Andre the Seal | 25 Years with Andre
Aside from Andre, Harry had five kids, ages 7 to 19, and they were used to their father’s animals — there had been a robin named Reuben, a pigeon named Walter, and a sea gull named Sam Segal. Even a bat that he’d trained to eat flies from his hand. The seals were more fun. Before Andre, their father had brought home Marky and then Basil. The year before, Life magazine had come up and taken pictures of Basil and Harry underwater and made a big picture story out of it and called it “Skin Diver’s Best Friend.” Skin diving was a brand-new sport, and the whole idea of man befriending seal, or vice versa, was, well, news. But shortly after that, Basil was eaten by a shark on one of Harry’s shark-hunting expeditions.
Now here was Andre. Andre swam with them and went sledding with them. He splashed around in their bathtub and watched Flipper with them on TV in their living room. He rode around in the back of the station wagon, startling neighbors with his forthright gaze. And, like a dog, Andre was trained. Harry taught him to shake hands and hide his eyes with his flipper as if in shame. He learned to leap through a motorcycle tire like a dolphin. Crowds gathered at the town landing when Harry went down to feed Andre. Word spread about this, and by the time he was a year old he was on his way to becoming a star.
In those early years, he spent quite a bit of time inside the Goodridges’ house, which is just up the hill from the harbor. The first year he was up at the house just about every day, sometimes all day. After a while he’d disappear during the day. “That was OK because I figured eventually he’d go wild anyway,” Harry recalled later on that chilly summer day, after his visit to Andre’s grave. “But then he’d come back at night and get up onto the float and wait for me to come down and pick him up. Every damn night. I always had a fear that someone from a zoo or an aquarium would grab him so I kept my eye on him and took him home. I could carry him under my arm back then.” Harry stopped a minute. He was in his home office which used to be headquarters for his tree business from which he is now retired. In those early days, Andre used to doze beside the desk here while Harry worked on his books. Most of what surrounds Harry now has to do not with trees but with Andre. Though Harry’s children are all grown up and he’s got grandchildren in high school, there is only one picture on the wall: a lifesize framed photo of Andre. Harry laughed and continued, “He still liked to come up here, but toward the end it took four men to carry him.”
“But that was the first year,” Harry said, shifting back into the past, “and when winter came, the harbor froze over and the ice cakes were banging together, smash, smash, smash, and I didn’t see him again for five months.”
Whatever perils Andre survived in the wild will remain unknown, but those he survived within the kingdom of mankind at times seemed insurmountable. It wasn’t just the ice but also the lobstermen and the fishermen, some of whom got plain fed up with Andre and the way he’d sleep in their boats at night and pull on their oars when they were trying to row out to their boats. Maybe give them a good splash, just for fun. There were threats and there were some unpleasantries. Harry, who was the Rockport harbormaster back then, began to fear for Andre’s life.
Through all this came the idea of wintering Andre at an aquarium. Seals are nonmigratory, but Andre became half-migratory. In the late fall, usually November, Harry would load Andre into the back of his station wagon and drive him down the turnpike to the aquarium. And every spring Harry would go back down and take Andre to a safe harbor. Harry would guide him down to the water’s edge and he’d say, “Go home, Andre!” and Andre would flop into the water and disappear. Harry would drive back up to Rockport alone and wait. And every time, once within four days and once not for two weeks, Andre made his way back home to Rockport, mystifying biologists and providing the press with something to watch every spring. In all, Andre spent six winters at the New England Aquarium in Boston and four winters at the Mystic Aquarium in Mystic, Connecticut, from which he returned at last and for good, early last winter, after refusing to eat until Harry came after him.
Even Harry never imagined it would go on for as long as it did. “Many years I’d say, well, next year I’ll have him do this or do that and then I’d say oh, no, what if he doesn’t come back. I kept saying that and saying that all those years. I mean, there was always that chance that he wouldn’t come back.”
Nor did he imagine that Andre would be around long enough to be the ring bearer at his daughter Toni’s wedding. Toni was seven years old when Andre came to the Goodridges. She was 26 when she got married, and it might be one of the favorite tricks Harry taught Andre. “The wedding was on a town float and we had a diver underwater with the ring. Andre was on the float with the wedding party. So when the minister asked for the ring, whump, he was overboard and in a minute or so he was back with the ring. He got up onto the float and humped over — not to me! — to the best man, just like we’d rehearsed it.”
And then there were the shows that Andre and Harry put on in Rockport every day between April and October. “We didn’t charge for the show, never,” Harry said. “We passed the hat, but I couldn’t charge for the show anyway, not with the facilities we had there. People had to stand up, and half the time there was old lobster bait stinking up the place. It could get pretty nasty, but they still came. And I didn’t advertise, heavens, no. People came from all over the world, really.” Harry stopped to dig around in his desk and came up with a couple of snapshots of a crowd on the dock that might be described as a mob. “There was never a sign saying what time the show was. People just knew. What? How did they know?” Harry looked disgusted. “Do you realize how many TV shows he’s been on? ‘ Real People.’ Charles Kuralt. Dan Rather. Tom Brokaw. And every major magazine except Time.” He stopped, giving the snapshot a hard look.
“What could I do? I couldn’t just say the hell with you people. If I had stopped doing it, the town would have been deluged with people wanting to know why.” Harry flung his arms around as if he might be able to find the answer to all this out there somewhere. Finally he said, “I just didn’t know how to not do it, that’s all.”