Remembering Keiko

There’s an article up on Treehugger that asks whether putting captive whales back into the wild is actually detrimental to their welfare.

Keiko was a killer whale who was captured in 1979 in Iceland as a young calf and was sold on to the aquarium industry.  Basically, he spent most of his life ill-treated, in amusement parks and eventually became the star of the 1993 movie, Free Willy.

I love movies and Free Willy has got to be one of my favourites.  Now as films go, I know it’s not a masterpiece or a classic or anything but that shouldn’t matter?  I love the film and I believe that the wider message it gives is an important one.  Basically, a young boy takes on the impossible task of helping a killer whale escape from the greedy and exploitative clutches of an aquarium owner who plans to kill the whale to claim the insurance money.  You should see me cry at the end when the magnificent creature takes a humongous leap over the rocks, out of captivity and into freedom.  Sigh.  Of course I know he doesn’t really jump over the rocks but are you going to deny me my moment?

I see the conflicting dilemma. Buying/watching the movie could be seen as condoning the capture and exploitation of animals for the sake of entertainment and be in no doubt that it pricks at my conscience.  But it could also be argued that these kind of films tend to bring about a wider public awareness than other sources manage to achieve (well lets face it, movies reach more people than documentaries do). For example (and I’m not necessarily agreeing either way – I’ll argue with myself about that later), people were so inspired when they watched Willy make that magnificent leap to freedom, that a campaign was started to release the actual whale, Keiko into the wild.

Sadly, Keiko’s real story isn’t as happy as his fictional one.  Efforts to relocate him into his natural habitat were unsuccessful and to echo New Scientist and sum up a sad story, he was never really free.  In the wild, he sought human interaction and was unable to fend for himself.  He became inactive and he lost his appetite.  He beached himself on the 12th of December 2003 and died.  He was estimated to be 26 years old (the average lifespan of wild male Orca is 35 so I read but they’ve been known to live up to 50 – 60 years).

Keiko’s story makes me cry.  It’s very sad and hopeless and it typifies our meddlsome attitudes towards our natural environment.

Having been captive all his life, Keiko’s socialising and foraging skills would have been pretty limited.  It’s hardly rocket science.  If you’ve spent all of your life living in an unatural habitat, with sterile conditions . . . if you’ve had your food supplied and have been kept totally isolated from your own species . . . if you’ve had no chance to build up the immunities you need in the greater ocean, then to suddenly be thrust into another world, chances are, you aren’t going to adapt.

The Free Willy-Keiko Foundation believed they could relocate him successfully but other experts, including his trainer, believed that after so long in captivity, he lacked the basic survival skills.  He simply wasn’t fit enough and strong enough. The Foundation is still campaigning to free whales in captivity and I do believe their intentions are noble but from all accounts, the risks are great and given the history of failure, they are risks that might not be worth taking, at least not for creatures that have been in long-term captivity.

The simple message of course is, don’t capture them in the first place.  Leave them alone.  They can do quite well without our interference. They are needed elsewhere and they’re doing a mighty fine job of keeping our eco-systems balanced.  We should let them. That doesn’t solve the issue of the existing creatures in captivity but to quote the New Scientist article . . .

We believe the best option for [Willy] was the open pen he had in Norway, with care from his trainers,” says Malene Simon of the Greenland Institute of Natural Resources, who participated in efforts to reintegrate the cetacean in the wild and is lead author of the study. “He could swim as much as he wanted to, had plenty of frozen herring – which he was very fond of – and the people that he was attached to kept him active.

Sounds sensible and workable to me.

Going back to what I said earlier regarding my own self-conflicts about the movie , exploiting animals for human entertainment will always be wrong.  Always.  Always.  Always.  And I have asked myself, should I not have boycotted this movie?  Does buying this movie mean that I actually support the captivity of animals?  Am I not part of the system that increases the profits of the film makers, not to mention the owners of the whale, thus incentivising more animal entrapment?

The hypocritical irony hasn’t gone unnoticed either. The entire theme of the film is the ethics of animal entrapment and the story pertains to give us an important message that treating Willy as a commodity is unethical.  Yet the filmmakers themselves and the owners of the whale (I hate using that word – no-one has the right to own a whale) are themselves using Keiko as a commodity by the very making of the film

Thing is, the film did/does expose a deep and grim environmental issue. Frustratingly, films like Free Willy often raise public awareness much more than other sources can and the paradox is that without the animal to star in the film and pull at our heart-strings, the story/the message can’t be told in such a way that it will reach ordinary people on huge levels.

I think it can.

Maybe some day a movie producer will make a movie about Keiko – about his real life.  His real story will stir our consciences and raise awareness more than the Free Willy story.  But it should be animated.  Animation technology is of very high quality now so it’s just not necessary to use captive animals.

Anyone listening?  I doubt it.


5 responses to this post.

  1. Yes it has to be animation. The message still gets through I’d say.


  2. I’ve heard good news today: The European Union is banning the import of products derived from seals, in an attempt to fight the indiscriminate massacres taking place in Canada yearly.

    It seems at long last the public opinion has made impact in our politicians.

    A sad story, Earthpal, not known by everybody, which I thank you for.


  3. Matt, I’d agree. I’ve been known to sob my heart out at many an animated film.

    Jose, thanks for the good news. Very good news in fact. It’s lifted my spirit to know that. A good start to the end of the slaughter hopefully.


  4. You may be interested in this link:


  5. Thank you Jose. I’ll have a read of it now.


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