By Lauri deGaris
Seals are also known as sea dogs, and they can entertain us for hours. They are a bit like dogs: their young are called pups, and their vocalization is called a “bark.” Worldwide, there are 33 species of seals, and all of them are very smart.
There is a famous harbor seal named Andre who has helped scientists and the public understand the habits and remarkable capacities of these clever creatures. Andre was a baby seal who was abandoned in the spring of 1961 and found by Harry Goodridge in Rockport, Maine. Harry took the 19-pound seal home and put him in a bathtub in his cellar. Harry’s children were overjoyed to have a seal as a pet and named him Andre.
When spring arrived, Harry built a pen in Rockport Harbor for Andre. People in the community began stopping by to watch Harry and his children feed fish to Andre.
Eventually, Harry began to teach Andre tricks. And it seems that Andre loved the attention he received when performing for a crowd. By 1964, Andre had learned more than 50 tricks and had received 7,500 visitors that summer in Rockport Harbor.
As Andre grew, he became too large to keep in the basement during the winter. Rockport Harbor freezes solid in the wintertime, which meant Harry had to find a new home for Andre.
New England Aquarium in Boston offered to give Andre a home in the winter. They had heard about Andre from local newspapers. Andre’s popularity had spread all over New England. That winter, Harry loaded Andre into the back seat of his car and drove him from Rockport to Boston.
Andre spent the winter at the aquarium, and when spring arrived, the staff took Andre to the shore and released him. No one knew what Andre would do, but he was healthy and old enough to be on his own.
Turns out Andre knew exactly what to do and where to go. Andre swam 150 miles along the coast, north to Penobscot Bay, and straight back to his pen in Rockport Harbor. Everyone was stunned that he found his way home.
Andre went on to spend each winter at New England Aquarium. And each spring, he was released to make the journey back to Rockport. This ritual became newsworthy year after year. The public eagerly reported sightings of Andre on his way back to Maine. Andre was often photographed resting in someone’s skiff or sleeping on a dock.
Meanwhile, in 1970, Joe Brennan, a young lawyer, was elected to the Maine Senate. He had made several attempts to become governor of Maine before finally being elected in 1978. After a few months in office, Brennon became frustrated about the trouble he had pushing his agenda through the legislature. He blamed a lot of his problems on the media.
Articles about Andre’s spring return from Boston were front page news, while official state business was buried somewhere in the middle of the paper. Brennon decided to use Andre headlines as an example of what was wrong with the media. He said to a room full of reporters one day:
“There should be a place on the front page for bright, human-interest stories. But, in the end, it won’t affect the progress of our state government, it won’t change your local property tax rate or the quality of your local fire department one bit if Andre reaches Rockport.”
The governor’s remarks made front-page news the next day. People all over Maine thought it was very unfair of the governor to attack their beloved Andre and demanded an apology. This one event unleashed a PR firestorm, and the backlash of his comments would follow him for years.
The governor tried to mend things with the press, the people of Maine and Andre. To get back on track, the governor called Andre “Maine’s most notable summer visitor.” But the people of Maine continued to give the governor “the back of the flipper” for his remarks.
Brennan told reporters the next spring that if Andre were to run on the ticket against him, “I would surely lose.” In another attempt to patch things up, the governor sent Andre a telegram stating:
“Congratulations Andre. For too long you have not received the recognition you deserve. I think I am in a position to tell you that you have more fans and supporters than you know, believe me, I have heard from all of them! I hope you decide to become a full time year-round resident of Maine. Maybe I can show you around Portland sometime.”
The governor’s telegram was read to Andre in front of a large crowd. On cue, Andre’s only response to the governor was to hiss into the microphone.
Brennan was up for re-election and thought it was time to patch things up with Andre. The governor went to Rockland and met Andre in person. He declared the rivalry over and asked Andre for forgiveness. Apparently, the people of Maine and Andre were ready to forgive the governor. They re-elected him that year.
In 1986, Andre died. The Portland Press Herald remembered him with this editorial:
“Who was abandoned by his mother, grew to become Maine’s best known overweight bachelor, had a country and western song written about him and helped a governor get elected? Andre–a bona fide celebrity … one of the few Mainers who was widely known simply by his first name. He was a rogue, a playboy, a carouser, and a showoff. He was also Maine’s official diplomat, its unelected governor, its most famous spokesperson, as highly regarded a native son as ever there was.”
To learn more about the extraordinary bond between humans and other animals watch “My Wild Affair.” The four-part series, shown on PBS, documents the life of an orphaned baby elephant, an orangutan raised as a human child, a rhinoceros raised in suburbia and Andre, the harbor seal that entertained humans while remaining wild at heart.