Dear Zenyatta

8 Nov

I am curious to know how you are feeling today.  I started thinking about you when I read an article about the big Breeders’ Cup Classic race at Churchill Downs that you lost by literally only inches.  It said, “One can only imagine how confused she must have been when they led her off to the barns, not the victory circle.”  Were you confused?  Disappointed?  Devastated?  Did you know that you lost the chance for a perfect 20 out of 20 races?  Perhaps you were sad because you sensed the loss through the tears of your loving jockey and owners.

I have never had a close relationship with a horse, but I remember when I was sad and crying,  my dog came by my side and quietly laid her head on my lap in sympathy.  My dog could sense my moods, and I could sense hers.  We were loving companions.  I know from cowboy movies and from a horse stable right  in my retirement community that horses and humans also develop very close relationships.

My connection with wild animals has mostly been through my weekly volunteering at the Pacific Marine Mammal Center in Laguna Beach.  The sick and injured seals and sea lions brought there for treatment are intelligent, sentient beings that I have been able to observe over the years.  I am not one of them, but I am somehow related.  Although we humans have an annoying tendency to attribute human behavior to animals, I have sensed a level of communication between humans and pinnipeds that is as exciting as it is mystifying.  For one magical afternoon in Scammons Lagoon in Baja California, I interacted with wild gray whales that came up to play with us from our small boat.  There was no doubt it was an intentional encounter on both parts – human and wild sea creature.

Cultural ecologist and environmental philosopher David Abram in his book, “Becoming Animal,” laments how distant many humans feel from nature, including  wild creatures.  Instead of rejoicing in our connections with nature, we deny them or simply don’t see them.  Language has been one of the many ways we have closed our human selves off from the rest of nature.  Neuropsychologist Karen Shanor tries to illuminate for humans the sensitivities of animals in her book, “Bats Sing, Mice Giggle” to appreciate what mostly has remained unknown and unacknowledged.

So, dear Zenyatta, can you find joy and contentment in being  a “once in a lifetime athlete?”  You will undoubtedly continue to be loved and very well cared for.  You have achieved fame and glory in the eyes of humans.  Yes, you are a winner as  well as a loser.  I can only imagine what you feel, but I have no doubt that you do feel deeply.

Sincerely yours,

Another Sentient Being

I generally read or listen to anything about whales. So, when I saw a picture of a whale on the local news tonight, I stopped to listen. And then I saw a couple of familiar faces talking about cutting off clumps of fishing lines to allow the whale to swim freely.
They were two of the 80 volunteers from the Pacific Marine Mammal Center in Laguna Beach (CA), and they were freeing a 40-ton gray whale stuck in Dana Point Harbor hopelessly entangled in fishing nets.
I first visited the Pacific Marine Mammal Center in 2001 on my way to somewhere else. But the unusual sounds drew me there. A docent came out to speak to me about the wild animals at the rehabilitation center. I was fascinated, but when she said she was a volunteer, my jaw literally dropped and I said, “They LET you volunteer here.” And I signed up. I was already too old, slow, and weak (plus at that time I had no medical insurance in case I was bitten) to be an animal care volunteer, so I became a docent.
I have spent most Sunday afternoons for the past 9 years at the Center, talking to visitors about our patients and doing presentations to any groups that wish to come.
We cater to mostly three types of pinnipeds — sea lions, elephant seals, and harbor seals. Their worst enemies are humans. Humans have transformed the sea — their home — into treacherous territory. Survival is getting more and more difficult as we muck up the oceans in so many intentional and unintentional ways.
It is at the Center ( that I have personally met a variety of people that I admire most in the world. Ages and professions vary greatly, but I’ve seen a dedication from these volunteers and the small staff we have that is remarkable.
I’ve also come to know some pretty amazing animals too. So, when the news commentator pointed out that the whale stayed calm and seemed to know that people were trying to help him, I had absolutely no doubt that was true.
When I spent one of the most memorable afternoons of my life in Scammons Lagoon in Baja California surrounded by gray whales, I had no doubt that the whales that came up to interact with us were doing so absolutely intentionally. Everyone on the small boat knew the huge whales could easily overturn our boats with a flip of a fluke, but we had no fear. These highly intelligent animals knew exactly what they were doing, and we felt so honored that they wanted to play with us.
I can never forget that afternoon with the gray whales any more than some divers a couple of years back who spent hours freeing a whale from fishing nets. Before swimming away, the whale went up to each diver and thanked him. The divers never doubted it, and neither do I.
Volunteering is supposed to give one a feeling of satisfaction, but being one of the volunteers helping to save sea animals is particularly poignant at a time when the BP oil spill is indiscriminately spewing destruction in a vast area.

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