Thursday, December 29, 2011

She Is the Walrus

I was going to lead up to this. I was going to talk about the rest of the denizens of the Indianapolis Zoo—the penguins and dog sharks, the polar bear and the baby elephant. I was going to have a whole post, or two, before bringing this up, but when it came right down to it I simply couldn’t contain myself.

I saw a walrus.

This may not seem like such a big deal to some of you; this is because you have never seen a walrus. I pity you. The very word conveys, onomatopoeically, something of its character and majesty: walrus—the first syllable rolls in your mouth like an over-size gumdrop, the second syllable adds tusks; walrus—like a brand of extra-bristly scrub-brushes; walrus—a foghorn call over Arctic waters and rocky cliffs; walrus—a rolling tumble through benthic mud, stirring up a cloud of turbid water that forms the shape of a—walrus.

Walruses are incredible. Like most other marine mammals, they’re carnivorous: they prey on shellfish (clams, mainly), and they hunt them using not their impressive tusks but their equally impressive furze of whiskers, which are sensitive enough to find the mollusks where they (the clams) are buried in sand or mud. Their tusks—something both males and females have and something no other pinniped has—are used by males during the mating season and by everybody the rest of the time for breaking breathing-holes in ice and doing something that is delightfully referred to as “tooth-walking”: they drag themselves out of the water with the support of their tusks (which are, in fact, teeth). They can weigh over a ton—a ton! When a mother walrus tells her child, “You weigh a ton!” she would not be exaggerating.

The walrus at the Indy Zoo, a female named Aurora, is as amazing (and big) as you would expect from the description above; she’s also quite charismatic. Her fellow walrus died a year or two ago, and because walruses are highly social creatures, she now shares her enclosure with a large California sea lion (also charismatic, but less amazing).

We were able to see her on land and water, and the impression she made was quite different depending on the element.

In the water, although she was clearly immense, her bulk was streamlined, powerful, and full of purpose, bulleting her through the water at speeds that made it difficult for me to take photographs.

Occasionally, her head would break the surface, and her tremendous brush of whiskers would briefly be visible: the prow of a ship cresting a wave of her own making.

On land, on the other hand, what most struck me was her enormity. Walruses are huge, and although her swimming demonstrated that there was musculature in there somewhere, on land Aurora looks very much like a giant blob with flippers and a furze-covered face.

–I don’t mean this in a derogatory way: her shape is astonishing, awe-inspiring, enchanting, as if she’s some cartoon creature or marine myth come to life. Watching her move is mesmerizing; it’s hard to believe that all of that bulk can be so easily directed—even into a back-flop into the water.

But the most unexpected part of my visit came at feeding time. Two young women entered the enclosure holding coolers full of fish. Both the sea lion and the walrus became very focused very quickly, and you could see just how well, and how swiftly, Aurora could direct her bulk on land.

And then the trainers—or volunteers, or whoever they were (let’s call them the Fish People)—started getting the animals to do tricks for their fish.

Aurora offered her flipper and gave kisses:

Rolled over:

Reared up to her full height:

And did push-ups with her Fish Person:

She also did tricks in the water, which were harder to capture on film (or the digital equivalent)—but they included spouting little jets of water into the air and waving her flippers a la a swimmer from a Busby Berkeley musical:

I was very impressed by the repertoire of tricks, and I am a little ashamed to admit that witnessing it inspired in me a desire that I rarely feel anymore at the zoo:

I want a walrus.

Oh, sure, it would require some changes to our current lifestyle—a much bigger bathroom, for one, and a steady supply of salt-water and raw fish—but it would be worth it.

But, Olivia, they’re endangered animals, you say. That’s fine: we would take very good care of it. But they’re highly social, you remind me. That’s okay, too; we would be its herd, and maybe I could take it to work with me (we’d have to commute via Rock Creek). –None of these problems are insurmountable.

Until the happy day when we usher a walrus into our home, however, I’ll just have to be content with my memories—and my photos.

And in spite of the various ill-punctuated Indiana road-side signs reminding us, in more or less charming ways, of what they perceived to be the true meaning of the holiday (from “Happy Birthday Jesus” to “The greatest gift wasnt under the tree he was hung up on a tree”)—for me, at least, seeing Aurora the walrus was the best Christmas present ever.

{A note: I do write all text and take all pictures. Please do not reproduce either without my permission.}


Anca said...

This is a great post. But, seriously, "he was hung up on a tree"? Who are these people? Scary.

biobabbler said...

aw... so sweet. They are amazing creatures. And no matter how huge you say they are, it never quite gets across until you see one in person, then, wow.

Oh, freaky factoid, one of the sources of sound that the sound-fanatics who make freaky/scary noises for scary moments in films, is a walrus. They do make eerie, (appropriately) inhuman sounds.

Have you ever read Smilla's Sense of Snow? It's one of my all time faves, and a walrus is a theorized tiny character in the protagonists life. V. interesting.

Loved this post. =) A Rock-Creek you will go!

Olivia V. Ambrogio said...

Biobabbler: I *have* read Smilla's Sense of Snow, which I liked very much, but I'm embarrassed to say that I don't remember the walrus! Also had no idea that walrus sounds are used by foley artists. --See? Getting a walrus would not only be emotionally enriching, it would be an investment, since she could make money making scary-movie noises!

Good ol' Ant said...

I was very impressed by this post, and I regret that your parents were so thoughtless as to never get you a walrus for Christmas so that now you have to long for one.

Anonymous said...

A great story all around, just the thing for the pre-New Year's blues. "Benthic" was a pleasure to see, too. "Enormity" not so much, since size is only a distant third definition behind, for one, "horribleness." I really enjoy your blog, though; thanks again.

Olivia V. Ambrogio said...

@Good Ol' Ant: Well, I don't think I would've been able to appreciate a walrus when I was a kid, so it all worked out. @ Anonymous: Glad you appreciated "benthic" and the blog in general--thanks for the kind words!

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