I had a very strange dream. I have lots of strange dreams, but most of them end up in the dream dustbin, where I think they are recycled into episodes of Celebrity Big Brother.
This dream was different. I was an inmate in a zoo. I was kept in an enclosure with a warm shelter and plenty of food, but nothing like enough room to move for a creature like myself.
Obviously, I am a land creature, although I do like to swim. But I can’t live in the sea. Yet this zoo was in the sea, close to the land, but in the sea, and I was required to spend an uncomfortable amount of time in sea water.
The reason why the zoo was in the sea was obvious: it was run by killer whales, although thus far they had declined to kill me. I think this was because I was good at performing the tricks they taught me. Crowds of whales came in every day, paid their admission fee, and demonstrated their approval of my performance by… well, by not eating me, I suppose.
What I had to do was to copy whale sounds, whale words if you like, sounds they made to each other on a daily basis, although it was never clear to me what the sounds actually meant.
It was also very difficult work. The vocal range of whales is immense. I could get nowhere near the bassiest of their sounds, nor the highest-pitched.
The middle-range was where I scored. Every time I got one right (by which I mean I managed to achieve an approximation of the sounds they made over and over again to me), I was given a reward – a jelly baby. I don’t particularly like jelly babies, but it seems that somewhere along the way, the orcas had got into their heads people love jelly babies in the way orcas like fish.
Then I thought perhaps it was a matter of scale. Humour me here. Go along with the simplistic notion that a fish is shaped a little bit like a whale. So perhaps because the whales like to eat little whale-shaped creatures they reasoned that people would like to eat little people-shaped creatures. Jelly babies.
What the paying whale public never saw, of course, was the training rituals, the utterly degrading manner in which the whales confronted me with the same three sounds, hour after hour after hour, the humiliating and frankly frightening roughhouse tactics they used, apparently in the belief these would terrify me into performing better.
As with all dreams, eventually I awoke, but for half an hour or so after, I did not dare close my eyes in case I fell asleep and the dream resumed.
But all of this finally stood me in good stead when I realised that the dream itself had been a kind of premonition.
For the next morning’s newspapers and the radio and television news programmes were eagerly sniggering over a story in which a zoo run by humans had “taught” a killer whale how to count up to three, and some other equally silly stuff.
My grandparents’ generation used to do it with budgies.
As I cringed at the reporting of the story, I became uncomfortably aware there was one remarkable parallel in my dream. For every time the whale made three successive burps, farts and squeaks that approximated to the noises of “one, two three” as preposterously enunciated by a human whale-trainer, the whale was rewarded with a fish.
This was my jelly bean.
The trainer would reach into a bucket beside her and select a fish and toss it into the open mouth of the whale.
There seemed to be a selection process going on… a particularly close rendition of the required “words” was rewarded with a slightly larger fish, although in terms of a killer whale’s daily intake, they were all tiny.
I have never made a secret of my attitude to zoos. I detest zoos and everything they stand for. I have seen a few really, really stupid things done in zoos, and many outrageous things, and certainly this humiliation of a killer whale was outrageous enough.
But, somehow, I managed to get even more annoyed at what I perceived to be the crass stupidity of the trainers.
Did it really occur to no one at any point in this most preposterous demonstration of toe-curling zoo philosophy that what was going on in the whale’s mind was not “one, two, three…” but the fact that this strange two-legged tribe seemed to have an awful lot of words that all mean ‘fish’?