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Keiko the Killer Whale (Orca) at Ark Animals

This page is dedicated to interview questions related to the death of popular animal actor and star of Free Willy, Keiko the killer whale (orca). Guerrero is an animal behaviorist and trainer who has worked around the world with captive wild animals--including captive marine mammals. She comments on the Keiko situation.

Animal Expert Interview: Keiko the Killer Whale's Death

What can you share about the recent death of Keiko?

It is a tragedy, but not a surprise. Captive animals change through their close encounters with man in the captive environment. Anyone truly involved with animal rehabilitation could explain that habituated animals do not make good candidates for release back into the wild.

Can you elaborate?

Unfortunately, public pressure and sensationalism are huge influences. Keiko was a victim of his popularity and the unwillingness of humans to accept the reality of integration into the wild and his situation.

The "story" or popular ideal became the new truth--although it often isn't reality at all. I remember when the hoopla over Keiko started. The public was very excited over the prospect of making the movie a reality. As a professional familiar with the actual chances of success, it saddened me as I believed that it was not an effort that would be successful.

Instead I felt that the funds and energy could have gone toward really making a difference for his species and would have much rather seen those efforts (and money) directed toward the conservation of pods of orcas (and their environment) using Keiko as the "spokeswhale"--so to speak.

You mentioned that you started your career as a marine naturalist and have been working with animals for a long time, what other comments do you have?

When I started my career with animals, people were just becoming familiar with marine mammals through oceanariums and whale watching efforts. Even so, whaling and lack of familiarity with these creatures was rampant. If you look back over thirty to forty years ago you would find a different picture in public opinion. Now the pendulum has swung to the other side of the spectrum. People are very interested in the animals they meet and connect with through captivity and other activities, such as whale watch trips. This was true for Keiko since many people were familiar with him through the movie, Free Willy.

Professionally I have also seen a big change in concern. When I worked at a zoo and suggested training animals back in the early 1980's I was considered a heretic and took a lot of heat for it. Now it is common practice to train animals for voluntary veterinary exams and related efforts. Training is used to keep animals mentally occupied and stimulated. What was considered "unnatural" is now considered necessary. Training for release into the wild is a very specialized task and this project was no exception.

Finally, I find that professionals who take a stand and comment to the contrary (of popular opinion) are often victims themselves. Over time they have become reluctant to speak out. I think this is case with the Keiko release project. Ultimately, the general public is not aware of the reality--unless they are educated on the matter. People need to be directed toward efforts that really make a difference instead of being led down the wrong path by sensationalism. In the end, it is the animals that suffer.

You have a new book out that is full of animal stories how does this book tie into the Keiko situation?

People love stories and want to connect with animals so in my book, What Animals Can Teach Us about Spirituality: Inspiring Lessons of Wild and Tame Creatures (SkyLight Paths, November 2003) I use story to illustrate how animals have influenced people. The story of my first close interaction with a killer whale is mentioned.

In the beginning of the text I comment on how allegorical animal stories have been used over time. In the book I share many stories about wild and tame creatures, but also comment about how the also exhibit "good" and "bad" traits. Ultimately, the handbook in the back serves to help people learn how to connect with animals of all types. The resources I have included also give people the factual animal material and avenues to explore some of the more esoteric questions.

The fascination with animals makes people want to believe that the stories of Flipper the bottlenosed dolphin, and Willy the killer whale are true stories instead of simply Hollywood magic. They need to take that fascination and direct it into efforts that can help them understand animals from a realistic avenue and still glean some magic from story. I've attempted to achieve that balance in this work.

What do you mean by "you give people the factual animal material and avenues to explore some of the more esoteric questions?"

In the back of What Animals Can Teach Us about Spirituality: Inspiring Lessons from Wild and Tame Creatures, I give references to many of the books I refer to. Many explore the question of animal souls. There is also an extensive listing of animal references related to animal behavior and specific types of animals.

Within the text of the book I talk about animal awareness and understanding. I also illustrate my experiences with some nontraditional techniques. People have this craving to "connect" with animals and I wanted the book to illustrate how animals spark spiritual and personal growth while also giving people a handbook to enable them to take steps to build better relationships with animals of all types.

At a recent library fundraiser where we chatted about the book and animals in general, one of the audience members asked a question and shared a story about an animal that attacked her.

She explained that during her travels she encountered a wild peacock. She said as the two contemplated each other, "during this time our eyes locked and I felt a deep connection." So, both continued on their way and as they met on the road--the peacock attacked her.

The peacock was being his true wild animal self. Unfortunately, many people think because they "feel" that connection that they are protected or are "at one" with the animal. Wild animals are true to their nature--wild. Just because you feel a connection does not mean that the animal will not behave as a wild animal. Ultimately, any animal has the potential to do harm.

I was happy she shared that tidbit as it was a valuable lesson and a good illustration of an erroneous notion gleaned from an esoteric idea. When people ask me about why a tiger, lion, elephant, or bear attacks--I say the same thing; they are wild animals and that is how wild animals sometimes behave. Even habituated wild animals are not always amiable to humans, or even those humans with whom they have a huge bond.

So erroneous beliefs apply to Keiko. This wild animal was habituated to humans and life with humankind. You could say that he was adopted by humans and accepted them as family, received an education, had all his needs met, and got lots of concentrated attention. Thrusting this animal back into what became a foreign environment was not the most humane thing to do. The action was catalyzed by a human desire that was attached to an idea.

The fictional story of Tarzan is a good analogy here. Tarzan was expected to integrate back into a city after life in the jungle with animals. It is an illustration of the same type of principle. Just because you are biologically related and have heritage that links you back to a specific culture does not mean that you will integrate back into that environment after you have lived another way.

People make that mistake with dogs they dump off to survive in the wild. There is also a case of captive dolphins some well meaning individuals released--they almost starved to death.

Orca tidbits and Keiko timeline
(Notes of Diana L. Guerrero)

  • Marineland was one of the earlier marine parks and first attempted capturing whales in 1961.
  • The first captive killer whale to be successfully exhibited was not until 1964. This animal, Moby Doll, was captured by the Vancouver Aquarium collectors and kept in an ocean pen in the Vancouver harbor, surviving a short three months.
  • The next exhibited killer whale, Namu, was in 1965. Accidentally caught in a gill net, he was purchased by the Seattle Aquarium and was the first captive orca to perform for the public. He lived eleven months.
  • Marineland's whales, Orky and Corky, were members of a specific resident pod of orcas in British Columbia known as A5. Orky was captured in 1968, while Corky was captured and brought to Marineland in 1969. A new home was built specifically for them but they outgrew it and were moved into a different stadium at the park.
  • It wasn't until 1971 that the Marine Mammal Protection Act came about. Regulations were made concerning the capture of orcas in the United States so that permits were to be obtained before capturing one. In 1994 the act was amended so that facilities could transfer or export captive animals without getting additional permits.
  • There are many laws that come into play for the management of these animals:
    • For instance, the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) requires the federal government to do a study on the environmental impact
    • Once the whale is located in a marine park, they fall under the jurisdiction of the Animal Welfare Act and the Department of Agriculture's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS).
  • Orcas live in two different types of groups called transient or resident pods. There are some significant differences between them.
    • Residents are some of the most studied animals since they inhabit and stay within a specific area. They tend to live in larger groups to about 50 animals (larger pods will subdivide) and eat mostly fish, such as salmon.
    • Transient pods are smaller and range from having a couple of animals to a dozen or so. They eat a wide variety of animals and will consume seals, sea lions, and other cetaceans. These are the animals that have been nicknamed or "wolves of the sea." Most people think of these mammal eaters when they hear the name "killer whale."
  • The common name killer whale actually originated from the Latin scientific name. The scientific name translated as "whale killers." However it is speculated that during translation someone forgot to switch the name as required when changing from Latin to English. So, the popular name, "Killer Whale" stuck.
  • Orcas might live to fifty years in the wild, but it is not known for sure.
  • Many studies are being done on orcas. For instance, it has been discovered that they have different dialects according to what group they were raised in. This is like having a different accent and different terms or words for things. People in Georgia use different words and their accent is different from people in California, and Mexicans' speak differently from people in Spain, it is a similar situation between orca pods.
    • In 1993 some people from one of the television networks played some of dialect recordings from the A5 pod for my old buddy Corky. She was visibly affected and shuddered upon hearing the recording.
  • Keiko timeline
    • 1977/1978 Keiko born near Iceland.
    • 1979 Keiko captured and taken to Saedyrasfnid (Aquarium in Iceland)
    • 1982 Keiko purchased by Marineland in Ontario, Canada.
    • 1985 Keiko sold to Reino Aventura. (Mexico City Amusement Park)
    • 1992 Keiko stars in Free Willy. (Warner Bros.).
    • 1993 Keiko Story in Life Magazine.
    • 1994 Oregon Coast Aquarium begins discussing Keiko.
      • The Free Willy Keiko Foundation is formed with $4 million donated by Warner Bros., New Regency Productions, and the McCaw Foundation.
    • 1995 Reino Aventura announces it will donate Keiko to the Free Willy Keiko Foundation.
      • Construction of a $7.3 million rehabilitation facility begins and is completed January 1996. United Parcel Service delivers Keiko to the Newport Municipal Airport in Newport, Oregon and he is transported to aquarium.
    • 1998 Keiko leaves Oregon Coast Aquarium and flies to Iceland and is placed into a large sea pen.
    • 1999 Keiko comes under the care of the Ocean Futures Society.
    • 2000 Keiko is fitted for a tracking device to monitor him in the open ocean.
    • 2001 Keiko scheduled to begin maintaining himself on wild fish and to begin associating with wild orcas.
    • 2002 Keiko is let out of the netted bay pen in the summer. He journeys to Norway.
      • Management of the project is given to the Free Willy Keiko Foundation and the Humane Society of the U.S.
    • 2003 Keiko dies
    • Link to 12/15/03 funeral article

Animals in the wild must fight to survive. Some of the daily challenges and threats include:

  • parasites
  • territorial disputes
  • competition
  • hunting challenges/food supply
  • environmental dangers
  • disease
  • predators
  • injury or illness

Killer Whale Database (Orcinus orca)...

Killer Whales in British Columbia...


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