Animal magnetism

WHEN false rumours spread this week that Fungie the dolphin had died, suspicions naturally fell at once on rival Killarney. Who else could have such a strong motive for maligning Dingle’s oldest tourism ‘product’? And as Kerry tourism is acknowledged to be the lowest form of the art, nothing can be put past anyone down there.

However, on reflection, it seems more likely that it was Dingle itself that put the rumour about, as a way of saying ‘Remember Fungie? He’s still around. Why not visit him (and spend some money)?’

Soon afterwards, Killarney upped the ante by announcing a proposal to put a roof over the town, to stop the rain from bothering the tourists. It seems Killarney gets a lot of rain, which is the only thing wrong the place, at least as far as Killarney is concerned.

You can imagine the scene – the parched hanging-baskets, the trapped odours, the wilted Americans. The whole thing smacks of desperation. Surely Killarney has cottoned on by now that no tourism ‘product’ is complete without an illustrious animal, and that Dingle’s advantage in this respect cannot be gainsaid. Baltimore realised as much straight away, and put itself in the papers almost immediately with a picture of a humpback whale, which should attract thousands of sustainable tourism types for years to come.

Having said that, animal attractions can be unreliable. I speak as someone who treaded water for an hour in Dingle harbour, waiting for Fungie to come along and communicate something of spiritual import, but he never appeared. Stood up – nay, snubbed – by Ireland’s most genial marine mammal, there was nothing for it but to paddle back to shore at a rate of knots, fuming and swearing about inner peace and the like.

There is an abundance of dolphins in the Shannon Estuary, although regrettably they don’t subscribe to the Dingle school of tourist attractions. Dolphin-watching trips in the estuary are thrilling, for a while, as you watch these magnificent creatures gliding in and out of the water, again and again… and again. You join the crowds leaning over one side of the boat and then the other, gasping in delight and snapping photo after photo. So elegant! So exuberant! Gliding in and out of the water! But after a time your enchantment starts to feel a little forced. “Oh look, there’s yet another pod. Ha ha. How lovely.” You begin to fidget, and to wish you’d brought your book. Don’t these dolphins have a second act? Can’t they effect a sea rescue, or apprehend a criminal?

Yet dolphins that do tricks can cause untold trouble, as Seaworld in Florida found recently, when a dolphin bit eight-year-old Jillian Thomas on the hand. In the video of the event, you see Jillian resisting her parents’ requests to display her injuries to the camera. The child is clearly in a paroxysm of embarrassment, having just been bitten by a creature that’s supposed to heal the lame and bestow telepathic absolution on sinners and what have you. She might as well have been kicked by Bambi. No wonder she wanted to hush it up.

“I just want to film and see what your hand looks like,” says her father. “I don’t want to,” wails Jillian. “We’re not going to show it to anybody,” says her mother, which, it turns out, translates roughly as “We’re just going to put it on the internet.”

Meanwhile, the BBC this week reported that an animal charity has established a driving school for dogs in Auckland, New Zealand. The clip shows Monty, a giant schnauzer cross, actually driving a car.

He seems competent enough behind the wheel but he’s not driving test material. For one thing, his paws assume the four o’clock position, instead of ten to two. He also looks the sort of driver who puts his elbow out the window and goes cruising for bitches, panting along to the sort of music dogs like – music that involves whistling, probably, such as ‘Don’t Worry, Be Happy’ (the anthem of all dogs), or something by Roger Whittaker.

The idea is to encourage people to give a dog a home by showing how intelligent they can be. That’s the cover story, at least. But at the bottom of it is more than likely a conspiracy to get people to visit Auckland and spend their tourist dollars.

As it happens, the attraction is likely to do both: so superb is Monty that people will flock to Auckland in the hope of driving home with him, and setting up a nice bed for him in the garage, and maybe doing Route 66 with him some day in a rented Mustang.

That’s the answer: get your own magnificent animal, and you’ll never have to be a tourist again.


Published in the Irish Mail on Sunday, 9 December 2012