Tuesday, March 16, 2010


The death of the handler of the Orca whale, who was seized by her ponytail and dragged into the water by a bull whale named Tillicum (which is the name of an Indian tribe in the Northwest), kicked up a tsunami on H-Animal. Listservs with a H in front of their names are affiliated and managed by a Humanities organization and focus on specific issues among academics. H-Animal is always riven between the scientists and the rescuers, those who try to see the world as it is and those who see a world they want to conform to their own ideas of what is right. This was only a more intense version of what is always whereever one speaks of animals of any kind.

Whales can’t be haptic (no hands), but "handlers" love the job because they are haptic. It means the putting of hands right on the subject. In sculpture it means putting your hands on clay and pushing it into shape, as opposed to carving something away away from stone with an instrument. The people who handle whales and other cetaceans love to put their hands on them. Even when the whales or dolphins are beached and dying, the people cluster around to put their hands on them. But an Orca having no hands, grabs with its mouth like a very, very big black and white dog and it grabs whatever it can. Tillicum had grabbed other handlers and killed them. The handlers usually react as rodeo riders do when asked why they ride bulls even though bulls kill cowboys now and then. They shrug and say it’s worth it. It’s a rush. It’s adrenaline.

But it’s also oxytocin, the rush of caring. We care with our hands. We want to stroke. We hope it’s reassuring, quieting, loving. I remember people and animals and things that I’ve loved by the remembered sensation of their silky resilience and heat under my hands. Of course, if Tillicum had washed up on the beach where the tribe he was named for lived, they’d have been down with their knives in a hurry. A source of meat and fat like that is better than gold -- you can’t eat gold. Let’s not get carried away by sentiment.

I’ve never seen anything made from Orca hide or any other kind of whale skin or even a string of Orca teeth for a necklace. Here in Montana, esp. when Bob was still doing taxidermy, I had constant physical contact with the skins, teeth, claws, flesh and bones of big animals. Every morning in the summer part of my job was to go into the Scriver Museum of Montana Wildlife main hall and unrumple the fur of the mounted animals. At first the mounted animals (okay, “stuffed,” you uneducated hooligan!) were left where people could handle them because there was no money for glass cases. But then it became clear that people loved putting their hands on them. (Except for the uneducated hooligan Boy Scout leaders who wanted to climb up and sit on everything -- which was not the same as our pet bobcat sleeping in the basket formed by the horns of the moose.)

The blind were thrilled because they read “by hand.” It suddenly became clear how dense and deep the mountain goat’s white multi-layered fur was, how brittle and stiff the hollow deer hair was, how soft and glossy the black bear was. Each with it’s signature texture, quite apart from color or length. I have two cats and can tell them apart in the dark by putting a hand on them. Squibbie, the tortoiseshell, has dense, soft fur, almost mink-like. Crackers, the blonde, has harsh fur, always rumpled. The best she can manage is to look feathered. I’m not entirely pleased by “passing the peace” in church, esp. when hugs are obligatory, but I do like shaking hands and remember the feel of each hand for hours afterwards. Indian hands feel different from “white” hands, stronger; but little girl NA hands are almost like holding the frond of a tender plant.

Getting back to whales, I’ll tell you about one I did not get my hands on, though my palms tingled with the desire to do just that. I was applying for a job with a zoo that had a water component, since they were close to Puget Sound. While I waited to be interviewed (I did NOT get the job.) I walked around. Some being was calling to me, urgently. I followed the call and found a white whale, which I finally realized was a Beluga whale. Orcas eat Belugas, but Belugas eat stuff like fish and squid. Orcas eat seals and some people remind them of seals, though I don’t know of an Orca who has actually eaten a human.

Anyway, Belugas look to us like babies because they have a bulging forehead, a “melon,” which they somehow use to make a lot of different sounds, earning the nickname “sea canaries.” They have no dorsal fin and more of a neck than other whales, so they can hold their heads up out of the water, which this one was. It was plainly begging me for something. I wanted to comfort it by putting my hands on it, but there was a fence. It turned out that the breeding season was beginning and he was asking me to open a steel gate so he could swim to his sweetheart. Belugas bond deeply. They seem gentle. If you Google a bit, you might run across a photo of one “kissing” a child. I did.

Their closest relative is a narwhal, which couldn’t kiss a child if it wanted to, because one of its teeth grows into a long wand or spear. (It’s the real unicorn’s horn.) They are rarely seen, but there is one at the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago. It’s in a diorama behind glass so you can’t feel it, but I expect the taxidermist, who has died of old age by now, never forgot the feel of the narwhal and its tusk in his hands. My substitute is a little Inuit stone carving with an ivory horn, just the right size to curl my fingers around. It is the right color, “corpse” color: blue gray. It is both art and our hands that draw us towards other creatures, even when they are dangerous, even when we are unclear about what kind of animal they are. What we do with the contact is a serious matter. Personal.


Lance Michael Foster said...

I ate muktuk (whale skin with blubber) made by Inupiat Eskimo up in Alaska.

Since you need to approve of these before you post them, Mary, and I have trouble with your email sometimes, I thought this would be the easiest way to share with you the Vook I started today:


artemesia said...

Mary, I love reading your wide-ranging and fearless blog. I have been a little bit under the weather lately so (uncharacteristically) I've missed a day or two. But with the return of sunshine my respiratory ailment seems to be improved, so I'm back on the job of amateur fact-checker here. "Tillicum" is actually Chinook jargon for 'friend'. I know you know that many PNW features (the skookums, olallies, cultus, tyee, sahalie, just a few) retain these names. There were Chinook tribes, but since they were traders and assimilators by culture I believe they have mostly melded into the immigrant population. I could be wrong about this, though.
That's another subject for investigation!

prairie mary said...

Well, blush. I guess I should run this stuff about PNW Indians past you in the beginning. What got me started was the lady on the radio who kept calling this bull Orca "Tillie." Even though my 4th grade teacher WAS Chinook (You probably know about her book, "Kutkos, Chinook Tyee)" and one of my classmates, Richard Pew, had a father who could speak "Chinook" with her, my consciousness of indigenous language was still pretty low when I was there and I've been concentrated on Blackfeet ever since. So I much appreciate your help!

Prairie Mary