In the nineteenth century, some people thought that if you were feeling a little blue, you should go to the zoo and look at large mammals.
I’ve had some experience with this. Not with the nineteenth century, you understand, but as someone who can occasionally feel a little blue. As a first year student at the University of Calgary, when I felt overwhelmed with the strangeness of the city, and with my studies, I’d go to the zoo and play with the cheetahs. Back then, the cheetahs were in a rectangular enclosure, and I’d run along one side of the cage, turn a right angle corner, and run along the length of the cage. The cheetahs would trot along beside me, back and forth for a quarter of an hour at a time. Maybe it was the exercise, maybe the companionship, or maybe just the exhilaration of doing something a bit weird that helped me feel more cheerful.
In Victoria, when I’d had enough of studying, I’d visit Sealand, particularly to see the two orcas, Haida and Miracle. Haida would perform and spit seawater on me, an event purported to bring good luck. Miracle was more special for me. I’d spend as much time as I could crouching by the edge of the pool, talking gently to her, and she’d occasionally reward me by putting her head within reach so I could stroke her for a minute or two. Miracle’s trust, and the actual physical contact made me feel excited and relaxed at the same time. The blues would disappear for a time.
Giraffes cheer me up to no end. I’m not sure why, but I am enchanted by the way they move, by their nonchalance, their curiosity, their prehensile tongues and the fact that I have to look way up to enjoy them. Elephants are OK, too. They remind me of the silly Edward Lear poem in which blind men appreciate the elephant in their own ways, and elephants are certainly more thoughtful than giraffes. Perhaps they think back to how the crocodile grabbed their trunks to stretch them out to ridiculous lengths. That story cheers me up, too.
Seeing deer, elk, moose, and bears in the wild usually cheers me up, except for that one silly deer who was so obnoxiously insistent that she be allowed to rummage through my backpack while I was wearing it during a short hike. I astonished some tourists in Waterton by shoeing that deer away by swatting her with my hat. And then there were those pesky bears I had to deal with when I was a campground attendant in Banff. One of them got drunk on some rum and limeade left on a picnic table by one of the campers. I had to follow that bear for a few unsteady hours to keep him from doing anything stupid, and to keep curious tourists away. He slept it off, and I stood guard; then when he awoke, I encouraged him to wander down to the river to get a much needed drink to combat sandpaper mouth. It was stressful at the time, but the memory of the time I had to be the minder of a delinquent bear cheers me up.
Last summer, I got to spend several hours among five pods of humpback whales who were bubble net feeding, a co-operative approach in which some pod members create the spiral bubbles, others chase krill into the spiral, and still others, mouths wide open, swim up the spiral taking in hundreds of pounds of food at a time. Then they’d all meet, apparently discuss what just happened and plan for the next net. They’d hang around the surface to catch their breath for a few minutes, then dive to repeat the process. How clever these animals are to cooperate when finding food. Spending time among them was a pleasure and a privilege.
So if you get the blues during the dark, cold days and nights this winter, search for a cure with some large mammals. Watching John Baird during question period doesn’t count. As you think about these fellow creatures, you might also think about how we might interact with them more ethically than in zoos or by disturbing their dinners.