12 min read

The lessons orca and human special needs families can teach us..

This blog post was originally posted on my site at orcamama.com.

A few weeks ago, I came across the mention of an orca who by our human terms, would be called one that had some special needs. This orca, "Stumpy", is seen in Norwegian waters and has a very interesting, albeit tragic, backstory. I'll give you a brief run down, as always, I try to not to cloud these posts with information that is readily out there and be respectful of your time as a reader. I will link a few of the things I have found for you at the end of the post should you be inclined to read some more.

Long story short, Stumpy was believed to have been born in 1995/1996 and was first seen with some serious injuries to the spine and dorsal fin. At the time of the first sighting, mom was seen with him and close to a group, but both Stumpy and mom were not with their own family pod. This in and of itself was unusual. What followed is even more interesting. Stumpy was not seen for some time and the general belief at the time was that Stumpy did not survive the trauma.

As we all know, orcas are very much mama's boys (and girls) but what is interesting here is that Stumpy has been seen traveling with multiple pods, not his own, across long distances. Due to the nature of his injuries, foraging probably presents a challenge and it would appear that he is looked after by many other orca, even though again, they are not his same pod and direct family. Sternsen and Similia, in 2004, observed Stumpy sort of hanging out during a fish feed and two other orcas actually bring him a herring. He's been observed as to kind of hang around the outside waiting on someone to feed him, kinda like that uncle that hovers over the bbq to get the first burger. Other orca seem to throw him what they can (orca leftovers I suppose?) as they seek food, but make sure he is getting what he needs in the process. It's been like this since the late 90's.

In addition to support for feeding, it has been observed other whales acting as his protectors. Sternsen and Similia stated it's difficult to get near Stumpy with a boat and that in many cases, other whales will insert themselves between and guide him away.

I have five children of my own. My husband and I never intended to have such a big pod, and yes, he would probably tell you we are much like the orca in that mama is boss. #kiddingnotkidding. J My oldest two children have autism. My oldest son has Asperger's; my oldest daughter has autism and is more severely affected. Who knew that orca and my two kids would have something in common? That our families would have something in common like this? Stumpy and my kiddos have needs that they depend on others to help fill. The orcas that serve as Stumpy's family and my family, probably experience some of the same things in caring for our loved ones- happiness, frustration and an overwhelming need to protect and at times be wary of strangers (or things, like boats).

Stumpy has a pretty significant spinal deformity. Underwater, it's been observed that it takes him more tail pumps and power to move than other orcas in his native waters. My daughter has had to do that all her life- she's had to tail pump harder than her classmates to keep up. Even so, she and Stumpy keep up as best they can. They just don't know any other way, so they do it. Likewise, they must rely on the help that others give them to help them lead their lives.

Every orca pod that has "adopted" Stumpy has done what they have had to do to ensure his survival. As human parents, my husband and I do the same. We monitor, we keep the extra eye out to ensure the kids' safety and make sure their basic needs are met because at this point, they are unable to do so on their own. We are working towards that, but not at the finish line. Every orca that swims alongside Stumpy and "takes a shift" as my husband and I sometimes refer to it, probably seeks ways to push Stumpy along too.

Of course, my kids are mine and have stayed in our "pod" while Stumpy has associated with several. That makes me even more in awe of orca as a species and proves how deep a sense of family truly is for them.

People tell my husband and I sometimes that they admire us; what we have to face and overcome parenting special needs kids. Well, the orca that parent Stumpy have us beat as far as I am concerned. They aren't obligated by way of true lineage. Stumpy isn't even "theirs". Our family takes care of our kids because they are ours. Of course, we love them and cherish them for the amazing people that they are, but the bottom line is they belong to us and we have a direct responsibility for their care. The orca that share the waters with Stumpy are keenly aware that he needs their assistance despite him not being born into that immediate family. They know he's not theirs. But they do it anyway. They have assumed that responsibility by choice. It might be natural instinct. It could be a sense of "doing right." Whatever it is, it is truly remarkable.

As I read on about Stumpy and the strong sense of family that pushes his fellow orca to take care of him, I was immediately struck with the idea that this is yet more proof orca share so many beautiful and complex commonalities with humans. It is also more evidence that they are incredibly intelligent and experience similar emotional ties equal to or possibly greater, than that of humans.

What's best though, about this story of Stumpy is that it digs yet another nail in the coffin of captivity. Tell me how animals as intelligent and evolved, as dedicated and loyal as this, who recognize the needs their fellow animals have, are suited to be anywhere but with each other. Free to take care of one another in the home nature gave them. They don't need human help. If you question that orca are readily equipped to manage challenges without us, Stumpy and his "family" is your answer. They have done it for years, without being taught how to do it, without "world class vet care", by themselves as it should be.

There is another orca that has also been observed to having some physical injuries near South Africa and this scenario is repeating itself there too.

From this parent of some special needs kids, I would say that the orca that help Stumpy along the way are heroes and set examples for all of us, no matter what species we call "family".

References and Photo Credits from the following sources: