I Accidentally Choked a Dolphin: On Being an Unnatural Woman


Walking in the rainforest, debating whether or not to put in my iPod headphones to ease my jitters.

For a country with “Pura Vida” as its motto, Costa Rica can be an anxiety-provoking place for a borderline agoraphobic. But here I am, covered in mud, my clothes sopping with sweat, swatting at bugs and moss, feeling all kinds of outdoor unknowns prickly all over me. I’m exhausted, lost in the wilderness, and grappling with the surreal situation I find myself in.  

For a country with “Pura Vida” as its motto, Costa Rica can be an anxiety-provoking place for a borderline agoraphobic

I thought I'd followed the map closely, but then got disoriented when deciding whether to climb up the creek bank or down the creek bank to reach the waterfall I was seeking. To most seasoned outdoorsmen (or anyone else who gets how rivers work), this wouldn’t be a mental struggle.

But hell if I knew which way to go, and downstream conceptually seemed less of a labor. No guide, no common sense—just me with the great outdoors. Scaling rocks and branches, sloshing my boots into deep pools, petrified of snakes, and talking myself through a very anxious situation.

“You’re doing real good, Leah, reeeeeeal good. You got this,” I sputtered, spooked by weird animal and bug sounds and the rustle of leaves. I threaded the headphone cord in and out of my fingers. Maybe a little Katy Perry telling me I was a "Firework" would spur me on.

Nature knows its relationship with me. It’s tenuous. While I remain respectfully guarded in her presence, she consistently finds ways to make me look ridiculous. It’s now moved past dubious and feels like fact: the environment and its inhabitants are tickled by me. Mother Earth needs amusement like the rest of us, and I feel like the laughingstock of the terrestrial community.

Nature knows its relationship with me. It’s tenuous.

As with most suburban brats, anything remotely wild in my past happened in zoos.

With my class at the primate exhibit at Brookfield Zoo, I was standing completely unaware when I suddenly felt a nasty, mealy, putrid paste being flung repeatedly at my face and body. One of the so-called majesties we were admiring with awe had just thrown its shit at me. Gorilla feces all over me. In my hair, in my eye, all over my new sweater from the Gap, which I’d gotten for Christmas and really liked.

I was crying and humiliated, while my teacher tried to wipe soapy water through nooks and crannies of cable knit. Mrs. Scott walked me to the zoo store and picked out a nerdy T-shirt with a baby otter that exclaimed “I Otter Be at the Brookfield Zoo!” for me to wear the rest of the day. (God bless you, Mrs. Scott.) On the bus I sat alone in the back, already unpopular, with my sweater wrapped in a plastic bag and asking the first of many “why me?” questions that would present themselves for a lifetime.

Nature is the boss; I get it. And it can go ape-shit on you at any time.

Looking back, I see a weird pattern that would prove the point again and again.

In eighth grade, my mom took my sister and me to Sea World where I choked a dolphin. It was an accident. I’d been feeding it small fish from a plastic cup, and I don’t know whether the dolphin or I was more animated about it. Success! Connection! Once I ran out of fish, the cup was left swishing with backwash.

“I bet this is tasty!” I thought. Something akin to the blue and green milk that felt like a reward at the end of a bowl of Fruit Loops. When I went to pour the fishy liquid into Flipper’s wide-open mouth, he bolted upward and frightened me. The cup slipped from my grasp and wedged itself firmly in the back of his throat. A mess of gagging sounds horrified onlookers before the trainers made their way over with some long mechanism that looked like a pool cleaner. Before they were able to pry it out, the cup disappeared—ingested and on its way to an uncertain (and I imagine digestively treacherous) future.

“I bet this is tasty!” I thought. Something akin to the blue and green milk that felt like a reward at the end of a bowl of Fruit Loops.

Strangers raised their voices about how my mom should have watched me more carefully as I teared up and shook and panicked. Mom tried to calm me down as she led me by the hand out of the park. Enough nature for one day. 

I’m fairly certain if the dolphin had passed away, we would have heard about it on "Dateline" later. Yet another episode of interspecies awkwardness.

But I continued to try. I wanted to welcome the animal kingdom into my life with open arms. At home I started with a series of short-living hermit crabs and carnival-prize fish. It even seemed my Tamagotchis were on a kamikaze mission for death.

Maybe I needed something little, cuddly, soft—something with real personality, a furry friend. To my delight, one serendipitous shopping trip resulted in the acquisition of an adorable pint-sized pal, a hamster, and "Jagged Little Pill" by Alanis Morissette (no relevance here, just a good album).

My new small orange critter, Habib, came home with the finest of cages and cedar shavings and squeaky wheels. Thinking my luck might change, mom wanted to help me do this right. I saw things through. I’d like to think that Habib lived a nice life under my devoted care, slightly less than two years, before a plague overtook him. I held him in my hands as he death-rattled, spewed forth some green liquid, and his soul was released into the hamster hereafter.

I finally found my soulmates in dogs. Beauty, Scooter, McKenna, and Annie have come in and out of my life in relationships that have been so impactful. Many people spend time anthropomorphizing animals, giving them human personality traits and even human swag, but the fact that they were wholly animal fascinated me the most. Their instincts were unwieldy, and they could do all kinds of stuff I couldn’t do, and they made funny sounds. But most of all, they wanted to share my cereal milk and didn’t throw feces at me.

Then there was Marvin. I was on a standard cashew butter run to Whole Foods one day when the trajectory of my natural life completely changed. I threw a glance in the direction of the pet adoption fair in the neighboring parking lot. There he was—a humble black lab/hound puppy, about 8 weeks, hanging his head. I connected. Instantly I knew we belonged to one another. It was animal magnetism—this dog was going to get me running outdoors. We’d sniff out new adventures together. Marvin broke the cycle; Mother Nature would not get the best of me with this steadfast friend at my side.

He grew over the course of two odd years into a 70-pound oaf. Equal parts guardian, companion, and comic relief as he tripped over his legs trying to chase birds in the yard or ran from me with a prized stick of butter he held fast in his jaw. To be fair about the anthropomorphizing, he did wear a bow tie: a distinctive and endearing shade of cobalt blue. But I found my natural rhythm with him and got in touch with my animal instincts: to protect, provide, nurture, and seek shelter from storms. To migrate. To fight for.

I lost the fight for Marvin.

Feeling fortified by my kinship to this animal, I took a chance on Costa Rica—time for a mini-break. The sense memory of kissing his flabby face goodbye is still fresh. He watched me walk out the door with a befuddled stare, head cocked to one side. Be back soon, Buddy; I’ll only be a little while. His gaze remained fixed on me until I was out of sight.

Feeling fortified by my kinship to this animal, I took a chance on Costa Rica—time for a mini-break.

I had barely settled into my digs on the Osa Peninsula when I received a phone call. I’d left the den, and Marvin acted out. His territorial instincts kicked into overdrive and he attacked another dog approaching his food—a small dog, almost killing it. I could rush back, but that wouldn’t change anything. His sheer size and defiant streak weren’t fascinating anymore, they were threatening. Nature had taken her course.

On an otherwise nondescript Saturday morning, my parents (the other two members of his pack) lay with Marvin in his dog bed on the floor. They said a quiet goodbye and "thank you" for me as the vet ended his life with kindness. I sat on a beach alone, halfway across the world, feeling bitter and raw. This was all wrong. I locked myself in a dark room for days; the last thing I wanted was to be out of doors, in the sunlight, among life. I needed to hibernate.

I disconnected.

And I screamed. Why me?

Now I could hear the waterfalls ahead. The sound of the current was picking up vigorously. Finding my footing, I used my walking stick to peel back the low-hanging branches obstructing my view.

I’d made it to a waterfall—just not the one I was looking for. In the act of focusing on one foot after the other, I hadn’t paid attention to the endgame. Just ahead of me was a ledge covered with sticks and leafy debris, with water hurling itself over a five-meter drop. I gaped down and braced myself at the ill-timed realization: Oh right, this is how a river works.

I could say I was terrified, but more than anything I was reeling at my own stupidity. A klutzy tumble could have resulted in my being hurled over the Costa Rica version of Niagara Falls with no barrel—a broken neck or at the least a bruised ego, the fitting punchline. You’re doing real good, Leah, reeeeeeal good.

Yes, nature is the boss. And at this point, she’d given me only one option: tap out and turn around. Head back upstream. Scrape myself up. Throw on Katy Perry—if that’s what it would take not to feel skittish at every unknown noise.

Yes, nature is the boss.

Because I was tired, I paused. Inhaled. Every hue of green around me was glorious. Then something caught my eye. In the glassy water was a single shrimp, darting around back and forth. It was a familiar shade of cobalt blue. Distinctive, endearing.

I stuffed my headphones deep into my bag. Every sound was sublime. Howler monkeys in the distance, but no need to duck for cover from flying fecal matter. 

Maybe I wasn’t lost in the wilderness after all. Maybe I’ll just stay here awhile. Maybe in nature is exactly where I otter be.

About the Teacher

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Leah Holder Wyman
When photographer/writer Leah Wyman found herself in the midst of a quarter-life crisis, she left her... Read more