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Original Essays | September 30, 2014 0 comments
Brandon Bartlett, the fictional mayor of Portland in my novel Sherwood Nation, is addicted to playing video games. In a city he's all but lost... Continue »
When a Killer Whale Becomes an Asian Elephantby Diane Hammond
But allow me to digress.
If you lived anywhere in the Pacific Northwest between 1996 and 1998, and especially if you spent any of those years in Oregon, you probably remember Keiko, the killer whale star of the hit movie Free Willy. Sick from living in a small, hot pool at an amusement park in Mexico City, he was brought to a rehabilitation facility built for him by the Free Willy Keiko Foundation at the Oregon Coast Aquarium in Newport. Every week for just over two years, the news media reported on some success, antic, or controversy coming out of the project. At one time or another, Keiko headlined the front page of virtually every newspaper in the region. He was big stuff.
As Keiko's press secretary, I had a seat front and center for the amazing early months of the killer whale's recovery and, later on, for the inter-organizational brawl between my former employer, the Oregon Coast Aquarium, and my subsequent employer, the Free Willy Keiko Foundation. The project devolved into a nightmare of ethical breaches, fiscal greed and name-calling, perpetrated by both sides in the name of the one player who couldn't speak on his own behalf: the whale. You may remember that part. I certainly do.
But even when the politics were at their ugliest, there was Keiko himself — whom his keepers, in their typically understated way, called a good whale — and the handful of men and women working like hell to rehabilitate him. They spent hours each day swimming with him in a pool so cold that without a wetsuit or survival gear, you'd lose consciousness from hypothermia in less than half an hour. Rain or shine (usually the former), day in and day out, these people petted him, played tag with him, spent holidays with him, invented games to stimulate his mind, and devised toys to hasten healing. (And sometimes at night they also wheeled a big-screen TV up to an underwater window so he could watch movies and old Andy Griffith reruns.) By the time Keiko left Oregon in September 1998, he was a masterpiece of buff muscle and horny vitality. (How many appalled mothers clapped hands over their children's eyes as the huge erection descended?)
At its heart, where redemption lies, Keiko's was a love story.
Once the killer whale was returned to his native Icelandic waters and I came home to Oregon, I assumed I'd write about what I'd seen and learned. And I tried. For months I produced some of the worst writing of my career, neither fiction nor journalism, neither fact nor fancy. I simply didn't have the distance or the objectivity the story needed and deserved. Mercifully for us all, I acknowledged that the project was a dud and moved on to write Homesick Creek, instead. But in 2002, when that book was done, I went back to Keiko. Although I wasn't ready to let go of the idea of writing about him, neither was I any closer to doing it well.
Finally my husband, Nolan Harvey, who had directed Keiko's rehabilitation, suggested that if I transferred what I knew and had experienced to a member of another species, I might be able to write creditably, even readably, about the relationship between the keeper and the kept. Why not make that animal an elephant — another huge and broadly charismatic species?
Because, I said, I know absolutely nothing about elephants.
Maybe so, but you're a fast learner.
I wasn't convinced, but I let Nolan talk me into visiting an old employer of his, Point Defiance Zoo and Aquarium in Tacoma, Washington. He knew a couple of keepers, he said, who'd be happy to help me learn my way around an Asian elephant. Why not?
Even among zookeepers, elephant keepers are a breed apart, and not just because the animals in their care can — and sometimes do — kill them without notice, intent, or provocation. Elephant keepers work with these enormous, powerful animals day in and day out because there's a quality, they say — call it a presence, an intelligence, a soul — that sets elephants apart. When you're looked at by an elephant, you're seen.
Keiko's keepers said the same thing about him.
Maybe, I thought, I can do this.
So at the hands of excellent teachers, I learned about protective versus free contact (working with an animal from behind a barrier versus moving unprotected within the same physical space); about elephant body language; about what pleases them and hurts them and what problems are common among elephants at zoos, especially the older and second-rate zoos.
I was hooked. Now all I needed was a story — no small hitch, given that devising plots is not one of my strengths as a writer. So I mulled and doodled and got nowhere until one day, by pure kismet, I stumbled on television footage of a man named Solomon James, Jr., unshackling for the last time the Asian elephant he had taken care of for 22 years. The PBS program was called The Urban Elephant, the elephant's name was Shirley, and the zookeeper had just transported her from the Louisiana Purchase Gardens and Zoo to her new home at the Elephant Sanctuary in Hohenwald, Tennessee. Mr. James was struggling to maintain his composure as he unchained Shirley for what he knew would be the very last time. Theirs had obviously been a long and complex journey, the details of which I could only imagine — and did, in fact, imagine, through the incarnations of Samson Brown and Hannah in Hannah's Dream.
Ultimately, the greatest challenge in telling Sam and Hannah's story came not in creating a plausible character from a species that I knew relatively little about, or in showing the myriad ways by which zookeepers express their love for their animals every day. The real challenge came in letting the good and valuable aspects of the Keiko project inform this new story and letting go of everything else — the pettiness, the ugliness, the compromised honor and acts of bad faith that, in one way or another, typify nearly all inter-organizational conflicts. What resonated, in the end, was not the tedious specifics or the endless justifications, or even who was right and who was wrong, but the simple fact that incredible animals can find homes in the hearts of incredible people and create relationships and stories that are rare and luminous.
It is my profound hope that Hannah's Dream tells just such a story.
÷ ÷ ÷
Diane Hammond has worked as a writer and an editor. She was awarded a literary fellowship by the Oregon Arts Commission, and her writing has appeared in such magazines as Yankee, Mademoiselle, and Washington Review. She served as a spokesperson for the Oregon Coast Aquarium and the Free Willy Keiko Foundation and currently lives with her husband, Nolan, and daughter, Kerry.