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NY Times Keiko


December 13, 2003
Howard Garrett, Susan Berta
ORCA NETWORK (360) 678-3451


NY Times op-ed about Keiko's life and death, and Orca Network's response.

Keiko's story could have easily ended in a small, substandard tank in Mexico City in 1993 - one more premature death of a captive whale, taken from his family to entertain people and make money for his owners.

But when Keiko starred in the movie "Free Willy", his life took a turn that launched him on a ten year adventure to get him back home. Because of the efforts of people involved in the film, the voices and pennies of thousands of school children, millions of dollars from an interested billionaire, support from animal advocates around the world, and marine park owners that believed Keiko deserved a better life, Keiko was given a second chance at life - at real life, the life of a wild orca swimming free in the ocean.

Keiko may not have been the best orca candidate for release - he was captured at a very young age, was ill from living in poor conditions, and little is known about the Atlantic population of orcas from which he was captured. Yet Keiko excelled in his journey to freedom, every step of the way.

Upon his move to a larger tank in Oregon, Keiko regained his health and his skin condition cleared up. He gained weight and muscle strength, he caught live fish with ease when first offered them, and was soon well prepared for his trip back home to Iceland. When he was lowered into his net pen in Iceland, Keiko immediately took to being back in the ocean after spending most of his life in a tank. Without any hesitation, he swam out of his sling, slapped his flukes and swam the perimeter of his pen, dove for long periods, feeling and hearing his ocean home for the first time since his capture as a young calf.

Keiko began taking long "walks" with support boats, and vocalized and swam with other whales. In August 2002, Keiko became much more independent, venturing out away from the support boat for up to 10 days at a time. Then Keiko took off for six weeks, being tracked only by satellite, until he showed up 1000 miles away in Norway, fit and well fed, but alone.

Keiko demonstrated he was not afraid of the ocean, that he was interested in wild whales, and that he could survive, travel and feed himself without assistance for long periods of time. The only obstacle Keiko could not overcome was that of finding his family, and unfortunately, the lack of human knowledge about Atlantic orcas hampered efforts for his successful reintegration into his wild orca community. Little is known about Atlantic orcas, it is not even known whether the Icelandic and Norwegian populations are one large group or several different communities. Though recordings were made of the wild orcas, and calls similar to Keiko's calls were found, it isn't known if he ever came close to any of his relatives or to orcas that spoke the same language and dialect.

In the Pacific Northwest, orca communities have been closely studied for three decades, and much is known about each community, pod, and individual orca, thanks to research conducted by the Center For Whale Research and others who have come to know the Northwest orcas so well.

Keiko has paved the way for other captive orcas who should be given their chance at freedom, and two of the best candidates are northwest orcas whose families are well known. Corky, from the Northern Resident Community, and Lolita, from the Southern Resident Community, are both the oldest and longest-held captive orcas in the world. We know their families well, and they deserve to be given the opportunity Keiko was given - to retire from their 34 years in the entertainment business, to swim wild and free in the ocean, and to join their families.

We are especially concerned with Lolita's situation at this time. She remains isolated in the smallest tank in the country, in a rundown, unsafe marine park, with no other whales for companionship. The Miami Seaquarium was recently cited for over a hundred safety violations, and is undergoing numerous repairs. Lolita's stadium and show has been closed since the beginning of November, while construction work goes on around her pool. She has no where else to go, and what kind of stress do these conditions impose on her?

There is no better time than now to bring Lolita back home to her family. The Seaquarium doesn't have the money to build her a bigger tank, as they have promised for 25 years, and she is living on borrowed time for a captive orca. If returned to the wild, she could at the very least live a happier, healthier life in a sea pen; and at best, be rejoined with her family to swim alongside them and perhaps even have a calf.

We are happy Keiko was given the opportunity to once again experience life in the wild, to be in his ocean home again, to swim free and spend his last years unconfined by concrete walls. Our hearts are heavy with the loss of this much-loved orca, but we hope we can learn from Keiko's journey, and that other orcas will be given a chance to follow in his fluke-prints.

For more information on Lolita's story and other captive whales, visit Orca Network's website at: and click on "Lolita/Captivity". To receive Free Lolita Email Updates, contact to subscribe.


December 27, 2003

Submitted for publication by Howard Garrett.

Dear NY Times editor:

Re: "'Willy' didn't yearn to be free" op-ed by Clive D. L. Wynne.

Clive Wynne provides his clear and consistent interpretation of Keiko's abilities and motivations, but unfortunately it is based on an obsolete understanding of the natural history of the species Orcinus orca. It is perfectly reasonable that Wynne would come to his conclusions based on our traditional notions of separation of human vs. non-human animals and greatly reduced capabilities of the non-human variety. Recent scientific discoveries have, however revealed that orcas don't fall into either of those categories.

In "Culture in whales and dolphins," (Rendell & Whitehead, 2001, Journal of Behavioural and Brain Sciences), the abstract states: "The complex and stable vocal and behavioural cultures of sympatric groups of killer whales (Orcinus orca) appear to have no parallel outside humans and represent an independent evolution of cultural faculties." In other words, orcas are not like other non-human animals. In their cultural behavior, they're more like us.

This means that rather than assuming that Keiko "imprinted on humans" it is more accurate to say he became friends with humans while separated from his cultural community. A goose or a dog might imprint on humans, but an orca would no more imprint on humans that a human would imprint on an orca or a dog. So to understand what Keiko yearned for, we need to realize that for him, not only was he always and forever an orca (and not just a trained companion for humans) but, as he demonstrated with his vocalizations, he was a member of a particular extended clan of orcas that may still live somewhere in the North Atlantic.

This revised conception of Keiko's psychology radically alters our interpretation of all the events leading up to his death. For one thing, he didn't need "remedial training in how to be a proper killer whale." In the Pacific Northwest we now have seen two solitary orca calves who successfully fed themselves at under two years old, indicating that those skills are learned at a very early age. Reports from 1997 show that when Keiko was first offered live fish in his tank in Oregon he quickly caught and ate them. Since eating is a cultural activity for orcas he often brought the fish to his human companions, or declined to dine alone, thus reinforcing the outdated interpretation that he couldn't do it without training. Wynne grudgingly admits that Keiko "may even have caught a few wild fish," on his way to Noway, but in fact he travelled roughly a thousand miles over six weeks and showed up with a belly full of fish, albeit a bit exhausted. After twenty-plus years of confinement he lacked the athletic conditioning that is normal for his species after all, but with a few more similar workouts he could have gained it back.

The pneumonia diagnosis to explain his death is speculation, and if true, it was probably secondary to the primary fact that Keiko was left alone too much of the time in his last weeks and months. His family may have been far away near Iceland, or they may have been all but wiped out during the captures for aquariums over twenty years ago. Keiko needed his family, or at least some constant human companions for his mental, emotional and physical health. Just as all whales have taken complete conscious control over their respirations, the record shows that when they lose the will to live their immune systems tend to crash.

Wynne is right that "Keiko should probably never have been removed from his native pod," but beyond that, his conventional perspective on Keiko's life and death is completely inadequate.


'Willy' Didn't Yearn to Be Free

Published: December 27, 2003


When Keiko the killer whale, star of the movie "Free Willy," beached himself earlier this month in western Norway, the story of probably the most expensive animal in human history came to an end. By the time of Keiko's death, seven years of effort and more than $20 million had been spent vainly - and unwisely - trying to return the whale to the wild.

Although Paul Irwin, president of the Humane Society of the United States, committed his organization to providing Keiko "with the chance of freedom," there was never a shred of evidence to suggest that freedom was an aspiration that Keiko shared with the humans who cared for him. Indeed, what we know about Keiko's response to his attempted liberation suggests quite the opposite.

Born 26 or 27 years ago somewhere near Iceland, Keiko was captured in 1979 and sold as an exhibit. Killer whales, with their awesome size and eagerness to turn a trick for a few pounds of herring, can be moneymakers for aquariums.

Thrust from a fading attraction in a Mexican amusement park into stardom in 1993 by "Free Willy," about a boy who rescues a killer whale from a rundown cetacean sideshow, Keiko soon became the subject of a real-life rescue effort on a scale not even Hollywood could have imagined.

In a special tank in Oregon, Keiko received remedial training in how to be a proper killer whale - which means killing things. But he never really took to the role. Nonetheless, after two years of boot camp, Keiko was shipped off to Iceland, where he was gradually reintroduced into the wild northern oceans in the summer of 2000. For a while, it looked as if the effort was succeeding, and in the summer of 2002 Keiko explored the North Atlantic.

He may even have caught a few wild fish. But in September that year Keiko showed up on the shores of western Norway performing his tricks for delighted locals. Ever hopeful, Keiko's "rescuers" shifted him to a more obscure fjord whence they hoped to tempt him into killer-whale society. Steadfastly refusing their entreaties, Keiko died on Dec. 12 after a bout with pneumonia.

A love of animals is no bad thing, but when one beast receives more resources than all but the tiniest fraction of the world's wealthiest people, we should at least stop and think for a moment.

Keiko should probably never have been removed from his native pod. But, once that was done, nothing in his story suggests that this highly social mammal, imprinted on humans at an early age, was a serious candidate for return to the rough and tumble of life on the ocean waves. It is a classic anthropomorphic fallacy to believe that an animal's best interests are whatever a human would desire under similar circumstances.

In his latest domicile, Keiko was supported by an international team of experts who fed him dead herring at an annual cost of over half a million dollars and worked feverishly to continue to "free" him. Despite all the money, time and sincere effort, Keiko did not die in the company of his own species, but up against a pier, seeking human consolation.

Clive D. L. Wynne, associate professor of psychology at the University of Florida, is author of the forthcoming "Do Animals Think?"

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