking for suspicious aircraft in the Washington, D.C. Special Flight Rules Area.

On the other hand, graveyard shifts and periods with less traffic can be tedious and dull. “Hours and hours of boredom combined with moments of sheer terror, as we like to say,” Stephen told Reddit. “But if you like the challenge and want to be where the action is, it's a great job!”

6. They're probably overworked.

In a 2011 article for The Daily Beast, Bob Richards, who worked as an air traffic controller at Chicago O’Hare International Airport for more than two decades, described his job as “thrilling, fulfilling, and utterly exhausting.” Richards noted that four of his coworkers died of sudden cardiac death, two died of pancreatic cancer, and many others suffered from stress-related gastrointestinal illnesses. In his early 40s, Richards himself suffered from atrial fibrillation, which eventually progressed into congestive heart failure.

A secret study conducted by NASA in 2011 found that almost one-fifth of controllers made significant errors, partly due to chronic fatigue caused by their lack of sleep and busy shift schedules. To combat fatigue and address controllers who were allegedly asleep on the job, the FAA issued a series of new rules that increase the mandatory time between controllers’ shifts.

7. UFO sightings definitely happen.

A screen showing radar

During the course of their careers, most air traffic controllers have personally spotted (or have a coworker who has spotted) some sort of unidentified flying object. UFO sightings are more common at night, when air traffic controllers may see an unexplained blinking light that doesn’t appear to be coming from an aircraft. But strange sightings aren't necessarily alien life forms—radar is so sensitive that it may pick up items such as clouds, a flock of birds, or even a large truck on the ground.

8. RObots won't be replacing them.

Commercial aircraft landing

Although air traffic controllers rely on radar and other technology to do their jobs, they’re not in danger of technology replacing them any time soon. With so many lives at stake, air traffic control will likely always require humans to ensure that automated systems function properly and technology doesn’t malfunction. And controllers enjoy the sense of satisfaction that comes with using their knowledge and skills to help passengers get from point A to point B safely. “There is a great amount of pride that my coworkers and I take knowing that safety of air traffic control is the last thing on passengers' minds when they get buckled in the airplane,” Miller says.

An earlier version of this story ran in 2017.

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