|Keiko in his Oregon pool in 1996|
One of the abiding problems that the people organizing to end the captivity of killer whales face is the reality that our mainstream national media -- being mostly corporate entities themselves -- are eager to lap up the falsehood-laden propaganda put out by the marine parks. Even the supposedly non-corporate "independent" media lap it right up.
The marine-park industry's favorite retort whenever anyone wants to talk about returning wild-born captive orcas to their homes -- as many people are now doing about Lolita -- is to claim that the effort to return Keiko, the star of 'Free Willy', to the wild, only resulted in his death.
In fact, you can see Robert Rose, the curator of the Miami Seaquarium and the man responsible for the continued incarceration of Lolita, repeatedly making that claim to gullible TV reporters who were reporting on last week's "Miracle March for Lolita" in Miami:
And sure enough, when PBS reporters covered the story, the same sort of retort was brought up repeatedly by the marine-park defenders -- and yet no one from the anti-captivity side was given any airtime to explain that this was fundamentally false, a gross distortion of the Keiko story.
Instead, what we got was the marine park industry's side ONLY:
ROBERT ROSE: I mean, she’s gonna die, without question. They are going to take her out there and do exactly the same thing they did to Keiko which is to kill him.
HARI SREENIVASAN: Keiko was the iconic killer whale that starred in the movie “Free Willy”.
Keiko was released into the waters off Norway in 2002 but died alone a year later of pneumonia.
ROBERT ROSE: Unfortunately this didn’t have the Hollywood happy ending where Free Willy jumped over the wall and lives happily ever after.
And then, when viewers protested, the PBS ombudsman's office issued the following lame response:
It is also true Keiko, the iconic killer whale that starred in the movie “Free Willy,” also had time to acclimate to the wild. A year after Keiko was fully released into the wild, Keiko died. We understand there is a passionate debate around Keiko’s death and whether she was properly prepared for returning to the wild or if she died simply of natural causes. In the future PBS NewsHour may have the opportunity to do an in-depth story about this important debate.
This is aggravating. PBS and its spokesperson betray their hapless ignorance in small ways and big.
Small: The spokeswoman here refers to Keiko as a "she."
Big: If the marine-park industry had had its way, Keiko never would have been moved out of Reino Aventura and almost certainly would have died there by 1996, perhaps 1997 at the latest. Period.
If you go back to 1994 and '95, when the "Free Keiko" campaign was just getting underway, it had been made painfully clear by the entire marine-park industry that Keiko was not going to be leaving Reino Aventura, the tiny, cramped Mexico City pool where he had been held since 1985, anytime soon. None of the other parks wanted him because of his papiloma-virus infection and his rapidly declining health. And they actively sabotaged an agreement between activists and Reino Aventura to place him in a seapen in Iceland.
Instead, the campaign successfully built a new pool for him in Oregon, bought him from Reino Aventura, and moved him there in January 1996. He was moved a little more than a year after that to the Iceland seapen.
And he wound up living a good life up until late 2003. So the campaign to free Keiko bought him more than seven more years of life.
And they were pretty damned good years, especially for a large male captive orca whose previous life had mainly been stuck inside tiny concrete pools. His pool in Oregon was the nicest orca pool in the world, and he regained his health there, losing the papiloma virus and gaining large amounts of weight. His Icelandic seapen was even better; he grew healthy and strong there, and relearned how to hunt on his own quite efficiently.
Keiko was functionally free beginning in the summer of 1999, allowed to roam at will out of his seapen, but returning voluntarily until that day in August 2002 when he hooked up with a pod of wild orcas and never came back, showing up in Norway instead and reestablishing contact with humans.
The Keiko experiment was not a failure except in reaching a final goal that the industry had a direct hand in ensuring was never reached -- namely, a positive identification of his familial pod so he could be reunited with them. What we learned from Keiko is that such identification is vital to a complete reintegration.
But in every other regard, this was a successful reintroduction to the wild. He learned to feed himself. He was independent. He clearly appeared to be healthy and happy, right up until just before he died. And the lung infection he died from may well have been contracted in captivity anyway.
I quote Paul Spong on this subject in my forthcoming book, Of Orcas and Men: What Killer Whales Can Teach Us. Here's what he says:
“My belief is that Keiko would have needed direct contact with members of his immediate family and community in order to fully integrate back into a life in the wild,” says Paul Spong. “That did not happen in Iceland, and it is very unlikely that it would have happened in Norway. However, this does not mean that it could not happen, given the appropriate circumstances. Had more been known about Keiko’s social background, it would have been far easier to put him in contact with members of his family. I do not believe he met his mother or any siblings or close cousins while he was swimming freely in Icelandic waters. He did meet and interact with other orcas, but they were not his kin, so he did not join them permanently. That said, Keiko did get to experience the feel and sounds of the ocean once again, after being surrounded by barren concrete walls for most of his life, and that, I believe, must have come as a profound relief to him. For me, the simple fact that Keiko died as a free whale spells success for the grand project that brought him home. Deniers will deny, spinners will spin, but they cannot erase or alter this truth.”