The Seal Trainer

When their former marine mammal specialist retired, the Quebec Aquarium was pleased to hire Felix Balzano, a rising star in the seal-training community. Balzano had been a student of the legendary Jan Kuparinen, whose control over the pinniped race was considered almost supernatural, and whose final show, an interpretation of various scenes from Shakespeare, had raised allegations in international tabloids that his performers were actually humans in seal-suits, or super-intelligent aliens from a watery planet.

Balzano had broken with the more conservative Kuparinen over the issue of mixed-species shows, but had been reconciled with the Master on his deathbed. The Aquarium, in an allusion to this moving story, printed posters showing the new seal-trainer gazing into the distance with grave and sorrowful aspect, and the legend: Don’t miss the aquatic show of a lifetime.

The Aquarium had three female seals, Neifila, Lauretta and Snowflake, who lived in the Mammal Pavilion, a concrete cube located near the edge of the Saint Lawrence escarpment. Balzano had a small office attached to the building, and the first act of his tenure was to ask the custodians to move in a cot so that he could work through the nights. He spent his mornings, before the visitors arrived, tossing a rubber ball back and forth with his charges—Neifila was particularly energetic—or pacing along the underwater corridor of clear Plexiglass as they propelled themselves from one end of their tank to the other.

All training took place in the strictest secrecy.

“He’s waiting to reveal the show of the century,” the Aquarium director told the Board of Governors.

But what the Board didn’t know was that Balzano had another spiritual parent besides the inimitable Kuparinen. He had been born in a much warmer country, in a town that, before the modern proliferation of seaside resorts, had celebrated its fishing heritage with a yearly festival. For excellent ecological and economic reasons, local authorities had curtailed the traditional fishery until scarcely a soul remained who subsisted by his nets.

When Felix was about eleven years old, however, the Board of Trade decided that a Fishing Festival, with swimming and diving contests, and the exhibition of traditionally carved figureheads, would enable the community to compete with other seaside towns for coveted tourist dollars. More from politeness than any other motive, they sought the involvement of the Friendly Fishermen’s Society, a once vast organization of which the only arm remaining active was the Widows and Orphans Branch. The head of the Branch at that time was Felix’s uncle, a tall man whose face bore a livid scar where an unsecured halliard had once whipped him across the face during an autumn storm.

Felix’s uncle refused the town’s request utterly.

“Nothing,” he said, “Could be more insulting to the shades of our fathers and brothers than, having robbed them of their livelihoods, to make a mockery of their sacred rites.”

The Board of Trade hired an event-planner. Felix was registered for the swimming competition, though his mother concealed this fact from her brother. One night his uncle came to their house on his way home from the bar. He was, as the saying goes “three sheets to the wind.” Felix, who had always been frightened of his uncle’s quick temper and hideous face, ran halfway up the stairs and crouched there unseen in the darkness. Below, he heard his mother reproaching her brother.

“What are you thinking, coming here in this state?” she said. “You’re going to get arrested, the way you insult people and carry on. What’s the point of this foolish grandstanding?”

Her brother shook off the fog long enough to look her in the eye. “Dignity,” he said, “Is the only point worth making. Dignity is everything.”

Felix’s uncle was actually arrested the day before the festival. It was rumoured he had planned to dump a bucket of rotten fish on the mayor’s head during the opening ceremony, or some other juvenile stunt of that kind. Felix came second in the swimming competition, and later, despite his family’s lack of means, succeeded in going to university and getting his degree in Animal Behaviour. But as the adult Balzano stood beside the seals’ tank and watched them jump and clap their fins for fish as his predecessor had taught them, or wriggle in servile joy at the prospect of a snack, he heard in his heart his uncle’s words: Dignity is everything.

The morning dawned that would launch the ground-breaking show by the talented young Balzano, and members of the public were invited to assemble at the Mammal Pavilion at ten o’clock. The Board of Governors were all there, and the program director had brought his three-year-old niece.

“Just watch,” he told the little girl. “You’ll probably see a flipper stand at least, and some amazing jumps. Neifila can jump four metres.”

Anticipation was building when Balzano emerged wearing his sober khaki uniform and carrying a bucket of fish. The three seals, who had been swimming and playing freely, seemed to take no notice of him, but swam faster and faster until they practically skimmed over the surface of the water, whizzing back and forth. Finally Snowflake, a beautiful fur seal with an unusual mottled pattern in her grey back-fur, crashed to a halt in front of Balzano, creating a wave of water that splashed him up to his stomach.

Balzano held up a fish. As Snowflake stretched her long neck to look at it, the niece of the program director gripped his hand more tightly.

Then Snowflake gave a scornful toss of her head. Spinning on one flipper as lightly as a mermaid, she kicked out with her back flippers and dove into the water, leaving the fish in Balzano’s hand.

During the rest of show, which lasted nearly thirty minutes, the seals refused to do any tricks. They would execute a few of their familiar moves, but in a clownish and mocking fashion, and when he tried to direct them, they scattered to all corners of the tank. Just once, Neifila performed a flipper stand behind his back while he was attempting to make Lauretta roll over. The audience drew his attention to it with delighted shouts and whistles, but when he tried to reward her with a piece of fish, she drew near as if to take it, then splashed him from head to toe as soon as she was in range and flounced away.

In fact, the audience adored the willful seals, and adored even more Balzano’s stoic acceptance each time he failed. When he finally wiped the water out of his eyes and gave a stiff, dignified bow, they cheered uproariously.

The Board of Governors were less sanguine. They reminded each other that the great Kuparinen had been famous for making his seals seem to express emotions that were obviously not possible for animals whose whole psychology consisted of conditioning and fishy tidbits. This new evidence of disdain and self-valuation was surely more of the same. However, when they met with Balzano that evening they did tactfully ask him to consider exploring other themes.

“After all,” they said, “Most of our visitors are exhausted parents and hyperactive toddlers, who will miss the powerful, and entirely valid, subtext of your show.”

Balzano listened without expression, and when they had finished he returned to the Mammal Pavilion. The seals were so over-stimulated from the people crowding around their enclosure all day, they probably wouldn’t sleep for hours. They broke off from their sealish version of Monkey-in-the-Middle to greet their sometimes-trainer with hoarse, friendly barks. Balzano unlocked the snack fridge and gave them fish without asking them to do anything, for free, and when their play brought them near his side of the tank he scratched their stubby ears and told them they were magnificent, and Queens of all they looked upon, and worthy of their ancestors, who had been fierce huntresses of the sea.

If the Board of Governors had hoped to see their seals interpreting emotions of eagerness to please, or gratitude, or anything besides contemptuous indifference, the weeks to come brought only disappointment. Some days the seals refused to do anything but huddle together like teenage girls in the corner of a schoolyard, their heads bobbing up and down in what could never be mistaken for anything other than laughter at the confused spectators.

Things might have gone badly for Balzano were it not for the strange fact that the public loved the transformed seals. And indeed, when they chose to, Neifila, Lauretta and Snowflake invented the most charming games imaginable, showing off leaps and slides like the vainest fighting cocks. As the Aquarium learned to capitalize on Balzano’s rebellious image, he remained everyone’s darling, and even the shark specialist, a statuesque blonde with hair down to her waist, thawed enough to ask him out for dinner.

As dates went, it was a flop. Balzano spent most of the first course propounding his theory of relationships.

“To need someone’s approval,” he said, “To need the other in any way—this is treason against one’s sacred soul. The only healthy relationship is a pitched battle for selfhood.”

The next Saturday, the shark specialist went on a date with the head veterinarian, and Lauretta learned to lasso Neifila with a garden hose that one of the custodians had carelessly left beside their tank.

The crisis that brought this idyllic time to an end came about because of a longstanding agreement with the Monterrey Bay Aquarium, where Neifila had been born, that they would have rights on the pups of her first litter. Accordingly, when she was about four years old, the seal trainers of Monterrey Bay sent their best stud seal in a special climate-controlled tanker truck, across the continent to Quebec.

The male seal was named Hamm. He was a striking reddish-brown colour, weighed 280 kg, and was generally considered the ideal of every lady seal. The handlers in Quebec were advised to lock up Lauretta and Snowflake, lest they become so excited that they disturb the mating couple.

Five minutes after being introduced to Hamm, Neifila bit him.

Although they are used principally for gripping a fish long enough to swallow it whole, a fur seal’s teeth are large and tend to harbour bacteria. When Neifila bit one of the human handlers who had rushed into the enclosure to rescue her from her outraged suitor, they did not scruple to inject her with tranquilizers before dragging her to safety.

Regulations demanded that in all cases of biting a committee be appointed to determine whether the seal ought to be destroyed. It was a tight-lipped little group that sat at the hastily convened meeting. The Quebec Board of Governors would have liked to point at Balzano and say, “This is what you get for teaching seals to be above themselves, for indulging them and encouraging them to misbehave,” but they feared the ridicule of their colleagues from Monterrey Bay. The handler who had been bitten had escaped long enough from the doctors, who were trying to pump him full of antibiotics, to plead urgently that the animal not be harmed, but the meeting adjourned without a decision.

As people were dispersing, the program director drew Balzano to one side. “Young man,” he said, “You should consider your career at the Aquarium to be over.”

Balzano did not really hear the warning; if he had, it would have seemed trivial to him. He went back to the Mammal Pavilion very troubled in spirit. After a brief greeting to Lauretta and Snowflake he went to the place where Neifila was being kept apart, to check that there had been no ill-effects of the tranquilizers.

“Brave girl,” he said, patting her neck, and then stood to pace for a while. He knew that Neifila was being treated unfairly, and injustice of any kind was intolerable to him.

Rather than showing her usual impatience, Neifila had lingered on the side of the tank after he finished inspecting her. She watched him a moment, then balanced on her left flipper while she waved the right one in the air. She repeated the trick on the other side. Then she performed a trick called “scooching”, which had consistently delighted every audience. She kept her face and shoulders close to the ground while her hips stayed high in the air, and propelled herself forward with her hind flippers, looking very much like cartoon version of a bloodhound. It was such a peculiar sight that Balzano laughed aloud. Then he realized that she had sensed his bad mood and was trying to cheer him up. Or no, not cheer him up precisely: appease him.

The realization was like a splash of icy seawater, and he sat down with a thump. This, then, was what came of his well-intentioned meddling. By praising the seals for being themselves, he had made them dependent on his praise. By seeking to free them, he had only enslaved them to his approval. Poor, prideful Neifila, overthrown by the thought that she had offended her master, was the proof of this treason.

Neifila, increasingly distressed by his lack of response, finally resorted to a trick that her former trainer had taught her. Standing in front of him, she heaved her front flippers up onto his knees and pressed her snout against his cheek in a damp, furry kiss.

Balzano recoiled so strongly that Neifila’s chin smacked onto the floor. Without a word he walked out of the Mammal Pavilion and out the gates of the Aquarium, and it is possible that he walked all the way over the Pont de Quebec and down Highway 400 to Montreal, for he was never heard from again.

But Neifila raised herself on her flippers and looked around her. Lauretta and Snowflake were barking their concern from the neighbouring tank, but for the moment she paid them no attention.

The door to her enclosure stood ajar. Balzano’s last gift, the one that might save her life, was just this: her freedom. The only gift, he thought, that one soul could give another. On the other side of the door lay the dim corridor past the offices and store-rooms of the animal trainers. Outside that lay the gravel paths of the Aquarium, and then the trees, and finally a steep, rocky escarpment leading down to the Saint Lawrence Seaway, along which the mighty container ships passed night and day. Not an impassable route, though not one most fur seals would be prepared or able to undertake.

Outside, the dark reaches of the estuary poured into the cold Atlantic, and inside Lauretta and Snowflake were calling to her; but Neifila, who was a huntress of the waves, and Queen of all she looked upon, who could cause amazement and delight by touching the back of her head to her hind flippers, and whose former trainers had always described her as gentle and affectionate, never dreaming that she had teeth—Neifila looked at the open door, and thought as hard as she ever had in her life.

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