While watching the news during the past few weeks, I was especially moved by the story of Tahlequah, a female orca in the waters north of Seattle whose newborn calf died shortly after birth. While I understand that we humans too often tend to anthropomorphize animal behavior, what happened next was so relatable and moving to me as a mother. Rather than abandon her calf’s body to the ocean, Tahlequah buoyed its body up onto her back, carrying it for 17 days before finally relinquishing it to a watery grave. Her story mesmerized animal researchers and news organizations around the globe.
I learned that Tahlequah belonged to small pod of orcas in the Pacific Northwest that has been struggling in recent years. The salmon population that they rely upon as their primary food source continues to decline, which has taken its toll on the health of the whales and resulted in high mortality among newborn calves.
As I watched the videos of Tahlequah and her calf, I felt tears spill out of the corner of my eyes and roll down my face. How could any mother not relate to the tremendous grief and the orca’s refusal to abandon the baby that she’d bonded with briefly. Finally, after more than two weeks of tender care, she was finally ready to let her dead calf go and rejoin her regular life with her pod.
Even more interesting to me was how other members of Tahlequah’s family took turns helping to carry the dead calf to relieve her of the burden and let her rest and feed. It seemed so reminiscent of our own behavior with cards, flowers, wakes and other gestures of support to friends or family who are mourning.
I was reminded of a research experience I had years ago at Washburn University in Topeka, Kansas, where I finished my bachelor’s degree after leaving The Menninger Clinic.
My sociology professor had asked for volunteers to help with a study on the change in physical space between mammal pairs based on the degree of their social development. We were asked to observe each pair of specific mammals for at least 20 minutes, keeping a log of the distance between each member of each pair and noting when the distance changed during each observed session. All the pairs were male-female, except the elephants; that pair was a mother elephant and her calf.
My favorite pairs were the elephants, the chimpanzees and the gibbons, because of what I learned from them. The elephant mother was extremely protective of her calf and seemed to purposefully hide him from view. As time went on, and the calf got older, she began to give him greater freedom to stray from her side and be in view of the public.
The chimpanzees reminded me of three- or four-year-old toddlers, because of their age and their curiosity. When on display, they lived in a concrete space, about 14’ by 16’, with a climbing pole from the floor to the ceiling and a black rubber bucket. The front of their habitat was glass. I could step up to the glass to watch, as there was not a guardrail.
On my first visit, I stood at the glass for a bit and was ignored by the animals. Because of my own curiosity, I decided to try to interact with them. I opened my purse and took out my compact that held my facial powder and a mirror. As I unzipped my purse and took out my compact, the young female chimp moved closer to the glass, staring at the mirror, watching it and me. The male continued to climb up the pole, slide down and climb back up it, basically ignoring me.
Next, I took out a tube of lipstick from my purse. The female sat down on the floor and I bent over so she could see what I was doing. I pretended to put on lipstick as she watched in fascination. Her male counterpart slid down the pole and walked over to her, poking her on her shoulder with his hand. She ignored him. He went back up the pole, slid down and then walked over to her again. This time he pushed her on the shoulder a bit harder, before leaving to climb up the pole again – seemingly wanting her to pay more attention to him than me.
The next time I visited the chimpanzees, the female immediately sat down in front of the glass, as I pulled my compact out of my purse and showed her reflection. I powered my face and noticed her nose was pushed against the glass. I pretended to powder her face, through the glass. It was like we were playing dress-up.
Her male friend climbed up the pole in the center of their space, slid down and poked her, before immediately returning for the pole again. Finally, the female moved away after he pushed her again.
I tried to engage the young male but it was his counterpart whose attention he wanted. The next time the male poked my little female friend, she jumped up from the floor, walked over to the rubber bucket and peed in it. When he walked toward her the following time, as we were powdering our noses, she got up, picked up the bucket, and threw it at him, dousing him with urine.
I thought I was dreaming – I couldn’t believe it! At first, I laughed. Then I worried I had inadvertently caused a rift between this young pair. I made an appointment with my sociology professor to discuss other options for entertaining them both. He gave me rubber toys I could show them both and suggested I speak with the zookeepers. They taught me some hand signals and gave me toys and activities that would entertain them both. In the end, of course, that skewed my data. After all, I was supposed to be watching and recording behavior, not interacting. It did not matter to me though, as I enjoyed the time spent with them. In fact, I suppose the three of us became our own group in the end.
My other memorable experience was with the gibbons. On their enclosure was a sign that said, “dangerous animal – do not walk past the rail.” From the zookeepers I learned that gibbons are very territorial and defend their space. However, they’re also amazingly social animals that sing with their mates. The ones I observed were beautiful, with long arms, long legs and sweet faces. They swung on the many bars in their space, displaying their awesome acrobatic skill.
The first time I observed the gibbons I had a hard time keeping up with their antics. They swung around so fast that I could barely keep notes on the change in physical space between them. Unlike the chimpanzees, the gibbons didn’t have glass on their enclosure – it was only bars and rails.
The third time I observed the gibbons, the female wrapped her legs around the bars and stretched her long arm through, languidly laying the palm of her hand open on the rail outside her cage. I took a look at her sweet face and got the feeling she was trying to connect. I stayed on my side of the rail and reached my arm out, the hand of my palm open like hers. As I moved my hand close to her, it was as if she was Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde – a sound like a hiss came out of her mouth and she bared her teeth, explaining, by her actions, the purpose of the sign.
That day when I left the zoo, I reflected on the pair of gibbons. I was shaken, until I heard a voice inside my head, you know people who act like that. They act like they are your friend and, when you least expect it, they turn on you. I guess we’re not so different.
As my project progressed over time, I never underestimated the danger from the gibbons again. They are amazing and beautiful but, like most of us, they feel threatened when their personal space is invaded.
These experiences underscore my belief that animals have feelings, too, and we share much in common with them. They are a part of God’s creation and we should do better by them.
Share your own animal encounters in which you felt a special kinship in observing their behavior.
© Tyra Manning 2018