Captive

by Kate Black

Kate Black is a Vancouver-based writer from St. Albert, AB. Her literary journalism has appeared in Eighteen Bridges, Glass Buffalo, New Trail, and Maisonneuve. She’s completing an MFA in creative writing at the University of British Columbia, where she’s writing a collection of short fiction.

West Edmonton Mall is no longer the largest mall in the world, but it’s hard to imagine anything more lofty or oppressive. This Saturday, the one straddling Thanksgiving weekend, is no different. The parking lot is sardined with pickups, all with little regard for the sanctity of stall lines. You can smell Bath and Body Works’ chemical perversion of autumn before you even see the storefront. People come from everywhere, carrying plastic bags.

I came here to find peace.

The entrance to the Sea Life Caverns aquarium is the gaping mouth of a giant neon lionfish. It’s in the weirdest, most humid wing of the mall. Behind the fish is the world’s largest indoor lake, home to an exact replica of Columbus’s Santa Maria and the tank where the mall’s resident sea lions perform three times a day. An opera singer is singing a breathy aria from the Santa Maria. I walk to the booth and pay my 12-dollar entry free. The attendant stamps the word OCTOPUS in purple letters on my hand.

When I walk through the fish’s big lips and take the stairs into the underground aquarium, I feel like I’m here in secret, descending into the crawlspace of my brain. It smells like my childhood. I grew up in the suburban shadow of West Edmonton Mall. When I was a kid, I had little interest in shopping. I always came here with my parents under the promise of seeing the animals.

An important detail: I’m vegan. I’m almost ashamed to say what a caricature I’ve become. I haven’t eaten fish in three years and the smell of rotisserie chicken turns my stomach. Another detail: I love aquariums. It doesn’t make sense to me, either. I know aquariums are bad. Zoos, too.

I mean, it’s complicated. Of course, many zoos and aquariums play some role in rehabilitating wild, at-risk species. According to their website, the Vancouver Aquarium rehabilitates and releases more than 150 mammals every year. The San Diego Zoo is trying to breed white rhinos out of near-extinction, using cells from their massive animal cryobank.

Considering this fraught history and present, it’s embarrassing that aquariums have an allure I can’t quite place or rationalize. All this intellectualizing fades away when I dissociate into a school of fish moving like one body.

But even the most well-intentioned zoos are home to harmful power dynamics. In his book, A Different Nature, Australian zookeeper David Hancocks writes that looking at animals in enclosures is paradoxical: it performs the “reverence that humans hold for Nature” while “seeking to dominate it and smother its very wildness.” The historical connection between the exoticizing gaze of zoos and the violence of colonialism shouldn’t be ignored, either. In her article, “Dehumanized Denizens, Displayed Animals: Prison Tourism and the Discourse of the Zoo,” Kelly Struthers Montford argues that zoos and prison tours “form an interlocking system of oppression.” Early European zoos, after all, displayed animals alongside racialized, hypersexualized, and disabled humans to exert their own imperial dominance. With this history in mind, Struthers Montford argues that zoos not only reinforce human superiority, but “should be considered an institution embedded in and productive of racist, sexist, ableist, and speciesist orderings of life.”

Considering this fraught history and present, it’s embarrassing that aquariums have an allure I can’t quite place or rationalize. All this intellectualizing fades away when I dissociate into a school of fish moving like one body. I’ve cried while taking in the splendour and ceremony of SeaWorld’s Shamu show (pre-Blackfish). Looking at animals feels good.

 

Animals have always been a part of West Edmonton Mall—which has been home to three tigers, a flock of flamingos, and a puppy-mill outpost of a pet store, not to mention the marine animals and reptiles in Sea Life Caverns. But none have lured Edmonton’s imagination—and my own—like the dolphins.

West Edmonton Mall’s four dolphins—Howard, Maria, Mavis, and Gary—were captured as babies in 1985. They began dying in 2000. I wasn’t old enough to remember Maria, who was the first to die. I do remember the short year when the show featured three dolphins before Gary died. Watching the dolphins standing on their tails and jumping through impossibly tall hoops spoke to my Flipper and Free Willy-obsessed psyche. I wrote that I wanted to be a West Edmonton Mall dolphin trainer in my kindergarten scrapbook.

My fascination with the mall dolphins also instilled in me an early sense of mortality. Maria and Mavis gave birth to five calves during their lives in the mall, and each one was either stillborn or died in the days following birth. Mavis’ last baby was stillborn during mall hours in 2002. An Edmonton Journal article documented mall-goers and their children watching Mavis nudge her baby’s limp body around the pool.

“Look at these kids asking why hasn’t it woken up,” said one mall-goer. “It should be taken out of here, because all these kiddies are seeing this.”

“Mall patrons may be somewhat saddened by it, but it seems a reasonable approach to take for the animal,” another added.

Mavis died one year after having her last baby. I remember watching Howard swim in lonely, disinterested circles around his lagoon. I was nine years old and felt a deep dread watching him, knowing that Howard was doomed. I would open my parents’ copy of The Edmonton Sun every morning to see if the last dolphin had died yet. One night in May 2004, Howard was quietly and unceremoniously moved to a place called Theater of the Sea in Florida. He died there, one year later. In 2005, West Edmonton Mall brought three sea lions to live and perform in the dolphin’s former lagoon.

 

The noise of the sea lion show fades as I descend into Sea Life Caverns. The aquarium is nearly empty and silent, save for the trickling echo of running water. The cavern itself is a long hallway, punctuated with backlit fish tanks and touch pools. True to its name, walking into the underground aquarium feels like walking into a cave, the ceiling low and surfaced with artificial rocks. It’s strangely womb-like, a protection from the chaos of the mall on a Saturday.

An aquarium employee grins and shows me how to properly pet the bamboo sharks, which look more like lazy catfish. I run my middle and index finger along the smallest one’s back. It feels like wet sandpaper.

“Do you have any questions?” the employee asks, beaming.

Where did the fish come from? Do you think they’re happy here?

I don’t want to seem like I’m judging her. At home, it’s so much easier for me to think negatively, even extremely, about aquariums and the people that work in them. I don’t want to be critical around someone who genuinely seems to love her job. After all, I wanted to come here.

I was a nervous, sensitive kid who collected animal facts like others did sea glass or hockey cards.

I budge. “Which animal’s your favourite?”

“Those guys.” She gestures to the tank of Cownose rays. They flap like magic carpets, occasionally turning their bellies to the glass, exposing a placid, patient smile. The employee has the same earnest thrill about animals that I had as a child.

I was a nervous, sensitive kid who collected animal facts like others did sea glass or hockey cards. I remember feeling deeply frustrated with my Grade 1 teacher during our animal units. Obviously, I would wearily explain, koalas, kangaroos, and opossums are all related, because they are all marsupials. I needed dark blue paint to finish my flying squirrel diorama because they’re nocturnal. Obviously.

Every summer, I’d spend a week at the Edmonton Valley Zoo day camp. I’d build cardboard box toys for Lucy the elephant, whose captivity gathered wide-spread attention and compelled The Price Is Right’s Bob Barker to travel to Edmonton to plead for her release. At camp, I learned about the ivory trade, decided poachers were my mortal enemies, and wept at the idea of elephants and rhinos being hunted.

I felt, and still feel, love for any animal. Animals have never scared me. Not snakes or bears or big dogs—even the big dogs who have bitten me. Reverence? Maybe, in the way you might shrink in front of your grandmother. But fear? Never. Fearlessness didn’t mean I was brave, though.

The voices and bodies of shoppers were like a wave, their voices reverberating off fluorescent lights reflecting off slick metal reflecting off reflections of mirrors turned onto mirrors of myself watching myself die.

 

The first shopping mall was supposed to be paradise. Victor Gruen designed Minnesota’s Southdale Center in the image of the ancient Greek agora and Europe’s palatial arcades: a vital community space, replete with fountains and an aviary. Gruen hated cars. He dreamed of a salve to the isolation of the suburbs.

When I was 11, I forgot how to breathe in a mall. I was shopping for a new shirt with my mom. There was a lull in our conversation over frosted glasses of A&W root beer. Suddenly, my ears clogged like I was plunging into deep water. The voices and bodies of shoppers were like a wave, their voices reverberating off fluorescent lights reflecting off slick metal reflecting off reflections of mirrors turned onto mirrors of myself watching myself die.

“What are you doing?” my mom—tired, a nurse—asked.

“I, uh, can’t breathe?” I squeaked. The world was opening beneath me. I felt my heart in my fingers.

“You’re breathing. If you can’t breathe you can’t talk. Plus, look.” She took my clammy palm into hers. “If you weren’t breathing, your hands would be purple.”

But I wasn’t breathing. I was sure of it. I felt like at any given moment I would be gasping for air, palming at my throat, just like on the emergency medicine shows I had watched on TV.

“Kate.”

“What?”

“You’re holding your breath.”

 

Some variation of this episode—thinking I was on the verge of death—happened nearly every week until I graduated high school and had it named Anxiety. Until then, I spent most days sick with the threat of it. The feeling, like I was always on the lip of losing consciousness, was so nauseating that the idea of finally fainting, or just not existing, seemed like it would be the greatest relief.

Being around animals helped, though. My mom would drive me an hour away twice a week for horseback riding lessons. I had to at least pretend to be calm around horses, who are triggered, even made dangerous, when they sense your nerves. I would spend my days rapt with social anxiety at school, but spent my weekends losing myself in the social organization of horses: learning the difference between the friendliness of perked ears and the threat of flattened ones, cataloging which members of the herd couldn’t be approached from behind without kicking. I knew my place in the barn. I wasn’t in charge—the horses were stronger—but I felt in control.

Extended family members gave me books written by the American animal scientist Temple Grandin, who used her lived experience as a person with autism to relate to the anxieties of animals. My family must have seen a connection between Grandin and me: sensitive people who felt at home around animals. Maybe they also saw Grandin as a relief—that “different,” animal-obsessed girls had hope for a productive future. But Grandin didn’t stay my hero for long. When I saw her on TV being praised for designing curved corrals and “hug machines” to reduce anxiety in cattle being led to slaughter, I shelved her books next to my mom’s copy of The Difficult Child.

 

I’m safe underground, sitting in front of Sea Life Cavern’s main attraction: a tank brimming with fish and nurse sharks and sea turtles. They swim in the same direction, counter-clockwise, briefly disappearing from their tank’s frame, then reappearing on the other side. It looks like something you’d use to help babies fall asleep. Lulling.

I almost forgot the reason I’m in Edmonton this weekend. I’m here for the one-year memorial for a friend who died young, accidentally and violently.

I’ve never had a close friend die before. I’ve spent all year staring at the grief, trying to solve the problem of it. Instead, it still lingers like a heavy shape in my head, one that floats in and out of focus, one that gets heavier or lighter depending on the day, for reasons I don’t understand. When I’m looking at the sea turtles, I think I can feel the grief-shape floating away.

Research shows that visiting aquariums lowers people’s blood pressure and anxiety. Psychologists theorized why this might be. One theory is that evolution has predisposed humans to feel at ease around healthy plants and animals; they used to bode well for our survival. Another theory is that an aquarium’s visual difference from the stress of daily life—the meditative sway of seaweed, the glide of sting rays—is relaxing in itself.

In the centuries before English naturalist Philip Henry Gosse began writing, the ocean was a horrible place, home to imagined horse-headed sea serpents and mermaids. Gosse not only popularized home aquariums but coined the term itself in his 1854 instructional book, Aquarium: An Unveiling of the Wonders of the Deep Sea. In one section of the book, Gosse advises readers to venture to the beach at low tides under a full moon, armed with a wicker basket to collect specimens. His vivid, candy-coloured illustrations of crabs, sea anemone, and kelp made the unknown—once considered terrifying—enchanting. The deeply religious Gosse likened studying sea creatures in his aquarium to being in the presence of God. It was the closest we could come to truly understanding something as unknowable as a higher deity’s will. Aquariums are so normal to us now, but for Gosse, looking at anemone in a tank was rapturous.

 

I feel something drain from my brain as I watch the fish swim slow circles in front of me. Below everything, there’s still a quiet sadness: I shouldn’t be enjoying this. Aquariums are bad, and yet—

Sometimes I feel smug about the moral rules I’ve created for myself. I like to imagine physical barriers between me and the things I will not do on principle. I picture a concrete slab between myself and eating chicken, for example, another between myself and getting single-use to-go cups from coffee shops. When I walk around the mall, I feel rich and grounded with these barriers—not that I’m better than the other mall-people with disposable coffee cups, but that my life is more organized, safer, than their chaotic one.

But being in the aquarium, noticing how I feel here, I think: the line I draw between the things I will and won’t do is hardly a line. The line is as emotional and frustrating as I am.

I hear a flutter of small footsteps run down the aquarium’s stairs.

“Holy mackerel, are those bamboo sharks?” A boy around the age of seven barrels through the aquarium, holding a stuffed shark toy under his armpit.

I remember an animal fact: a tracked shark named Nicole swam from South Africa to Australia and back in nine months. Another: the great white shark has never lived successfully in captivity. The most recent attempt was in 2016 in Japan, where the shark died within just three days, bashing its head into its tank’s walls and refusing food. Great whites must swim constantly for water to pass over their gills, providing them with oxygen.

“Hey, look at the Dory fish, Ethan!”

“It’s a blue tang, Dad.”

I move to the one part of Sea Life Caverns that I don’t like: the penguin enclosure. 12 African penguins sit in a shallow diorama that is no longer than two pickup trucks parked bumper-to-bumper. They all look depressed. Or maybe just tired? Maybe I’m projecting.

One year later, I’m still hung up on the question that feels both too simple and too slippery to hold: how can someone be here in one second and then be gone forever?

In his own memoir, Phillip Henry Gosse’s son, Edmund, wrote that his father’s books made aquariums—and capturing wild sea life—more popular than he could have imagined. Imagining that he was responsible for the depletion of English shore’s rich tidal pools cost Phillip “great chagrin,” Edmund wrote. Phillip made aquariums to make sense of a higher power. But, as Edmund lamented, the “rough paw of well-meaning, idle-minded curiosity” destroyed the sublime paradise Phillip first admired. His intention to come closer to God was corrupted.

Gruen had a similar goal in his design of the first mall. While not religiously motivated, he wanted to contain something essential and precious: human connection and community. Gruen, too, ended up being disappointed with the ultimate outcome of his creation. Initially, Gruen’s vision was for malls to be one segment of a greater pedestrian-first urban centre. But developers ran with the idea of the mall and the rest of Gruen’s vision was never realized. Gulfed by a massive parking lot, a True North for urban sprawl, his Southdale—and malls writ large—became exactly the opposite of what Gruen had hoped.

“We all should have known better,” he wrote in a letter to a friend.

 

A crowd of more voices stampedes down Sea Life Caverns’ stairs. The sea lion show must have ended.

I think I’m ready to leave the aquarium. I don’t really feel better. It’s like wonder-plus-guilt. Distraction-plus-moral shame. The sea turtles look nice, but I’m still sad. One year later, I’m still hung up on the question that feels both too simple and too slippery to hold: how can someone be here in one second and then be gone forever?

I said I came into the mall and the aquarium to find relief, as if grief is something to be relieved. My friend’s death undermined rules I used to give order to my life: that I will live to be old, that I will be alive tomorrow. As I’ve done before, I tried to find order in another species. I’ve tried observing my grief like it’s a small fish in a clear bowl.

Hordes of children and listless parents fill each foot of empty space around me. Sticky-fingered kids plunge their hands into the bamboo shark tank and grope them with more than two fingers. People take flash photos of the snapping turtles and knock on the penguins’ glass wall to get their attention. The low ceilings of the cavern feel even lower.

As I climb back up the stairs and into the louder, brighter side of the fish’s mouth, the boy with the stuffed shark sits unbothered and charmed with the sea turtles and nurse sharks. The woman on the Santa Maria is no longer singing, so the mall just sounds like footsteps bouncing off footsteps, voices bouncing off voices. I think of the boy with the shark under his arm. I wish him a little safety, a little wonder.

 


Kate Black is a Vancouver-based writer from St. Albert, AB. Her literary journalism has appeared in Eighteen Bridges, Glass Buffalo, New Trail, and Maisonneuve. She’s completing an MFA in creative writing at the University of British Columbia, where she’s writing a collection of short fiction.

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