The Seal

The Seal

From Chicken Soup for the Canadian Soul

The Seal

At the age of fourteen, I landed one of the most sought-after summer jobs in Vancouver—I became an attendant at the Stanley Park Children’s Zoo. Few of us are fortunate enough to experience the perfect job, but for the next five summers, I did just that.

Zoo designers from around the globe asked for tours because they had heard that our children’s zoo was one of, if not the, best there was. The children’s zoo, an integral part of one of the world’s most beautiful areas within a city, Stanley Park, was ahead of its time. Pits were used instead of cages, and zoo attendants worked hard to make each habitat different and exciting for the animal that lived there.

Orphaned members of the local native wildlife were also brought to our zoo for care. Everything from baby pigeons to owlets, fawns to porcupines were given the best possible attention.

The harbour seal pups in our care were kept in the back building, away from small fingers. Twice a day, we would bring them out to the man-made pond in the contact area and allow them to swim. The pond was at the bottom of a waterfall of fresh, cold water.

One day, as I waded in the thigh-deep, icy water with two seal pups, some people gathered to watch. The pups stayed close to me, surfacing occasionally to catch a breath and look around. I saw a boy, about ten years of age, pointing at one and calling to his mother to come and see.

As I walked around, feeling my legs turning numb, the boy yelled, “Hey! Where’s the other one?”

While one of the seals was nuzzling my leg, my eyes scoured the pond for the other, Spica. The water was clear, as well as cold, and it was soon obvious Spica wasn’t where he should be. My heart skipped a beat as I realized he had swum under a rock formation, which was there to hide the drain. There was a small, fist-sized hole on one end of the formation, and another hole, just large enough for a baby seal, on the other end. But I was quite certain that the inside area was too narrow for Spica to turn around in.

“Oh no!” yelled the boy. “The little seal is under the rocks and can’t get out. He’s going to drown!”

Everyone in the zoo came to the edge of the pond to watch the drama unfold. I was terrified and called to another attendant to take the other pup to safety. I dove under the water and felt the small hole. Sure enough, Spica was trying to get through it. I knew that the pond would take hours to drain. I also knew that seals could hold their breath for twenty minutes or longer, but I didn’t know if a week-old seal in an agitated state could.

And then, just like a white knight riding to the rescue, one of the men who worked at the main zoo arrived. Ken was a good friend to all of us and often spent his breaks at the Children’s Zoo. He ran over, assessed the situation, and whipped off his shirt and shoes. Jumping in, he dove under and tried to reach Spica through the larger of the openings. He couldn’t even touch him.

“Okay, Diane,” he said to me. “Dive under and push him back as far as you can. I’ll try to grab him from this side. Ready? Go!” he commanded.

I held my breath, found Spica’s muzzle still near the small opening and pushed as hard as I could. My head throbbed from the frigid water, and my lungs wanted to hyperventilate. Every ounce of my being screamed to get out of that freezing water. It took every thread of strength I had to stay put.

Finally, I could no longer feel Spica, and with my stomach in knots, I stood up. Precious time had gone by, and Spica had been motionless, offering no resistance when I had pushed. The little boy among the spectators was now providing a play-by-play account: “Oh, the poor thing! He is suffering so much! His little lungs are probably exploding. The poor little seal . . . he’s dead by now.”

Suddenly, after what seemed like forever, Ken burst out of the water, gasping and coughing. He was holding a very limp body. I looked at Ken, and he lowered his eyes as he shook his head. The crowd, even the little boy, was silent.

And then, Spica raised his head, and in the way of infant seals, cooed at me.

The audience let out a cheer and applauded loudly, generously patting Ken, my new hero, on the back. He handed me the pup and I snuggled the wet, slick fur, revelling in the intense relief.

I glanced around, searching for the boy. I found him, standing perfectly still and absolutely quiet, while tears ran down his face and dripped into the pond.

Diane C. Nicholson
Falkland, British Columbia

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