Sunday, June 28, 2015

Funny Things Guests Say: Baby Orca Edition

Quick quiz: Which of the following animals is an orca?

Is it choice A? (Photo credit to the amazing Tasli Shaw)

Choice B?

How about choice C?

Don't forget about choice D!

If you answered "c", you're not only correct, you're apparently in a very small minority of human beings with the ability to correctly identify this animal.

There is something happening in the world I cannot explain.  Like, I'm legit terrified of what it means.  We in the Western world are so obsessed with apocalyptic storylines and zombie movies, we wonder all the time "could it ever..."?  We answer Facebook poles that predict (I'm sure very accurately) how long we will survive in a zombie scenario.  But guys, I think SOMETHING LIKE THAT IS HAPPENING RIGHT NOW.

Braaiiinnnnzzzz (side note: If you don't play Plants Vs Zombies, you really haven't lived)

There must be a virus that infects people's brains and makes them think that everything they see is a killer whale.  I. Don't. Get. It.

First, let's give credit where credit is due.  One of the reasons why zoos and aquariums are awesome is because they expose people to animals they've never seen in their lives, or haven't seen up close.  They also inspire people to care about them, especially the people who are not inherent animal lovers like you and I.  Someone who has no problem running over a raccoon because "they vermin" can do a total 180 when they go to a zoo and see raccoons in action in their adorable, intelligent ways.  

I'm all ears.

So I get it, people know what killer whales are, and may have a vague understanding of what they look like (you know, black and white and shaped like a fish).  So when they go to a facility with Commerson's dolphins, it's understandable they'd think they're looking at baby killer whales.  That's kind of a twofer, too.  Commerson's dolphins are not a species that's recognizable by anyone other than the Cetacean Nerds* in the vast majority of cases.  Plus, they live in really cold water in remote regions of the world.**  

But like, WHY do people think Asian small-clawed otters are baby orcas?  I have wracked my brain to come up with a logical answer that will quell my fears that there is actually a brain virus infecting mankind that will eventually turn us all into the living dead or worse, politicians.

Otters DO share some things in common with orcas, such as: two eyes, a mouth with a tongue and some teeth, and bones.  Also, they swim.

However, if we did a Venn Diagram of orcas and ASCOs, I think we'd see something that looks like two circles that appear to share a small space, but you'd need a scanning electron microscope to be sure they overlap at all.

Is this a donut?  It has similar qualities such as: it is donut-shaped and also, it is an inanimate object.
Or is THIS a hemorrhoid pillow?  Same qualities shared as one as above.  And now I'm confused.

Black and white animals within 50 feet of a water source (including but not limited to: a water dish) are also eligible for misidentification by guests.  Our African penguins where I work are sometimes referred to as "baby killer whales", which really upsets them because you know, birds are very emotional animals with giant egos and they are very proud to be NON mammal warm-blooded creatures thank you very much.   

But like, what about sea lions?  Sea lions.  Orcas EAT those.  You've seen it on TV.  You've seen it on Facebook, or commercials or movies.  So why, after a sea lion show where we've used the phrase "sea lion" 67,395 times do guests ask me, "So is those baby orcas?"

Can we get this guy to work in guest services at every zoo everywhere?

My colleagues and I were puzzled by a recent onslaught of Trip Advisor reviews on our facility in which not one but TWO comments went on and on about how much they loved the orca/killer whale show.  

I mean, YES! We love good Trip Advisor reviews!

But wait where did they see the orcas?  This mystery poisons my mind; WHICH animals did they perceive as orcas?  One of the comments specifically said they enjoyed the "dolphin/killer whale show."  So they went to our dolphin show.  The one with the bottlenose dolphins.  The gray ones.  Did they see something else in there?  Should we be concerned?

I thought maybe they were reviewing the wrong park, but they went on to describe other facets of our facility that are unique to us.  And so the enigma endures.

Here's something I just thought about as I write this (this is very therapeutic for me to pen this blog, actually): most people seem to refer to them as BABY orcas.  This isn't just the case at my place, I've heard many of you out there at other facilities experience this same issue.  Perhaps it's wishful thinking, or maybe a slight misunderstanding of mammalian development that leads people to identify animals as "baby" orcas.  

"I'd LOVE to see an orca today.  Hey, what's that thing swimming in that habitat?  Um, um, um, probably not an adult orca SO IT MUST BE A BABY!"

We are all susceptible to such thinking.

Okay, let's go with this logic because I think I'm on to something.  Perhaps there are several stages of development of a baby killer whale that lead up to its final form and that's what we've been missing.  All this time we figured they follow the typical, boring pattern of placental mammals.  You know the drill, chick gets knocked up, blastulas and embryos and fetuses and some uncomfortable hours of muscle contractions and then out pops a smaller version of the adult.

But no.  Orcas may follow a pattern similar to a fish or an insect, with larval stages and everything.  Here's my hypothesis:

Step One: Mom orca gets pregnant

Step Two: Mom orca gives birth to an Asian small-clawed orca

Step Three: Asian small-clawed otter turns into an African penguin (where it is now black and white)

Step Four: African penguin turns into a sea lion (you know, for flipper development and to go back into a mammal)

Step Five: Sea lion turns into Commerson's dolphin

Step Six: Commerson's dolphin grows into a beautiful big killer whale

I'm feeling pretty good about my hypothesis, obviously.

Yeah, baby orcas probably have at least six developmental stages outside of the uterus.  Evolutionary biologists, I challenge you to find a flaw in THAT iron-clad scientific hypothesis!

The only other logical explanation is that the Matrix is real and the people who are identifying other animals as "orca" are expressing a glitch in the Matrix.  And we should be really aware of this because I mean, that's some heavy #*%@.

I...I.... don't know

I've heard of other serious misidentification problems with zoo animals:

* "Hey look at these wolverines!" (North American river otters)

* "Wow, that's a big manatee" (Loggerhead sea turtle)

* "Those baby seals are so cute!" (Asian small-clawed otters)

* "Awww those are such cute seahorses!" (Mysid shrimp)

* "Is that a baby lion fish?" (Sailfin tang)

* "Is that a baby flamingo?" (Ibis)

* "What happened to that walrus's tusks? Did you remove them?" (Manatee)

* "Those are baby tuna and baby mahi!" (Redfish and permit, respectively)

I'm sure many of you have oodles and oodles of hilarious examples (and please share them).  

But until we figure out why people are seeing baby orcas everywhere, I will not have a good night's sleep.  All we can do is band together and attempt to identify a pattern, because that pattern will lead to a CURE.  

A baby orca in the hand is worth two in real life.

* Of which I've been a card-carrying member since 1994

** In fact, of the 40+ species of dolphins on the planet, I'm willing to bet most people can identify about two 


  1. Kangaroos are bunnies. Muntjacs are kangaroos. The Emu is an ostrich. The latter is the only one that somewhat makes sense.
    I get all of these every day!

  2. The hippos at BG were usually manatees but sometimes they were walruses!

  3. A little girl walks up to the ringtail enclosure and said 'Look Mummy, lemurs!' To which her mother responded 'No, that's a monkey'. The poor child is doomed.

  4. Great, fun post as always. We get a lot, sometimes understandable, miss-indetifications. But the best ones I've had where I work are running up to our otter ponds yelling "look, crocodiles!" And the one I will always remember, seeing a flock of sheep in an adjacent field and thinking they were polar bears! :-)

  5. Look at that llama in the tree (lemur) look at the female lion (poor male with a mane having a melt down) capybara are hamsters also agouti are baby capybara. Prairie dog a baby pudu... List goes on. Please can you do a blog about visitors hilarious jokes. Like oh that's a funny looking animal (keeper) or I hope that monkey doesn't throw it's poo (will do if I hear that again- angry keeper)

  6. My girlfriend is a zookeeper and points me to this blog from time to time (thank you for always providing me with a smile). Bar none, the worst offense I've heard was labeling red kangaroo as emus. The conversation went roughly as such:

    "Look at those! They look like small kangaroos."
    "The sign says they're emus."

    Never mind that the sign also said that the exhibit also had red kangaroos *and* pictures of emus. I guess they get bonus points for actually trying to read the informational displays instead of inventing theories (a la zebra antelope hybrids for okapi). But still a rather bizarre and disturbing failure.

    Meanwhile, I'm excited to learn that Denver Zoo has at least three stages of baby orcas! I wonder where they're going to put them when they grow up???

  7. I once was standing at sea turtle and had a father tell his family they were walruses. One of the most common I heard was beluga whales being called polar bears.

  8. Our porpoises (p.phocoena) are baby dolphins, baby orca's, seals, otters, baby whales, etc.The walrusses are often called seacows.

  9. "Look at those birds!" (Sea lions)

  10. obnoxiouswhalenerdJuly 3, 2015 at 7:14 PM

    Duuuude! There are cards for members of the cetacean nerddom?!?1

  11. I second obnoxiouswhalenerd

    But even?? Does this happen?? I, no wonder Blackfish is so popular, if this is the IQ level of the general public.

    I'm so curious what facility you work at to look at the TripAdvisor reviews. But I know you'll never tell. *sigh*

  12. Goeldi = baby gorilla
    Tree kangaroo = opossum
    Malayan tapir = ant eater

  13. had a guest ask where our unicorns were in reference to the Arabian oryx.
    our Brazilian tapir has been called a pig (baring in mind I work in a zoo in a muslim country where pigs apparently don't exist XD)

  14. Commerson's Dolphins: oh look baby Shamu!
    Orca: look a whale shark (I kid you not)
    Humpback whale: black whale!
    Bottlenose dolphin: what type of dolphin is that? (Ignores fifty signs saying its a bottlenose) oh, it must just be a common dolphin.
    Basking shark: megaladon/great white shark

    I was also at Epcot once and the gates are mesh, and one guy was like, "there's the mommy and baby dolphin (Malabar and Calvin, two male adults) and some more dolphins back in the cage!" Like seriously WHHHHYYYY