"I heard this week that an old friend had passed away. Though I wasn't able to visit her often, or talk to her in her language, I always considered her a very dear friend. She apparently died of natural causes after a long life, though we are about the same age (delicately put--both in our early 50s.) She was loved by many, including me. I first met her 24 year ago when I handed her a fish...
My friend was a dolphin named Terry. She was born in the wild but lived most of her life in a Marine Park. When I met her, she was part of a research gourp that was trying to understand more about language by seeing how well we could communicate with another species. In my opinion, the score was: human understanding dolphins, 2; Dolphin understanding humans, 10.
I had just started volunteering to help care for and entertain the research dolphins on weekends. I was being trained to feed Terry and Circe, two females in this group of four dolphins. The first time I tried to hand a fish to a very large animal with a very large mouth full of sharp gleaming teeth, I fumbled. Terry snatched the fish from the water and gave me a look that clearly said, "you aren't very good at this, are you?"
I got better as Terry trained me. If I tossed fish fast enough, she wouldn't clack her jaw at me. Terry was a Mom at that point. Her calf was Panama, and she was a loving but stern Mamma. Folks asked whether I petted Terry or went into swim with her. Nope. I saw how she disciplined Panama when he stepped out of line and not speaking dolphin, I figured I'd break and/or bleed.
Telling the dolphins apart was hard. Some humans looked at the dorsal fin or tail to see a distinct mark. Terry had a notch in her tail, but I could tell her apart from Circe by her facial markings, and especially her eyes. When Terry looked at you, you stood up a bit straighter, like you were about to get an order. You probably were.
Dolphins have no problem telling humans apart. I think I was known as the 'hula hoop girl.' I'm tall with long legs so I could run around the inside lip of their tank dragging a hula hoop in the water while dolphins chased me. If I turned to go the other way, the dolphins turned as a group, making a wave that I'm sure was intended to knock me in the water so they could capture the hoop. I don't know if any other volunteers played this game with them, but whenever I came in for my shift, Terry would grab the hula hoop and bring it to me.
I stopped volunteering when life became too complicated. Many years later, after several moves and a marriage, I returned to California and reconnected with my friend, Mike, who worked at the park where Terry was still living. Mike made it possible for me to see Terry again.
We were both much older, of course. People asked if Terry remembered me. I'm not sure; she didn't say. If she had other distractions, she hardly noticed me. If she was bored or I hung around long enough, then she'd come over to visit and seemed as though she liked having me around. Maybe she remembered me, or maybe she was just trying to figure out why my eyes leaked.
The last time I saw Terry, she was pink and chubby, with many less teeth, but she was clearly in her element. Her caretaking humans called her a 'lap dolphin' as like many of us, she'd mellowed with age and less child-rearing repsonsibilities. She was out where she got lots of attention, in a tank full of young males that she enjoyed bossing around. She was helping her humans with the 'swim along' program, primarily by allowing the young and/or scared humans to grab her dorsal fin and have their swim suit bottoms pulled off by the force of her wake. Old dolphin, my eye. I swear she laughed. In between swims, she slept--like any grandma. I got a kiss that I'm forever grateful for.
|Terry, the artist|