In my career as a zookeeper, I consider myself very blessed. I’ve worked with the largest land mammal, elephants, and the largest land predator, polar bears. I’ve swam with dolphins, snorkeled with sharks, and rescued manatees, given otters high-fives and snuggled owls.
Yes, in my fifteen years as an animal care-taker, I’ve had memories to last me a lifetime.
But if someone were to ask “Who was your favorite animal?” or “Which animal had the greatest impact on your life, my answer would emphatically be “Spooky, the beluga whale. Hands down.”
Spooky stole my heart from the very beginning. She was the most beautiful and magnificent animal. I loved her with all my heart. Everything I need to know about life, I learned from Spooky.
- To thrive, you must venture NORTH
Unfortunately, I didn’t really adhere to this lesson until much later in life, after I had left the sunny hell known as Florida. But it was one of the most important lessons, and something, if only I had paid attention to much sooner in life, would have brought me much happiness and possibly avoided quite a lot of frustration and grief.
Beluga whales are an arctic species. They are found in Alaska, Russia, Norway, Iceland, Canada, and the arctic circle. They have tons of unique adaptations to help them survive in the frozen north. They don’t do well in warm climates.
Funny story, though, in the early eighties when belugas were brand spanking new to marine life parks, facilities TRIED to keep them in the same pool as bottlenose dolphins, a more tropical species. They didn’t die off or become ill, but it was very apparent they weren’t thriving. They wouldn’t reproduce and they would act sluggish and tired. In the early nineties, SeaWorld created a breakthrough immersion exhibit called Wild Arctic. It was a simulated cold environment where the water was chilled to fifty degrees and the exhibits were designed to look like ice and snow. Several walrus from the sea lion show were moved, as well as all the belugas from the whale and dolphin show. As soon as they moved the belugas, two of the three females, who had never reproduced before, became instantly pregnant. They became more active and less lethargic. The pool was roughly the same size as before, but it was the environment that suited them better.
I can totally relate to this. Living in Florida, and then Louisiana, took a lot out of me. I can’t believe I survived out there for over 11 years. It’s really insane. Moving to the Pacific Northwest may have been the absolute best idea we ever had. I thank Chris every day for deciding on Washington. The Space Needle is referred as the mother ship which finally called me home. But it really shouldn’t have come as a surprise. Spooky showed me years ago that colder is always better.
- You don’t have to have children to teach them and touch their lives.
Spooky was the only whale of the three moved from whale and dolphin stadium to not get pregnant. I always thought it was ironic that I didn’t have kids and neither did Spooky, but both of us did well with them. Spooky was a terrific auntie whale. She was also great with human children. When my niece and nephew visited us in Florida, they were terrified of the dolphins, but after two minutes with Spooky, Molly was ready to go swimming in the fifty degree pool. Spooky had that effect.
When we first got married, Chris and I had the “when are we having kids” discussion every once in a while. It always ended with “not yet”, but after a while we both started leaning towards “not ever”. Which is a really good thing we were on the same page, because it could have been disastrous if one wanted children and the other one didn’t. We realized we didn’t need to have kids to be mentors and to pass our knowledge to the next generation. We had our niece and nephew, my friends’ kids, and others in our lives which were plenty to carry on what we needed to teach.
- Don’t be afraid to break the ice
Beluga whales are unlike most other whales. They are a toothed whale like dolphins, but they don’t have a dorsal fin, like most baleen whales. Instead of a dorsal fin, belugas have what’s called a dorsal ridge. The ridge is used to break through thin layers of ice and snow to get to the surface to breathe.
Spooky taught me to reach out and introduce myself to others, to break the ice, so to speak. Because of her life lesson, I met a whole community of Harry Potter fans from all over the world, and even traveled to England and stayed with people I had only met online. But these people I met changed my life, all because I wasn’t afraid to break the ice and reach out.
- Be unique, like a unicorn
Beluga whales are in a unique group of whales, the Monodontidae, the “one tooth whales”. Belugas have more than one tooth, but the name is derived from their only close relative, the narwhal. The narwhal has a long tusk jutting out from its head. This tusk is actually a tooth, and it gave the narwhal its nickname, the unicorn of the sea. But beyond the beluga and narwhal, there are no other living members of the one-toothed whales, which means belugas are quite unique. They are literally the only other animal related to a unicorn.
Growing up, I always found it difficult to fit in. I was unique in my passion for the ocean and conservation. Peers used to call me weird, but now it doesn’t seem so bad. Spooky showed me how wonderful being unique is, and how something rare and mysterious is a true treasure.
- Slow and steady beats out fast and flashy
When most people go to zoos or aquariums, they are drawn by the big name animals, what we call megafauna. At zoos, it’s usually the elephants, or giraffe. At aquariums, it’s usually the larger, “charismatic” mammals- the dolphins or the sea lions. They are acrobatic and flashy and everyone loves them. I don’t blame anyone, I fell victim to the hypnosis of dolphin delusion too (it’s part of their ploy to take over the world, I think). But I kid you not, within ten minutes of working with dolphins, I knew belugas were the animal for me.
Dolphins are indeed acrobats. They are speed demons in the water (emphasis on demon). Belugas are different. I call them the underwater ballerinas. They are so graceful to watch, it’s like an underwater symphony.
It’s why it didn’t surprise me when my niece and nephew were drawn to Spooky over the dolphins. The dolphins were in-your-face. They were 800 pounds of obnoxious attention-seekers. Spooky on the other hand, while nearly 3000 pounds, was nothing but love and perfection. And calm. Easy going.
Life is a super-fast pace, nowadays, but I still like to take this lesson from Spooky and go nice and slow. There’s a reason I call my “running” group the Sloth Army. We may not win any road races, but we arrive with style and grace, and that is what really matters.
- It’s okay to go back to kindergarten
When I worked with beluga whales, they were not as well known, or as popular as the dolphins, or even sea lions. To showcase them a little better, we developed a beluga interaction program to allow participants once-in-a-lifetime opportunities to get up-close and personal with our white whales. They would touch and feed, and once they got to know the whales, if they were interested, they could get in the water and swim with them, too. Spooky was a perfect candidate for this program, as she was so well-behaved and knew quite a few behaviors. We thought this would be gimme program and would take off like a rocket.
Our testing of the pilot program showed us we were wrong. Spooky was very comfortable with her trainers, because she knew us and trusted us. But a complete stranger in the water? That was a whole different story and the interactions did not go very well.
Trainers have a concept we utilize when our animals hit a proverbial wall or plateau. It’s called “Going back to kindergarten” and it refers to going back to the simplest behavior where you have success, and progressing from there. Maybe take the training in a different direction, or using different steps.
For Spooky, we re-worked her being comfortable with people in the water. We started with multiple trainers in the water. Then we incorporated trainers and husbandry assistants, those who didn’t work with the belugas one on one, but were familiar with Spooky. Then we asked trainers from other areas, who were good at following directions and interacting with large animals, but had never met Spooky before. And then finally, we brought in test subjects, friends and families of upper management. Spooky learned through this process that no matter who was in the water with her, two things were bound to happen- 1) the trainers she trusted and had a positive relationship with would always be there with her, and 2) she was bound to get tons of attention and fish in the process. After going back to kindergarten and re-training the water interaction, Spooky was a star! Everyone loved her.
I learned a valuable lesson from Spooky in that training program. When things aren’t going your way, or if you are struggling, then simply go back to kindergarten. Go back to the level you are comfortable and go at it a different way, or simply try again. I have found this principle has helped me in my fitness, work, and life in general. When life throws a curve ball, go back to kindergarten and figure a way to hit a home run.
- Use your head when you communicate
Dolphins and whales have a large forehead which we call their melon. It’s a fatty tissue in front of their brain which focuses the vocalizations of the animal. Belugas in particular have a huge and malleable melon. It’s very squishy and if there is anything I miss the most about working with animals, it’s being able to squish a beluga melon.
When belugas move their melon, they make different noises. Spooky had a wide range of vocalizations. She made a sound like a semi-truck, a laughing child, and even a parrot. Her melon moved in a different way for each sound. If you paid close enough attention, you could tell which sound Spooky was going to make by the way she moved her head.
Her lesson here was to use your head before you speak. Focus your thoughts and then show that you not only have a lot to say, but your thoughts are clear and understood.
- If you like someone, give them a buzz
Perhaps my favorite lesson from Spooky was to give your friends a buzz. While Spooky had a lot of vocalizations on cue, there was one we purposefully never trained, her buzz. Spooky used this vocalization as a greeting, but only to those she really liked. For instance, she never buzzed the vets. She didn’t buzz the husbandry assistants at first, either. Once she got to know them, she would give her signature greeting, too. It was one of my favorite memories of Spooky- her buzzing me when I walked by.
We did consider putting the sound on cue, but decided against it. See, when you train a behavior, it often disappears unless you ask for it specifically. This is why some trainers suggest training a dog to bark on cue. The animal expects to get some sort of reinforcement once it is trained, and if they do it without being asked, they won’t receive the reward. So they end up not doing it unless it is asked. This process is also known as extinction, if you never ask for the behavior after it is trained on a signal.
We LIKED Spooky’s greeting buzz. We didn’t want it to go away, so we let her keep doing it whenever she wanted.
But this did send a profound message to me. In a world where one-on-one communication is dying- with texts, email, Facebook, and Twitter- we need to stay connected to our loved ones in a more meaningful way. Spooky reminded me that if you like someone, you should give them a buzz. Not a text. Not a Facebook message or post. Give them a call. It’ll make the interaction more special and meaningful.
I have a shirt Chris gave me for Christmas which says “Always be yourself, unless you can be a beluga. Then always be a beluga.” I will always strive to be a beluga, if I can be half the beluga Spooky was.
I loved the speech you did of this!