The Case Against Killer Whales in Captivity Part 1: A Profile on Keiko

“There’s a place I know in Ontario…” was probably one of the most popular jingles in my childhood growing up in Southern Ontario. While the finale of the jingle sings: “Everyone loves Marineland”, not all living creatures at marine parks are living happily. In fact, most are suffering tremendously. I have always been an advocate for animal rights. Recently, I was recommended the book “Death at SeaWorld: Shamu and the Dark side of Killer Whales in Captivity” by David Kirby by one of my friends who is a passionate advocate for marine animal rights. This book was extremely fascinating, and I have gained significant insight into the controversies surrounding marine theme parks and the different arguments that both sides have. While reading this book, I was fascinated with the stories of two killer whales. For this first blog, I will be covering one of these captivating whales, the infamous Keiko.

Keiko

Keiko

While the killer whale display industry has not been around for that long, the trend of keeping these incredibly intelligent and magnificent creatures captive needs to end. Since the 1960s, killer whales were captured and sold to amusement parks where they were being trained to perform tricks. Many of these killer whales were initially captured from the North Eastern Pacific region. The capture of killer whales from this region came to a halt due to the Marine Mammal Protection Act enacted on October 21st 1972. Due to this act, marine facilities that wished to host killer whales were forced to move their operations to Iceland, where they could capture orcas without any judicial action. After this, the captures of killer whales occurred around Iceland. This is where the story begins for our friend, Keiko.

Keiko is, hands down, the most famous killer whale of all time. His fame is due to his role as Willy in the heartfelt movie Free Willy. Unlike the ending of this blockbuster, however, Keiko was far from living freely. He was captured from Icelandic seas around the year 1979. He was then transported to Hafnarfjordur Aquarium in Hafnarfjordur, Iceland, however details surrounding this time in his life are not well known. In 1982, Keiko was shipped to Marineland in Ontario, where he was first known as Kago, prior to being renamed Keiko in Mexico. However, during his stay at Marineland, he lived in horrible conditions, while also being raked by older, more dominant females in his pool. These females battered poor Keiko to demonstrate their dominance, as females lead wild orca pods in a matriarchal society, wherein males are lower on the hierarchical scale. Keiko also had developed health problems such as skin lesions and, overall, was considered a very weak animal. He was then sold to another marine park in Mexico named Reino Aventura, where he was then renamed ‘Keiko’ which is Japanese for “the lucky one”. During his stay at this park, his living conditions worsened, and he developed a skin disease, known as papillomavirus. Even while living in his small and unfiltered pool, he was extremely kind and popular with the theme park goers. Keiko had also became friends with Ritchie, the bottlenose dolphin that lived with him in his pool. Finally, Warner Brothers approached Reino Aventura to use Keiko for their new movie. Reino Aventura agreed, with the intent of having Keiko moved to a better home after he became famous.

Keiko at Reino Aventura

Keiko at Reino Aventura

After Free Willy was released in theatres in the summer of 1993, a movement began to release Keiko back into the wild. Contrary to skeptics’ beliefs, this release project did not involve dumping him in the ocean and leaving him to fend for himself. The actual plan consisted of slowly reintroducing him to his native habitat. This included moving him to a sea pen, and training him how to live on his own without human help. Behind the scenes, there were also plans for researchers to search for Keiko’s pod using DNA samples and by matching his vocalizations. Many critics of the project doubted the success of this release program, even though several of these projects had previously and successfully been accomplished by the US Navy.

While Reino Aventura initially accepted the proposal for Keiko’s gradual release, this was impeded with excuses that his skin lesions that he had acquired since Marineland (and had not left him since) would infect other marine creatures. Many individuals that supported the release program thought that these were deliberate excuses to stall Keiko from being medically cleared to go back to the wild. Even though the transmission of infectious pathogens to Icelandic marine animals needs to be considered, there were many veterinarians that claimed Keiko’s skin lesions were due to living in inadequate conditions. Therefore, by stalling the release of Keiko and keeping him at Reino Aventura, his skin lesions would most likely continue. However, if he still had these skin lesions, he would not be medically cleared to be released into the wild.

It took quite some time, but finally the project had begun. Keiko was moved to the Coast Aquarium in Oregon to be trained on how to live in the wild. He was slowly regaining his health and learning how to catch live fish, and his papillomavirus began to show remarkable recovery.  However, while it seemed Keiko’s health status was improving, he started to develop new health problems due to malfunctioning filtration machines in his pool. This began a new controversy, because the Free Willy-Keiko Organization claimed that the aquarium was purposefully not changing the pool’s filters. The organization claimed that the aquarium wanted to halt the release of Keiko into the wild, and keep him longer. By staying at the aquarium longer, the whale would create revenue. The staff at the aquarium spoke back to these allegations by claiming that they did not replace the filters due to “financial constraints” from the Free Willy-Keiko Organization. Eventually, in 1998, Keiko was cleared medically to travel back to Iceland. There were two former SeaWorld trainers that were meant to train Keiko in his skills for living in the ocean. At the beginning of the training, there were signs of progress leading to a favorable outcome. However, as time went by, it was shown that the SeaWorld staff were no help in establishing Keiko’s independence. The trainers would communicate to him using baby talk, as well as making a lot of eye and physical contact. While it might appear cold to not touch or talk to a killer whale, the trainers needed to break the human connection that the whale had for most of his life. This connection needed to be broken in order for Keiko to hunt for food, instead of expecting it from trainers and other humans. Despite these setbacks, Keiko went on his first controlled “walk” outside of his sea pen. The walk was fairly successful and he was curious, while also meeting some other marine wildlife. However, he never stayed with any pod of killer whales for too long.

Jesse, played by Jason James Ritcher, and Willy in Free Willy

Jesse, played by Jason James Ritcher, and Willy, played by Keiko, in Free Willy

Then, unfortunately, the funding for the project disappeared due to the main investor losing a significant amount of money. From this, some of the employees, such as the former SeaWorld employees, left. These trainers were replaced by new employees who were given strict instructions to not have any contact with Keiko. After some time with these new trainers, Keiko had left the sea pen with another pod of killer whales. Nevertheless, Keiko was still being tracked, so the organization had knowledge of where Keiko was at all times. Now this time the critics of the project had claimed that Keiko had left his sea pen indefinitely because the organization was being “cruel” and “ignoring” him. This sort of criticism is irrational, because the objective of the release project was for Keiko to be independent and this “cruel” treatment had to be done in order for him to be truly independent from humans. Unfortunately, it did not seem as if Keiko was eating any fish during his long adventure, which a stomach lavage later demonstrated. Even with no sign of him foraging fish, he still appeared healthy. However, simply “appearing” healthy is not enough of an argument for killer whale health. This is because whenever captive cetaceans physically appear unhealthy, they have reached a life threatening stage in their illness. A more reasonable argument pointing toward Keiko being healthy was that he was diving at deeper depths than he had ever done before. This was truly significant, as he had come a long way from Reino Aventura, where he could hardly breach or dive without coming into contact with the base of his tank. Dr. Lanny Cornell, zoological director and veterinarian at SeaWorld, said that Keiko must have eaten a range of 125 to 150 pounds of fish to dive down as far as he had while foraging. Therefore, Keiko must have been eating something or else he would have been trying to conserve his energy.

While on Keiko’s journey alone, he had stopped on the coast of Norway for some time. One of the most profound moments in Keiko’s journey occurred when he entered a small harbor in Skålvik. There were many people who were drawn to him and feeding him, which again hindered his detachment from humans. Once more, critics were quick to point out how the release program was a failure, because Keiko was not independent and went back to being fed by humans as soon as the opportunity approached him. On September 8, 2002, Keiko had a blood test performed on him which demonstrated a moderately high white blood cell count. This could have indicated that he was developing a minor illness, exhibiting stress, exercising or excited. However, Keiko was then led to Taknes, Norway, where trainers would continue to build his stamina by going on more “sea walks” with him.  He was then relocated near the town of Halsa in Norway on November 8th 2003.

After almost sixty days at sea alone and four years in his native waters of the Icelandic fjords, Keiko passed away. The cause of his death was unknown since no autopsy could be performed. His body was to be preserved so that he could be buried at the beach. Even at his death, increased criticism came concerning the release program. Even so, those in support of his release argued that Keiko had spent almost sixty days in the sea on his own, without any weight loss, and that the conditions in the sea were better than living in captivity.

Keiko breaching

Keiko breaching

In the end, Keiko’s pod was never found. This could have been due to the whales having left the area, being captured or being deceased as repercussions of the capture industry. While not finding Keiko’s pod, Keiko was also unable to become accepted into another pod, because most pods won’t accept new killer whales. This is due to newcomers not speaking the same dialect or not understanding the pod’s culture. The culture would have included different traditions, languages, migratory routes and associations with other killer whale pods. Since Keiko has spent most of his life in captivity, he would not be able to keep up with them while foraging. Additionally, since Keiko is a male, he would have relied on females to give him status in the pod. His mother would have given him status in his previous pod. Therefore, if he joined a new pod, he would have to rely entirely on himself, since the pod would not supply his needs without an experienced female or matriarch supporting him.

Arguments were consistent saying Keiko was too dependent on the people who fed him and would certainly die if released in the wild. While we will not know for certain what killed Keiko, even late in his life he was accepting food from the inhabitants of the coastal town. Perhaps in the long run, he would have not been able to survive as well. However, this point against his release brings up a bigger issue. Killer whales are extremely intelligent and large mammals. They have the capacity to hunt and forage for their own food, even at times when their food source is scarce. They should not be taken and kept in captivity where they would lose this basic instinct.

Other disputes, the majority from SeaWorld employees, were that the “ocean is a scary place”. They claim that these killer whales could never survive in an ocean with pollution. They argue that it is safer for them to be kept in parks where they do not have to worry about hunting their food or being in contact with pollutants. This kind of argument is invalid for many reasons. It is not reasonable because this argument is the equivalent to a mother never letting her child leave the house, because of all the unknown dangers in the world. While the child might arguably be safer at home, they would not be truly happy or free. One SeaWorld employee attempted to make the case that the weather in Iceland is too cold and stormy for Keiko. This is another untrue point, because Keiko is an Icelandic killer whale, and his physiology is capable of living in these colder conditions. He even prefers colder weather, since he developed illness from being kept in warmer waters. As for the pollutant chemicals found in waters today, the answer to keeping Keiko healthy was not in keeping him captive at a theme park. Instead the answer lies in marine conservation and environmental stewardship. By preventing the root of the pollution issue, then we would not have to worry about killer whales dying off altogether.

Keiko in Skaalvikfjiord, Norway.

Keiko in Skaalvikfjiord, Norway.

Even though the success of Keiko’s release is questionable, the release and its outcome would have never happened if it weren’t for his captivity in the first place. It is the greed of man that takes an intelligent, beautiful animal and sells it to a theme park, in which it doesn’t live in the conditions it requires. There are still 57 killer whales that are currently kept in captivity. Moreover, of the nearly 150 orcas taken into captivity, roughly eighty-five percent have passed away, totaling 126 needless and senseless deaths. I hope that in the near future North American theme parks will take the example of many other countries and prohibit the display of marine mammals. Legislation pushing the ban on captivity of all cetaceans should be supported. Bill 80 has recently been passed in Ontario, Canada, which bans the breeding, import, and display of orcas in captivity. However, this does not apply to Canada’s lone orca, Kiska, who resides at Marineland in Niagara Falls, nor does it apply to dolphins, belugas, and the host of other marine mammals who are suffering in barren, concrete, chlorine-filled tanks. By supporting and advocating for these laws, you are giving these animals a voice, and the chance for the freedom that they so desperately deserve.