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Andre the Seal | 25 Years with Andre

Andre the Seal | 25 Years with Andre
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Harry’s a handsome man with eyes the color of a tranquil Mediterranean Sea, but he can be kind of gruff. Andre was known to bite people when he was in mating season or when he was shedding, and as some reporters know, Harry’s been known to bite, too. “People magazine called up about a year ago and they said, ‘We’re coming up to do a thing on Andre,’ and I said, ‘Well, you better bring me a check for $500,’ and the guy said, ‘What are you talking about? We can’t pay for news!’ Well, that was the end of them. I duck a lot of it! They’re all so damned arrogant. A crew from CBS showed up here the other day, after Andre was found dead. They came marching across the lawn and I said, ‘Hey, you never paid me for the last time. I’ve got nothing for you. I don’t mind if you get right off my property.’ They turned right about-face and walked right off. What they don’t understand is that I didn’t do this with any idea of having Andre become a star or a celebrity and I still don’t give a hoot,” Harry said.If it wasn’t the newspeople he was trying to chase back, it was the Feds. “They passed this law in ‘72 that said you can’t keep a wild animal without a license. These three guys showed up one day and they said look we think you’re breaking the law with that seal of yours and I said I’ve had him long before that law was passed and they said well you let him out don’t you and I said yeah and they said and you let him back in don’t ya and I said yeah and they said well that’s capturing a seal! Well, by the time they were done with me they wished they’d never met me. So, they forgot all about that. Then the Department of Agriculture got after me telling me I needed a license to display an animal and I said I’m not gonna get a license and we went back and forth until the press got hold of it and boy, did they back off, awful fast. Senators went right to Washington and said. ‘Come on, now. This has been going on for years. Leave him alone!’ So, after a while, they didn’t even send anybody down here.”

Animals are the ones Harry gets along with. To him, it’s easy. “It doesn’t take anything special. That’s the way animals are, if you take them over when they’re young enough. Seals, ducks, hell, even crows.” Harry ought to know. He’s had two, one named Klinker and another named Columbus who came to him when he called and went for walks with him perched on his shoulder. “If there is a quality that’s more important than others, I guess it’s patience. But it really doesn’t take much to train a seal. I knew I had something way back when I was diving and I found out how these seals would get so tame, right off. In a lot of ways he trained me.” Though he says he is past the age where he would again raise a seal, Harry thinks that almost any seal could have been trained like Andre. “Of course, they’re just like people. They all have different personalities, but he wasn’t the only seal I trained. I look back at what they did for me and I can’t believe it. Andre knew the difference between blowing his nose with a handkerchief and blowing a whistle. When he’d blow into a handkerchief, he’d make the Bronx cheer sound; when be blew the whistle he’d just blow and not make any sound — now how did he know the difference? I’m darned if I know. He always made me do the thinking. He had his way of talking with me. Just like this thing last fall down at the aquarium. They called me up and told me he hadn’t been eating and had lost a lot of weight. I knew right away that he was homesick and wanted to come home.”

One of the bookshelves in Harry’s office is loaded with yellowing news clippings about Andre, and every day more letters come in.  The thing that intrigues the kids is that it’s true,” Harry said. “It wasn’t a damn Disney Donald Duck thing. Andre was real! Some people couldn’t believe it,” Harry said. “You know that lion, Elsa, in Born Free? Well, maybe I’m jealous, but Elsa went on for only two years. Cripes, this just went on and on and on.”

He also has a drawer full of video tapes, including one full-length feature, entirely in Japanese. That one is Harry’s favorite. “I won’t be playing them for a while, I guess. I haven’t busted up yet but almost. I got a letter yesterday that almost got me going.” He went into the kitchen and came back with a cardboard box stuffed full of letters. “These have come in just in the last week.” He picked one out at random. It was postmarked Springfield, Massachusetts, addressed to “Andre’s Owner, Rockport, Maine.” It was a store-bought card, edged in violet. “With deepest sympathy” the letters scrolled out across the front. “Most of them are like that,” he said. “But this one was a little different. This woman wrote and said, ‘If you don’t mind, I’m writing a note to you from Andre.’ It was a kind of a thank-you to me from Andre, for letting him live free, and she just knew how to do it, she knew just what to say. It kind of got to me.”

Harry is 70 now, though there isn’t much sign of it except for the gray hair. He feels that in some ways — though Andre did not suffer from lack of attention, hell, no — the remarkable seal was never quite given the respect he deserved. “Those marine biologists would never lower themselves to ask me anything about Andre. I should think they’d have been on top of this thing all the time, asking me questions, because I can answer them and they can’t. But . . . no-o-o-o.”

Last fall Andre went blind from cataracts. At least, that is what Harry says. “I  knew he was blind ‘cause he couldn’t see — I didn’t need anyone to tell me that.” Andre could still do most of his tricks, with only one exception: “He couldn’t jump through his hoop — he couldn’t see it. But he could still shoot baskets. I mean, after all these years, he knew where the basket was.”

At the time of his death, Andre was said to be the oldest living harbor seal. “They know of a couple of seals that have lived to be 40 or45,” Harry explained, “These were seals that lived in aquariums. Seals that live in the wild, nobody knows their lifespan. Andre lived a life that most seals don’t live — aquarium seals are one thing and wild seals are another, but he knew both.”

Harry’s been to visit aquariums around the country. In fact, Andre was named after Andre Cowan, a Tahitian trainer at Marineland. He corresponds with some of the trainers and sometimes they swopped tricks. He got the idea to teach Andre to play the ukulele from an aquarium in Seattle. But there is a distance between Harry and this other breed, the professional animal trainer. “At the aquariums they don’t call them tricks or stunts anymore; they call them ‘behaviors’.” Harry said the word with the nasal disdain of a stuffy old dowager. “I guess that’s supposed to dignify it or something. Well, Andre and I still called them tricks. ‘Trained seal’ might be derogatory to some people but not to me. Andre was certainly trained. In fact he probably knew a lot more ‘behaviors’ than most other trained animals — I don’t know what his repertoire was, a hundred tricks, at least, I suppose. I couldn’t remember half of them myself. Toward the end, I couldn’t really think of anything else to teach him. The last thing I taught him was to wave good-bye.”

ABOUT TEN YEARS AGO ANDRE WAS immortalized in stone. A granite statue one-third larger than life was carved — while Andre posed on his float — by Jane Wazey, a well-known sculptor, and was dedicated in place down by Rockport’s boat landing, right where other towns are likely to have statues of their war heroes. A rim of evergreens was planted by Rockport’s Garden Club. After Andre died, fans streamed there, solemn faced. Some brought fresh-cut flowers in vases and set them around his plump likeness. Others stopped and stroked the smooth stone or patted his arched head. Couples took pictures of each other beside the flower-strewn stone. A woman from New York stood staring at the eerie likeness. “I never got to see his show,” she said. “When I heard he’d died, I said, ‘Shoot, I wish I’d gone!’ ” Another woman nearby overheard her and said, “Oh, I used to love it when his trainer would say, ‘Andre, tell me what you think of Flipper,’ and he’d go,” she put her tongue between her teeth, “Pthwttt!”

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2 Responses to Andre the Seal | 25 Years with Andre

  1. Patty M March 24, 2014 at 6:51 pm #

    I’m sure Andre is probably still there.

  2. Cynthia P. April 5, 2014 at 12:04 pm #

    Such a beautiful story. Thank you to Harry for taking such good care of Andre. And thank you God for Harry and Andre finding eachother!!! Xoxoxo :)

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