While I lived in California (two different times) I visited some of the marine parks that were nearby. As an animal lover, I wanted to get up close and personal with as many whales, dolphins, seals, sea otters, sea lions and walruses as I could.
There was a dolphin petting pool at one of these marine parks. It was there, for the first time, that I was able to touch and stroke a dolphin. Its leathery skin wasn’t what I was expecting, but its intelligence and gentle spirit were everything I was expecting.
I felt sorry that it was holed up in what had to feel like a tiny tank instead of the vast ocean from which it had come, and I told it so. I realized marine park visitors—including me—were the reason its exploiters had captured and brought it here, so I was just as guilty as they were. I’d paid the price to pet it, love on it, and feel bad about its circumstances.
The fact that I was working full-time to limit the indignities that humans inflict on other creatures didn’t make me feel a whole lot better, but I did want to get to know these creatures better in some way so I could resonate and fight even harder for their interests. It wasn’t an adequate excuse for my being there, but it was something I rationalized to make this implicit bargain palatable.
At this same park was a walrus grotto. It wasn’t a petting place. In fact, a large sign proclaimed, “No petting.”
I pressed my body up against the grotto’s cement siding and peered over. Less than an arm’s length away stood an enormous walrus.
I’d never been so close to a walrus. I could hear him breathing and see the fine mist that emanated from his nostrils with each exhale. I could see his individual “whiskers”, which were separated by what seemed to be enough space to insert a finger, straight down, between them.
The more I watched him, the more I wanted to touch him…and especially those whiskers. I figured they’d feel like toothpicks because they were so long and big around and pointed, but I just didn’t know.
Suddenly, I felt I just had to know what they felt like.
I told the walrus, “I’d love to touch your whiskers.”
He didn’t seem at all upset by the idea (not that he could understand a word I’d said, of course).
He didn’t move away. In fact, during the brief time I’d been standing there, he had come even closer to the wall that separated us.
I knew it was dangerous. I knew it was dead wrong, in fact. So I hesitated.
But then I decided I’d risk it. He seemed docile, friendly, willing, even encouraging.
So I reached out and touched his whisker. Yep, sure enough. Harder than a horse tail brush…
The walrus didn’t move. Didn’t make a sound.
So I inserted a pointer finger in between two of the whiskers and scratched the walrus’s muzzle. He closed his eyes.
Oh my gosh, I thought. He’s loving this!
So I laid into the task a little more, with less hesitation.
Suddenly the walrus let out a hefty, solid grunt and opened his eyes.
I jerked back, guilt flooding every pore, and looked around.
No one had noticed, thank God!
I stopped there. I think the sound the walrus made was probably happy assent, but I knew I’d pushed my luck so I stopped.
But I will never, ever forget this stolen moment, this encounter with a wonderful walrus in a marine park that no longer exists.