Who Is the Walrus?

The New York Times
By NATALIE ANGIER
Published: May 20, 2008

I was about to meet a walrus for the first time in my life, and I felt fabulous. After all, Ronald J. Schusterman of the University of California, Santa Cruz, who has studied them for years, had assured me over the phone that to meet a walrus was to fall in love with walruses — the mammals were that smart, friendly and playful. “They’re pussycats!” he said.

Just as we were entering the walrus house at Six Flags Discovery Kingdom in Vallejo, Calif., however, Dr. Schusterman tossed out a bit of advice. “The first thing the walruses will do when they come over is start pushing at you, pressing their heads right into your stomach,” he said. “Don’t let them get away with that. No matter how hard they push, you have to stand your ground.”

I stopped short, confused.

“If you don’t stand your ground, you’ll be knocked over or backed against a wall in no time,” Dr. Schusterman said.

But but … I sputtered. How was I supposed to stand my ground against an animal the size of a Honda Civic? This sounded less like “friendly and playful” than “aggressive and possibly dangerous.”

“Just push back on the snout with the palm of your hand and blow in its face,” Dr. Schusterman instructed. “A walrus really likes to be blown in the face.”

But suddenly there I was in the pen, time expanding as I watched Sivuqaq, a 2,200-pound adult male, roll toward me like a gelatinous, mustachioed boulder and head straight for my solar plexus. Somehow, either out of professional pride or rigid terror, I managed to stay standing and stuck out my palm; when Sivuqaq nuzzled against it, all my fears fell away. I stroked his splendid vibrissae, the stiff, sensitive whiskers that a walrus uses to search for bivalves through the seabed’s dark murk, and that feel like slender tubes of bamboo. Then I blew in his face, and he half-closed his eyes, and I huffed and puffed harder and he leaned into my breath, all the while bleating and grunting and snorting for more.

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