LONDON, ONTARIO – It is the first law of the freelance jungle that whenever somebody seems to be offering you any kind of work, you must immediately say, “Yes!” – just to keep negotiations open – and worry about how you’ll actually deliver on the project later. So that was the protocol I adhered to when I was invited up to the executive offices of the Grand Theatre in the winter of 1991/92 where artistic director Martha Henry asked me, “Have you ever thought of writing a children’s play?”
“Yes,” I said with a straight face and it wasn’t a complete lie. I had thought about it before and rejected the idea almost instantly. It wasn’t that I had anything against kids. Indeed, at that very moment I was helping my wife to raise a ten, a seven and a five year old of our very own construction and they had become our favourite human beings on the planet. Nor was I averse to writing about kids. I frequently mined my own childhood for subjects to write about in essays and stories but those texts were most decidedly pitched at adults. I was leery of writing specifically for kids as I sensed that scaling back my use of language to make it palatable for a juvenile audience wouldn’t play to such literary strengths as I had.
“We’d like to commission you to write something for the London 200 celebrations next year,” Martha told me. “Do you think you could come up with a play for children that would also tie in with London history?”
“Oh yes,” I said with a confidence that Martha immediately punctured by asking if I could give her an example of the kind of thing I might write about. Casting my eyes across her office’s ceiling tiles for inspiration, I was a little horrified to hear myself start to speak before I had any idea what I was going to say. “Well,” I drawled - and all four ears in that room perked right up to hear how I proposed to get out of this one - “There’s always . . . Slippery the seal . . . for instance.”
Slippery the seal? Where did that come from? Was I insane? How was I going to write a children’s play about a sub-verbal sea creature who’d been dead for a quarter of a century? Martha asked for more details and I filled her in on the saga which every Forest City child of a a certain vintage knew inside out and backwards. I was six years old when Slippery first turned up in London, quite against his will, so this was primal lore for me..
Born and bred just off the coast of Eureka, California, Slippery (originally named Cyril) and his cousin, Lonesome, were shipped to London in a crate a couple days before Storybook Gardens was due to open in June of 1958. A sort of shoestring compromise between a children’s theme park and a petting zoo, Storybook Gardens was built at a total cost of $150,000 by an ad hoc group of politicians, community leaders and volunteers who didn't really know what they were doing but figured stuff out by pushing ahead anyway and finding a way to do it.
Emblematic of the unregulated, do-it-yourself spirit which guided the creation of our city's newest attraction, crackerjack Free Press cartoonist, Merle Tingley, donated his services in designing a good number of Storybook’s booths and animal pens. And these were fascinating to behold in the way that they reiterated Ting's unmistakable style in three dimensional form. With the unbudgeable deadline of a heavily promoted opening breathing down their necks, the work crews were under considerable pressure to finish things up fast in those last couple of days.
On the day of the sea lions' arrival, distracted park attendants overfilled the still un-fenced pool and then went home for the night, allowing the more adventurous of the two new tenants to handily pull himself up over the rim of the pool and go exploring. Slippery schlepped his way along to a still un-joined section of chain link fence on the northern perimeter of the park and then, squeezing himself through that aperture, eased himself into the Thames River that was shimmering in the moonlight below and started swimming west. Over the next ten days Slippery covered 250 nautical miles, eluding dozens of Canadian and American pursuers and search crews as he swam down the Thames into Lake St. Clair, then took the Detroit River into Lake Erie, turned south at Toledo, Ohio into the Maumee River and then beat a retreat back to the open water of Lake Erie.
That was where Phil Skelden, the head curator of the Toledo Zoo, shot two tranquilizer darts into Slippery’s rump and then lost track of him again, picking him up the next morning in a state of total collapse in a boathouse on Sandusky Bay. When the folks at the Toledo Zoo were finally persuaded to send Slippery home – and it did take some persuading as the zoo officials tried to implement free trade thirty years before its time – Mayor Allan Johnston declared July 6th to be Slippery Day and thousands of Londoners lined the streets to hail his triumphal return. Slippery missed most of the jollity as he slept in the back of the Toledo Zoo’s station wagon – “dead on his flippers” as one report had it. Though I'm not sure that anybody was undertaking a meticulous head count on either occasion, it is claimed that Slippery drew a bigger crowd for his parade than had turned out nineteen years earlier for King George's visit to London on the brink of the Second World War.
It was an incredible saga that garnered international media coverage and gave the brand new park the kind of publicity that money could never buy. Shortly after his return, Slippery even appeared on the national current events program, Front Page Challenge, where I believe he may have been the only guest who wasn't grilled about his income by regular panelist, Gordon Sinclair. It all worked out so spectacularly well that one of the park's commissioners was asked if he hadn't gone down to Storybook under cover of night, hoisted Slippery under his cold and blubberous arse and pitched him into the river himself.
A few years before I received the commission to write my play, I'd included Slippery in a paper I'd worked up in which I tried to make a half dozen of the great classic myths a little more relatable by substituting well known London characters for the heroes and gods of yore. I chose Slippery as London's stand-in for Sisyphus, writing:
"His next nine years in that concrete pond are celebrated by the voice of London officialdom as the hilarious and heartwarming saga of a high-spirited, amphibious ham. But we true blue sons of the Forest City do not laugh or cheer. We recognize ourselves in Slippery’s sad story and we see the deadly pattern of Sisyphus . . . climb the stairs, go “quork, quork,” down the slide, splash . . . up the stairs, go “quork, quork,” down the slide, splash . . . Round and round we go, dodging pennies thrown by brats and growing fat on soggy flotillas of popcorn . . . up the stairs, “quork, quork,” down the slide, splash . . . until we croak. Should someone mention the possibility of broader vistas somewhere else, we feel the pin prick scars on our own rear ends and succumb to that irresistible sleep which overtakes us whenever we think about leaving."
My feelings of pathos regarding the nine tenths of Slippery's life which he spent behind bars hadn't really shifted much by 1992. But as I dug further and further into the fat file of Slippery material in the Central Library's London Room (where I'd blown six dollars in nickels and dimes in their overheated copying machine) a new respect for the (shall we say?) more mature Slippery started to take hold of my imagination. There were cases at Storybook of other sea lions - including Lonesome - who never adapted to life in a zoo and wasted away unto death. Slippery's determination to get back home would seem to indicate that captivity bothered him more than most. Yet he not only lived to a near-miraculous age for a sea lion in captivity, he was the park's star attraction for the duration of his life; a real trouper who always put on a good show. It was like he threw some sort of attitudinal switch and re-strategized, finding a way to make the best of a lousy situation that he never chose..
Re-exploring Slippery's saga and his impact thirty-five years after he made his first splash in London, I was heartened to discover that neither I nor the city-at-large were quite so sanguine about the ethics of zoo-keeping as we once had been. Indeed, there are some rather dark elements in the story as I wrote it and while I was a little troubled to hear occasional reports of tears and grief amongst the crowds of schoolchildren who were bused in to see it, on consideration I was glad my play came with a few emotional undertows.
I ultimately framed my play in the form of a counseling session where a worried mother otter has sent her surly budding delinquent of a child to have a talk with the wise old man of Storybook and hopefully get her priorities straightened out. Like me just a few years before, Spinner originally thinks the older Slippery is a fatuous sellout who has accepted defeat and given up trying, denying the noblest part of his nature for the easy-going comfort of all those buckets of chum which are delivered by his keepers three times a day. Over the course of their session, chapters from Slippery's life are re-enacted and before ducking into his house under the slide for a much needed nap, Slippery sends Spiinner on her way with one final bit of advice.
SLIPPERY: I don’t know how things work in your pool, Spinner. Maybe you do just lie around and growl at humans all day. But there have been times when I’ve come down that slide and done a quick three laps like black mercury swirling around a dish – and when I come back up and look out at the crowd, I’ll find a kid leaning over the fence and there’s a look of animal rapture on his face. And that look tells me that he could never do what I just did but he can imagine himself doing it the very same way. And in those moments I’ve felt a very intimate communication. Each of us has learned something about what it’s like to be inside the other one’s skin. And that’s something important that can happen here. And no – I don’t move as well as I used to. Sometimes nowadays I’m embarrassed by how little I have to offer the crowds. And yet there are still days when I’ll look out there and see a human face looking back at me with love. Maybe they saw me in my prime and they’re remembering how well I moved. Maybe they just find old grizzlebeards kind of sweet. Whatever the reason, I treasure those moments. (pause) Does that sound sappy to you, Spinner?
SPINNER: Yeh . . . a bit.
SLIPPERY: Do you have any idea what I’ve been talking about?
SPINNER: Maybe a little . . . I’ll think about it.
SLIPPERY: Please do. Like it or not, Spinner, we’re here. Living in a zoo is a bum deal for any animal that gets caught. But there are things you can do to make it less awful. I loved Lonesome. You know that. But if you’re stuck in one of these pens or cages or pools, you don’t eat pennies. You don’t get fat and complacent and give up. And if you can be a bit outgoing with the humans, they’ll usually respond and try to be decent to you. Maybe they’re a little kinder to the other animals they meet. I know it isn’t much compared to what we’ve all lost but it’s something, Spinner. It’s something.
When Slippery died in January of 1967, his keepers did something unprecedented and a little surreal; something which they never did for any other beast entrusted to their care. They paid Slippery some of the honour he was due and buried him in a poolside funeral as heavy snow pelted down on a location which Londoners ordinarily associated with balmy, careless summer days. In 1995 the late London filmmaker Chris Doty produced a beautiful rendition of Slippery's story. Working his usual magic in unearthing archival footage that no one dreamed existed, in this film, simply called Slippery, Chris created one of the very finest - and certainly the sweetest - of his documentaries.
And then in 2012 - fifty-four years after they first lowered the drawbridge of their miniaturized castle gatehouse - the managers of Storybook Gardens recognized that while they could provide reasonable care for the domesticated animals that resided in their Old McDonald's Farm display, it was time to let the other creatures go and give their now-badly dilapidated park a major revamp. They quickly found new homes for an assortment of otters, beavers, lynxes and birds of prey but it took a little longer to find sanctuary for the four ageing harbour seals who had been splashing about in Slippery's old pool for the previous decade. Finally the St. Louis Zoo offered to take in the seals named Nunavit, Atlantis, Cri Cri and Peanut. But in a horrible turn of events that left everybody involved in the transfer feeling absolutely heartsick, only Peanut survived the stresses of the trek to Missouri by trailer on a blistering hot June day.
What sent me rooting through my extensive sea lion archives this week, was taking part last Thursday in a Zoom-remote, smack-down debate hosted by Mark Richardson of the London Public Library in which Mike Baker of the Elgin County Museum and I put forth our best cases for who was the better civic mascot - Jumbo the elephant for St. Thomas or Slippery for London? If Mark is able to figure out how to forward me a link so that I can post the debate here, I shall, even though Mike's presentation pretty well mopped the floor with mine and viewers voted him the victor by a two thirds margin.
Small wonder there. Mike's a professional archivist, for goodness sake. He had film clips and slides coming out the wazoo, loads of state-of-the-art graphics and pictures of gargantuan statues.and an assortment of oddments gathered up out of Jumbo's stomach after the world famous elephant met his spectacular end when a train sent him flying off an elevated railway bridge following a circus appearance in St. Thomas. All my side had were a couple of clips from Chris Doty's documentary, a poster from my play and me telling stories about Slippery.
So it was no contest as to who made the better presentation or whose beast had the bigger impact on the world. But I do not accept my humiliating defeat with anything approximating graciousness BECAUSE THAT IS NOT WHAT THE DEBATE WAS ABOUT. The only connection that St. Thomas has with Jumbo is he died there. That doesn't make him a mascot. As I said in my most wounding line of the debate, "St. Thomas is to Jumbo what Dallas is to JFK". Sure, it was the end of his line but he never lived there or represented it as some sort of symbolic figure.
But whether he's a legitimate mascot or not, St. Thomas certainly does promote its grisly connection with Jumbo for all its worth and has even worked a stylized rendering of his head into their logo; whereas London officially ignores Slippery and just goes with an even more stylized tree for our logo. The best zinger that Mike lobbed against my side of our so-called debate - and it really is quite irrefutable - was, "London seems to have let Slippery escape once again."
Indeed we have, and, on reflection over the last few days, I'm wondering if our slackness as historical security guards might not be more properly construed as a sign of some sort of justice finally taking hold. I mean, think about it. To erect massive statues or in any other way commemorate the finest mascot London ever had, would only compound - or at least prolong - the crime we committed against that wily creature more than sixty years ago. We have finally come to our senses and have chosen to grant Slippery the deepest desire of his courageous heart; even if we do so only through the dispensation of a kind of benign neglect. Finally, we've done the right thing. Finally, we've let him go.
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