The Surprisingly Social Gray Whale

Charles Siebert i i

Journalist Charles Siebert writes about dogs, whales and chimps. His latest book is The Wauchula Woods Accord: Toward a New Understanding of Animals. Bex Brian/Courtesy of Simon & Schuster hide caption

itoggle caption Bex Brian/Courtesy of Simon & Schuster
Charles Siebert

Journalist Charles Siebert writes about dogs, whales and chimps. His latest book is The Wauchula Woods Accord: Toward a New Understanding of Animals.

Bex Brian/Courtesy of Simon & Schuster
Toni Frohoff i i

Behavioral and wildlife biologist Dr. Toni Frohoff studied gray whales off the coast of California. Courtesy of Yale University Press hide caption

itoggle caption Courtesy of Yale University Press
Toni Frohoff

Behavioral and wildlife biologist Dr. Toni Frohoff studied gray whales off the coast of California.

Courtesy of Yale University Press

Off the coast of Baja, California, scientists find gray whales are uncharacteristically social with humans, even allowing their faces, mouths and tongues to be massaged as they bump up beside boats.

Journalist Charles Siebert wrote about the phenomena in the July 8 issue of The New York Times Magazine. The article, "Watching Whales Watching Us," explains that relations between humans and the Pacific gray whale have been historically spotty. After being hunted nearly to extinction more than 150 years ago — and again in the 1900s — the gray whale has rebounded in population faster than any other whale species.

Behavioral and wildlife biologist Dr. Toni Frohoff also joins the show. She has studied marine mammal behavior for more than 20 years and is the director and co-founder of TerraMar Research and the Trans-Species Institute of Learning. Frohoff is co-author of the book Dolphin Mysteries: Unlocking the Secrets of Communication.

Siebert's new book, The Wauchula Woods Accord: Toward A New Understanding of Animals, details his encounters with Roger a retired former circus chimp, who lived at the Center for Great Apes in Florida and preferred the company of humans to chimps.

Excerpt: 'The Wauchula Woods Accord: Toward a New Understanding of Animals'

The Wauchula Woods Accord: Toward a New Understanding of Animals
By Charles Siebert
Hardcover, 224pages
Scribner
List Price: $25.00

Sunday. April 13, 3:24 a.m. Tonight again, wild screams woke me. Somebody's bad dream, perhaps. Or a snake that got into one of the enclosures. Or a fox. Or a bat. Sometimes all it takes to set things off around this place is a cockroach — the huge flying ones they have down here in Florida with the shiny, mahogany wings. And then it starts: those first, hollow, bellyborne chimpanzee whoops that build, faster and higher, until finally morphing into animate, ear-drum-ripping banshees on the air, the cries reverberating long afterward against the topmost metal rafters of this odd little forest's caged canopy.

This is a place built to house and heal bad dreams. A week now since I moved in here at the Center for Great Apes on the outskirts of Wauchula, in south-central Florida, and nearly every night the same hair-trigger, primal alarms have sounded, a quick lift of my bedroom's window curtains revealing yet another writhing jigsaw of furry silhouettes in the barred, upper tree boughs.

Unable to get back to sleep, I went out to sit for a while on my cottage's screened-in back porch, its old wooden ceiling fan creakily whirring overhead, stirring up at once the already torpid air of these mid-April nights and — with the residual hoots and grunts of my still restive neighbors — the deeply pleasant illusion that I was someplace else. That I was off in a jungle wilderness somewhere far away and long ago. Or at least at some time other than this present one of fully found wildernesses and horizons book-ended by retirement homes for former ape entertainers.

There are a number of these sorts of places now. The fast-dwindling days of our dominion have somehow come to this — the last vestiges of our own primal ancestry living where we humans have, in a sense, been trying to get the wilderness and its inhabitants all along: right next door to us. Into more familiar, more established quarters.

Still, not all ape retirement homes are alike. Just last year, in fact, I managed to gain an audience with none other than Cheeta, star of the early Tarzan movies from the 1930s and '40s, out at his retirement facility in Palm Springs, California. Said by some to be age seventy-six now, the oldest known living nonhuman primate on earth, he spends his days there riding around in a golf cart, watching tapes of his old movies on TV, banging out tunes on an upright piano, and, whenever the mood strikes him, painting: brightly swirling canvases that have been dubbed "apestract art" and that are now coveted cocktail party conversation pieces among the rich and the famous. Here at the Center for Great Apes, on the other hand, great pains are taken to try to restore the residents to some semblance of their former selves, an often difficult transition for creatures more accustomed to eating at movie caterers' tables than having to forage for their own food.

I sat out on my back porch for a good while tonight before deciding to come out here to be with Roger, waiting for the commotion to die down, wondering all the while which one of the retirees got spooked this time. Chipper, perhaps, a very popular Ringling Bros. clown in his day, still strung out from years of pedaling around the circus ring on a multiseated bicycle with his longtime performing partner and now equally wired bunkmate Butch: a tireless ham, who, at the merest hello, will immediately go into one of his favorite old schticks, standing up with a broad-toothed grin and thrusting his arm into the air in the classic "ta-da!" pose.

Or it might have been Sammy who set the place off, orangutan star of the film Dunston Checks In. Or Jonah and Jacob, the famous chimp twin-brother tandem you may remember from the popular "trunk monkey" commercials, chimps who wrapped up their careers with a last star turn in the recent Planet of the Apes remake.

And then again it could have been Bam Bam, the former sweet-faced orangutan nurse Precious in the soap opera Passions, an ape I first happened to see just a few weeks ago, sitting up late one night in my midwestern motel room, watching an evangelical documentary about evolution in which Bam Bam was recruited to play himself failing miserably at trying to eat a proper dinner in a crowded restaurant in order to definitively disprove the "theory" that we evolved from apes.

They're all living here now, and many others-former stars of the big screen and television; of Big Top circuses and small roadside zoo attractions-and all of them with memories as long as their careers were brief. It's a little-known fact about the ape entertainers we see. Too big and strong to use much after the age of five or six, they'll live another fifty to sixty years like this, swinging among used tires and their own brains' echolalia of brash lights and human cackling; of screaming boardwalk hawkers and air-curdling carnival calliopes — the very associations I fear I must be stirring up as I pass by them each morning on my way out here to Roger's place.

They are keenly aware of my presence: of my oddly familiar otherness and its rigidly upright movements; and of the fact that it isn't any of them I'm on the way to spend my days with. Each will rush forward as I approach, staring out and spitting at me from various perches along the fringes of their airy, high-domed enclosures: the best possible halfway houses we can build for them between their ongoing captivity and rightful sky; the outer "uncaged" branches limning the farthest reaches of our attempts at restitution before deflecting our gaze back down to these attached living quarters of skylights and swinging cots and corner-mounted platform beds.

And then they'll just settle back, one by one, and watch as I turn down the narrow gravel path that leads past the infirmary, cross the small wooden footbridge at the very heart of these grounds, and set my shoulder satchel and folding chair down once more in the small clearing before Roger's outdoor enclosure.

He's always there waiting, sounding the same three hand claps that he did the first time he saw me. And then the two of us will just settle in for another day of the very thing we're doing in here now, sitting face-to-face, staring. An alignment that I think must look so ridiculous, it's little surprise that the sight of Roger and me sitting opposite one another all day long often sends the other retirees into swirling fits of screams around us.

That's why I decided to come out and be with Roger at this late hour. Long after the screaming had stopped and all the other apes in residence — the retirees and whichever keepers are on duty — had returned to their respective sleeping quarters.

So that it could be just Roger and me alone like this. Without the others peering in, wondering what we're up to. Turning their mad circles around us. Making their constant comments behind our backs.

So that it could be just Roger and me, and we might finally get to the bottom of this strange business between us.

You can learn a lot, I've found, from just daring to remain within a chimpanzee's stare. Far more than you can from a fellow human's. There lies only refractory shards, deft deflections, sought answers, facile conquests. Into a chimp's gaze you can proceed unfettered. Toward matters truly fraught. And then take up residence there for a while. In a time well before this one. Beneath the slow-whirling ceiling fan of your suddenly becalmed, simpler brain.

Time creeps but there never seems to be time enough. Nothing much appears to happen, and yet I'll be a while now trying to catch up with the events and emotions of these past days with Roger, and with the fevered conjurings of this still unfolding night. Three twenty-nine a.m. I'm staring at Roger's huge left forefinger — the darkly creased, inordinate humanness of it — furled, not a foot away from me, around the central crossbar of his bedroom's locked steel door.

In the room right beside us, Butch and Chipper are entwined in nested blankets atop their corner-mounted platform bed, snoring away. Just behind me, a large standing metal fan is stirring up the still night air with that warm, musky-milk odor of chimpanzee.

He always positions himself this way in front of me, Roger, whether we're outdoors or inside like this: nearly two hundred pounds of him — huge for a chimpanzee — moored to one slender pipe of his own confinement; his body gently rocking back and forth; his crazed hazel eyes fixed on me; his white-freckled mouth slightly agape; the fingertips of his right hand forever worrying the stunted parapet of his bottom front teeth.

I can't tell if Roger keeps that one finger there as a fulcrum for his ceaseless rocking, or if he's purposely inviting a touch from me. But then there are a lot of things I haven't been able to figure out when it comes to my partner in sleeplessness tonight.

Of the forty-two retirees at this facility, Roger is the only one who insists on living alone. Twenty-eight years old now, another former Ringling Bros. performer, born in captivity and raised all his life around human beings, he still prefers our company to that of his fellow chimps, and — for reasons that neither I nor anyone else around this place has been able to explain — my company in particular. My company a priori.

The moment Roger saw me last week, he seemed utterly convinced that we already knew each other. Actually stood and applauded. Excited but not overly fawning applause. Three loud, slow claps of his long, leathery hands. As though he'd somehow been expecting me all along. As though to say, "Oh, you. Finally. Where have you been?"

These are not just my imaginings. A number of the caregivers have commented on it, including Patti Ragan, the woman who founded this place and has allowed for my stay here. She witnessed the whole thing: the slow hand claps; the odd way Roger stood and stared out at me; the way he instantly skulked off to a far corner of his enclosure when it came time for me to tell him good-bye.

"Interesting," Ragan said as we were heading back to her house up at the front of these grounds. "He's really got something for you."

People, of course, have such notions all the time. You remind them of someone else. Or you passed them on a street one day years ago, briefly locked eyes, and then ended up regularly resurfacing, for no good reason, in their thoughts and dreams. Or you truly did figure in some prior life of theirs, one to which only they, naturally, can be privy. As for Roger, I've been able to think of any number of good reasons to discount all the above explanations, and yet somehow the least of them is the fact that he is a chimpanzee.

Excerpted from The Wauchula Woods Accord: Toward a New Understanding of Animals, by Charles Siebert. Copyright 2009 by Charles Siebert. Reprinted with permission by Scribner, a division of Simon & Schuster, Inc.

Excerpt: 'Dolphin Mysteries: Unlocking The Secrets Of Communication'

Cover: 'Dolphin Mysteries: Unlocking The Secrets Of Communication'
Courtesy of Yale University Press
Dolphin Mysteries: Unlocking the Secrets of Communication
By Toni Frohoff and Kathleen Dudzinski
Hardcover, 228 pages
Yale University Press
List Price: $30.00

From the introduction: Toni

I began to study dolphins a little more than twenty years ago. I am often asked how my career began, which takes me back to my childhood. That's when I began my quest to unravel the mysteries of the animal mind and heart. As a toddler, I was enthralled with animals, even those considered by others to be bothersome or boring. As a teenager, my first experience with dolphins came on a visit to an amusement park. My friends and I stopped at the dolphin tank and watched a performance, after which everyone turned to leave for the roller coaster. "Wait!" I cried out. This was my first chance to see "live" dolphins do what they do in their free time, not performing tricks requested by trainers during a show. My friends grew restless watching the dolphins slowly mill about, and moved on to the rides. To me, however, nothing in the park compared with watching these beautiful, lustrous animals. Enthralled, I watched the dolphins for the rest of the day and caught up with my friends later. Only years later did my enthusiasm for that experience wane when I came to know enough about dolphins to question the practice of keeping these keenly aware animals confined in a raucous amusement park tank.

As a teen, I caught the end of a television show featuring a biologist studying dolphins and seeking ways to communicate with them. Something clicked, and I knew that I wanted . . . no I had . . . to study dolphins for the rest of my life. I am usually methodical about making decisions, so this sudden career declaration was hard to explain, let alone justify, to myself. I knew I needed to begin a course of study. I found books written by the pioneering researcher John C. Lilly and learned that his foundation was located near where I lived in Los Angeles. I also began to read the works of other researchers, especially Kenneth Norris and Louis Herman. When I wasn't in school, I was volunteering for Lilly's Human-Dolphin Foundation and Marineland of the Pacific, where I worked primarily in rehabilitating stranded marine mammals. I also assisted in a boat-and land-based census of wild bottlenose dolphins along the southern California coast. Lilly's foundation invited me to participate in research on dolphin-human communication with Joe and Rosie, two captive bottlenose dolphins who had just been moved to the Florida Keys. After only a few days of working with them, I changed my plane ticket home to one with no specified return date.

My experiences with Joe and Rosie were fascinating. Also of interest were the other dolphins housed in the facility next to them. Every day, I watched dozens of people pay to get into the water and swim with those dolphins. Little did I know that I was witnessing the first commercialized "swim-with-the-dolphin" program. This also gave me a unique perspective on human impacts on dolphins and led me eventually to conduct the first studies of these swim programs. Toward the end of my stay in Florida, Joe and Rosie were being "untrained" in preparation for their reintroduction to the wild. The research project was ending.

At the conclusion of this life-changing summer, I received an incredible opportunity to live on a boat in The Bahamas for two weeks to interact with and study spotted and bottlenose dolphins in the wild. To see dolphins underwater, interacting not only with people and one another but also with the many natural features of their underwater environment, was an education beyond belief. I felt as though I had come home. Auspiciously, dolphin scientist Denise Herzing was on the boat. She was initiating research that would eventually become the longest underwater study of individual dolphins in the wild.

I began graduate school missing the dolphins and the crystal blue waters. Yet I was charged with renewed enthusiasm and had the good fortune to have respected researchers in the field as my academic advisers. So began my unique specialization in dolphin-human interaction and communication, as well as in behavioral indicators of dolphin stress in both captivity and the wild. I was encouraged, yet cautioned that academia would be critical, even cynical about my study of dolphin-human communication. Pop culture had of course romanticized this subject in earlier decades. But the persistence of this attitude felt stale and charged with anthropocentric assumptions and a lack of scientific objectivity. I wondered if underlying the resistance to this research was the idea that it was sacrilege to study humans in a way that other social mammals are studied and that dolphins, not being human, did not deserve such attention. This did not seem a very objective approach to the study of animal behavior since we are animals, too. With my professors' guidance, I applied ethological techniques to analyze dolphin-human interactions and found the results even more exciting than the glamorized, media-enhanced accounts of these encounters. The study of the dolphin-human bond certainly did not require a lapse of scientific precision. If anything, the interspecies sociality between dolphins and humans was more brightly illuminated by it.

My graduate research consisted of conducting the first studies on dolphin behavior in the context of swimming with humans in captivity and then in the wild. Subsequently, I received numerous solicitations from international government and regulatory agencies, movie production companies, and nonprofit animal welfare, conservation, and environmental groups to evaluate a variety of captive and wild marine mammal behavior in order to provide recommendations regarding their welfare, conservation, and management. I studied dolphins used in swim programs, petting and feeding programs, various species of captive and free-ranging groups of dolphins, as well as solitary sociable bottlenose dolphins, belugas, and orcas. My career has taken me to regions of the world that I never expected to visit, much less work in, and introduced me to a rich diversity of people ranging from animal protectionists, fishers and hunters to celebrities and prime ministers. The creation of a nonprofit organization, TerraMar Research (www.terramarresearch.org), gave me an independent yet structured organizational container for this profession.

When people ask me what is unique about my work, I reply that I feel privileged to study the complexities of dolphin communication and the effects of human interaction on so many different species under such varied conditions. I hope that my research helps to validate and encourage the scientific study of interspecies communication and the psychological and emotional lives of other animals. One aspect of my work stands high above all else: to conduct research that makes a positive contribution to the lives of our nonhuman kin. This is not only my scientific responsibility but a great honor. My goal is for people to appreciate dolphins for who they are as individuals, not just what they are to us.

Exactly how we met is hard for us to remember. Our first conversation was probably an excited discussion about dolphin communication, probably punctuated by a mutual dissection of the methodology used or the conclusions reached in some scientific paper we were both reading. In 1990, we were fledgling graduate students at Texas A&M. Under Jane Packard's expert direction, we participated in lively debates about ethology. Though we hailed from opposite coasts — Kathleen from the east, Toni from the west — we shared a mutual obsession for learning the mysteries of dolphin communication as well as a passion for studying dolphins underwater. Kathleen's interest in delving deeper into the study of dolphin-dolphin communication and Toni's curiosity about the scientific analysis of dolphin-human communication eventually evolved into our respective doctoral research projects. In graduate school, we occasionally assisted each other in the fi eld. We have collaborated on many papers. The complementary nature of our differences and our similarities is reflected in our writing, which we hope contributes to the value and enjoyment of this book.

We are thrilled that dolphin communication is swiftly becoming a topic of choice among young scientists. There is much to learn. The cutting-edge research on dolphin communication of such early pioneers as Melba and David Caldwell, William Evans, Louis Herman, John Lilly, Kenneth Norris, Karen Pryor, William Schevill, William Tavolga, and William Watkins has inspired us and informed our collaboration with contemporary cetologists. Although we, too, have pioneered aspects of study into dolphin communication, we do not work in a vacuum. Science is an amazing journey; competing explanations, or alternative hypotheses, are often presented to describe one behavior. Discussion and debate infuse a fi eld already flooded with questions. Readers will encounter examples of competing hypotheses in the following chapters.

To cover all points of view and provide an exhaustive review of dolphin communication would require several volumes of text and many years to write. In fact, we could not help but include some information from such related aspects of dolphins as their anatomy, evolution, conservation, and cognition. Still, we adhere to what we call the "Umi shopping analogy." Umi is Kathleen's "mighty sea beagle," and she loves rawhide treats and squeaky, stuffed animals. Kathleen delights in shopping for new toys for Umi but brings home only one toy at a time and only on special occasions. Umi is not aware of all toys from which Kathleen could select, but she is thrilled with each new arrival. In a similar way, we focus on the explanations and hypotheses we have come to know and trust based on our experiences and data. We do not present a complete catalogue of the varying explanations of each dolphin action, vocalization, or interaction. Curious readers are encouraged to pursue the additional readings we recommend and draw their own conclusions. Similarly, as your guides for this journey, we focus on landmarks we have visited and are most familiar with. In this way, you will become privy to our individual experiences with dolphins.

Referring specifically to the animals of our book, we should clarify what we mean by dolphin because the name alone can be a source of confusion. If you ask a fisherman about the animal that looks like the television star "Flipper" when he is out fishing, he will likely answer "porpoise." In some regions, fishermen use the term porpoise to refer to all dolphins and porpoises in an effort to avoid confusion between the dolphin and the dolphin fish, or mahi-mahi. The interchanging use of dolphin and porpoise occurs when these two words are used more generally in conversation and is not meant to ignore the existence of the Phocoenidae, which includes six species of porpoise—individuals different in several morphological and physiological characters from dolphins. We use the term dolphin to refer to members of the taxonomic family Delphinidae, which consists of thirty-three species of dolphins ranging from coastal to pelagic and tiny to large. For example, killer whales (orcas) and pilot whales are dolphins. Use of the nickname "whale" refers to their length, which is greater than 24 feet (about 8 m).

Although we focus on research from the study of dolphins, beluga whales (also toothed cetaceans and members of the family Monodontidae) make a signifi cant appearance. This is because of Toni's extensive work with these animals and the extraordinary similarities that have been observed in their behavior and communication, particularly in terms of interspecies communication. We also include information on other cetaceans to provide comparative examples or because details are lacking on specific topics in dolphins. For this reason, readers will encounter sperm whales (the largest of the toothed cetaceans), baleen whales, and other marine mammals, such as seals and sea otters. Elephants, parrots, dogs, ravens, lions, human children and adults, and other terrestrial and avian animals also occasionally join us through these pages into the world of dolphins.

From Dolphin Mysteries: Unlocking the Secrets of Communication (C) 2008 Kathleen M. Dudzinski and Toni Frohoff.

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