Darcey Steinke at Town Hall Seattle 
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Darcey Steinke at Town Hall Seattle
Credit: KUOW Photo/Jennie Cecil Moore

Killer whales go through menopause, too, but the other orcas respect them

It started with the hot flashes, night sweats, insomnia and depression.

Author Darcey Steinke looked for answers about what was happening to her, but was frustrated. She was entering menopause, and our culture doesn’t talk much about that.

menopause, /ˈmenəˌpôz/, noun: The permanent cessation of menstruation; the period of a woman's life when this occurs, usually between the ages of 40 and 50.

During her search, Steinke discovered an odd fact: Menopause is a relatively rare thing in the animal world. Non-human primates don’t experience it. Most mammals are able to reproduce nearly to the end of their lives. So far as we know scientifically, the only creatures that go through it are human women and a few species of whales, including orcas.

Steinke’s realization begged this question, among many: Why are the menopausal experiences of female orcas and women so different?

Historically, most human societies have derided and disrespected women going through menopause.

But killer whale pods venerate their female elders. Steinke’s personal experience of menopause, search for meaning and understanding and simultaneous obsession with killer whales led her from Brooklyn to the Salish Sea.

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Darcey Steinke is the author of “Flash Count Diary: Menopause and the Vindication of Natural Life.” At this event, she read from her work and interviewed Dr. Deborah Giles. Giles is a resident scientist and lecturer at the University of Washington’s Friday Harbor Labs, where she teaches Marine Mammals of the Salish Sea and Marine Biology.

Their talk took place at Town Hall Seattle on July 8, as part of Town Hall’s Arts and Culture series. KUOW’s Jennie Cecil Moore recorded the event.

Please note: This recording contains unedited language of an adult nature.

Related episode: Marcie Sillman's talk with Sandra Tsing Loh, author of The Madwoman in the Volvo: My Year of Raging Hormones