Book Excerpt by Amy Sutherland

Sitting at my desk in Maine this summer morning, I hear my elderly neighbor clear his throat with undue enthusiasm as he trundles down his driveway. A foghorn moans. A car door slams. I hardly notice these ordinary, everyday sounds as my eyes are trained on the extraordinary, a delicate underwater dance a continent away. A black figure, a swimmer in a wet suit, I can't tell if it's a man or a woman, splashes in the middle of a deep pool. Behind the swimmer, a killer whale glides through the tank. His dorsal fin stands tall like a sail. His sharp black-and-white markings reflect in the water's surface above.

Thanks to a webcam, I can see the shimmering show tank at SeaWorld San Diego. That is, I can see the seven-million gallon pool from the surface down, an altogether different view from that of anyone actually at Shamu Stadium just now--what I would call a crab's-eye view. This is a very blue world. The chilly water is the color of lapis, but the shade brightens and then deepens as the sun arcs overhead. The rocks on the tank floor are the indigo of a starless night sky. Aquamarine light crackles across the tank's white bottom as the water tosses to and fro.

Even the killer whale casts a blue shadow as he circles the tank. Today there is just one whale in the water, but I've seen two, even three. I've seen babies. I've watched them scratch their backs along the rocks and gush balloon-sized bubbles. Some like to lap the pool upside down, their alabaster bellies turned skyward. One has white markings in the shape of a ginkgo leaf. When the whales swim close to the camera, and their stomachs suddenly fill the frame, I can't help but whoop. My dogs will lift their heads and turn their bright, curious eyes to me. Downstairs at his desk, my husband will call "What?"

Nothing, though, compares to when a trainer is in the tank. Their little legs kicking and arms waving about, the trainers look like water bugs compared to the sleek eight-thousand pound whales. I can't tear my eyes away from the sight of these two wildly different creatures working in tandem. And so I remain glued to the screen as the whale turns its bulk toward the swimmer and nudges its broad black rostrum under his feet.

I admit it. I'm procrastinating. I should be writing, actually, this very book. But this cross-country cyberview of a multiton animal in synch with a relatively itty-bitty human is a very apropos way to dither. It reminds me how much I have changed.

I'm an altogether different person than I was three years ago. My friends and family may not have noticed, but I am almost unrecognizable to myself at times. My outlook is more optimistic. I'm less judgmental. I have vastly more patience and self-control. I'm a better observer. I get along better with people, especially my husband. I have a peace of mind that comes from the world making so much more sense to me.

What brought about this change? Counseling? Nope. Happy pills? Nope. Yoga? Nope. A religious awakening? Wrong again. Acupuncture? Definitely not.

I discovered a school for exotic animal trainers, and wrote a book about it. That's what.

Funny thing is, I wasn't looking to change, but change has always had a way of finding me. I learned early in my journalism career that whatever I wrote about, whether it was blueberry farming or avant-garde jazz, eventually got under my skin to some degree. When I wrote a book about the world of competitive cooking in America, before long I was dreaming up recipes and submitting them. When I worked on a series about domestic violence, I began to have nightmares. If I was this easily influenced, I decided, I'd have to stay clear of darker topics. Complicated was okay, deeply troubling was not.

For my second book I followed students at Moorpark College's Exotic Animal Training and Management Program, the Harvard University for animal trainers, for one year. I walked away with not only a California tan, a new respect for scavengers, and more than enough material for a book, but something I never expected--a whole new approach to life.

While I worked on that book, I droned on to friends and family, anyone who would hold still for thirty seconds, of the great wisdom I had found at the feet of animal trainers. My friends, who had listened to me rattle on about how to cube meat for competitive chili while I wrote "Cookoff," nodded good-humoredly and, I suspect, thought to themselves, "There she goes again." Sometimes they'd interrupt me to ask "When is your book due?" in hopes the deadline was not far off and that I'd soon be on to another topic.

My husband, who, like me, loves animals and knows his fair share about training, was far more receptive, and didn't even make fun of me when I began tossing about terms like "incompatible behavior" or "instinctive drift." But not even he really understood at first what I was up to--that I had begun to use the animal training techniques, only I was using them on my fellow species, and on no one more than my handsome husband.

Eventually, I wrote a column for The New York Times about how I had improved my marriage by thinking like an animal trainer. To my surprise, the whole world sat up and took notice. After being ignored by my friends, I was suddenly besieged with interview requests from around the globe--Brazil, Ireland, Spain, Canada. Four reporters called me from Australia alone. My in-box filled up with congratulatory e-mails. I landed on the "Today" show. Hollywood called. My column shot to the top of the list of most e-mailed stories at the Times, where it remained for days, then weeks, and eventually became the most e-mailed story of 2006. When the dust settled, I had a movie deal and a contract to make my Times column into a book.

I never expected to write this book, or anything like it. But then I never expected that animal training would transform me. I'm not a counselor or a minister or a trainer or an expert of any kind. I'm a journalist. What I have to offer is my own personal story as a kind of Alice who stumbled into a Wonderland where cheetahs walk on leashes, hyenas pirouette on command, and baboons skateboard, and left with a new outlook on marriage, men, humans, life. My experience may give you some food for thought, a laugh, a light dose of philosophy, a way to solve some small problems that aren't worth a visit to the shrink but still nag. Or it may change you from head to toe.

The world is full of surprises. The proof is before me.

With the whale's snout under his feet, the trainer pulls his arms flush to his sides as Shamu pushes him through the water. It is a magical sight, even more so as the twosome zooms past the webcam. The trainer's head cuts through the water and comes into view first. Now I can see the trainer is a woman. A blond ponytail streams down her back. Her face turned forward, she looks like a ship's figurehead. A trail of small bubbles escapes from the corner of her mouth. Her straight, horizontal body follows. Then I see her feet, which are still neatly balanced on the rostrum of the ocean's top predator. Shamu's sleek two-ton bulk fills the camera's lens and then disappears. Though I can't see the pair, I know what they are doing, bursting from the tank like water gods at whom a stadium of onlookers will scream and clap and marvel, like me at my desk, at what seems impossible but isn't.