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Amusing Tales from Oregon Coast Aquarium
(Newport, Oregon) - Animals do the darnedest things, and that includes fish, snakes and whales. Working closely with marine creatures in a facility like the Oregon Coast Aquarium forces handlers to not only know their critters rather intimately, but their behavior can have its goofy sides as well. Sometimes it’s embarrassing. Sometimes it’s just plain silly. At other moments, it certainly has its heartwarming elements, such as the anecdotes that go all the way back to Keiko the Killer Whale.
Jackie Anderson is a volunteer at the aquarium who had an interesting and very public encounter with a massive snake at their new Swampland exhibit.
“It was the first day that I was an animal handler in Swampland. I was showing the 12 ft long Albino Python. I took her out of the container and she started to explore my body. As I was explaining her to the crowd, she wound around my neck and into my bra. It was warm there. After a bit, I pulled her out and the trainer told me to put her head around my waist and under my elbow to hold her.
“I did this and continued talking to the crowd. It was now time for me to hand her off to my partner. The trainer took her by the tail and tried to untangle her. It was then that we realized she had crawled in the arm hole of my blouse and was totally wrapped around me. The only way to get her out was for me to lift up my blouse and for the trainer to untangle her from my naked body. This was really a crowd pleaser.”
Cherie Whittington is the Visitor Services Manager, and she was rather awestruck by a visitor who once asked her: “How do you get the animals to come back in the morning?”
Whittington said, “Excuse me?”
She said: “Yes, you know, the sea otters and sea lions and seals. What do you do to get them to come back in the morning before you open?”
Whittington said she kept a straight face and patiently explained these particular animals can’t be released in to the wild so they stay here in their pools all the time.
The woman said “Oh, thank you for the answer because I was really puzzled how you managed it.”
Donna Hyden, Administrative Assistant at the aquarium, for a while worked in a drug and alcohol rehab center. There was a locked door at the facility, and an intercom where those wanting to come in would announce themselves. Hyden would often answer that, and her question was always: “Is it someone drunk?”
This causes her some amusement when thinking about delivery announcements for oen of the creature handlers at the aquarium.
“It gives me a chuckle the first time I heard - here at the Aquarium - the announcement over the radio (like the intercom) that there is someone at one of the locked doors/gates, wanting in w/a delivery. Michele’s question to them is always ‘Is it alive?’ “
Kandy Smith is the Events Manager at the aquarium, and she had an amusing side of the famed whale Keiko to talk about, who resided at the facility in the 90’s. At that time, Smith was a security officer, and would be privy to his various quirks that weren’t evident to the public.
“Once the large crowds had left for the day, it didn’t take long to see Keiko got bored without the constant interaction and accolades of his adoring fans, especially small children,” Smith said. “So to this end, some creative person came up with the idea that perhaps a little TV watching might be the answer. After all, millions of children loved it; why not our own special ‘kid?’
“Each evening, one of the security staff would enter into his keeper’s office, roll the large TV set up to the underwater viewing window, turn it on and watch Keiko zip over to see what the night’s entertainment might be. Well it didn’t take a degree in whale psychology to observe just what shows kept our big guy occupied or drove him off in a huff to the other side of the pool. Bottom line: Keiko preferred to spend his evening watching either action filled sporting events such as wrestling. Or when in a lighter mood, perhaps some old fashioned cartoons might be the ticket.”
Smith said Keiko liked action and movement, but he didn't like slow moving shows like the “Golden Girls” or soaps.
“This whale certainly knew his likes and dislikes,” Smith said.
Cindy Hanson, now the publicist and spokesperson for the aquarium, remembers the crazed media frenzy when Keiko first arrived at the aquarium in 1996. She was then the News Director for KSND radio, standing amidst the throngs of reporters and cameramen, including Jack McGowan (founder of SOLV) and now-conservative talk radio host Lars Larson, back when they were still TV reporters.
This was a time when the phrase “Free Keiko” was a kind of catch phrase regarding the whale, as the plan was for him to be rehabilitated and then reintroduced into the wild.
“Keiko's arrival was delayed and the masses of reporters and cameramen began to get restless,” Hanson said. “I remember a reporter yelling, ‘Free the media!!!’ Everyone laughed.”
At the time she thought the whole thing a little over hyped, until she watched him being lowered into the tank, and noticed how still the behemoth as divers swam around him to get him loose from the sling. He was clearly careful not to hurt them.
“That was the moment I saw what an amazing being he was,” Hanson said.Keiko was moved to Iceland in 1998 as part of his rehabilitation. He died there in a fjord in 2003 from pneumonia.
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