Was "Free Willy" Better Off in Captivity?

keiko orca captivity photo

Photo: Digicla via Flickr

Keiko the killer whale, also known as Willy from the movie Free Willy, died in captivity in 2003. Many attempts were made to release the whale into the wild. All were failures. Now, researchers are saying that the efforts to free Keiko were mistakes.
The Story of Keiko, the Killer Whale
Keiko was captured in 1979 at the age to two and spent over a decade alone in a Mexican amusement park. In 1993, Keiko was cast as the titular character in the movie Free Willy. The movie's plot revolved around a boy's friendship with a captive orca. The boy eventually helps the whale escape.

The popularity of the movie lead to a campaign to free the actual whale, Keiko. That campaign worked. The whale's owners transferred Keiko to Iceland where he was trained to follow a boat. The boat would lead Keiko to whale pods, but it seemed that Keiko lacked the social skills to integrate himself within those pods.

Free Willy's Troubled Social Life
In 2002, Keiko was released. 10 days later, he showed back up in his pen, having not eaten. Two days after that, Keiko was taken back to sea. This time, Keiko dived with the other orcas but only once and at much shallower depths than the other whales. When Keiko resurfaced, he swam back towards the boat.

In August of 2002, Keiko sucessfully migrated to Norway.

When Keiko arrived in Norway, he actively sought out human company, swimming to boats and people," say the researchers. "After a few days, he became inactive, staying near a small boat, possibly to avoid the large and steadily increasing crowd of people now seeking his attention.

Keiko recovered in captivity. He died a year later, presumably of pneumonia.
Reintroducing Captive Whales into the Wild Might Not Work
From New Scientist:

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.

While we as humans might find it appealing to free a long-term captive animal," the researchers say in the paper, "the survival and well-being of the animal may be severely impacted in doing so." The only cetaceans that have successfully been returned to the wild have been young and only kept in captivity for short periods.

The Free Willy-Keiko Foundation
in 2003, the Free Willy-Keiko Foundation "claimed that his case had challenged the perception that whales cannot be returned to the wild."

Milestones of the Free Willy-Keiko Foundation:

Re-taught Keiko to eat live fish;

Taken Keiko out into the open ocean and reintroduced him to wild orca whales;

Closely monitored Keiko as he has become far more comfortable in the company of wild whales, and shown the ability to sustain himself in the wild.

August 2002, Keiko has swum more than 1000 miles to the Norwegian coast, where he is residing in a protected fjord.

The Free Willy-Keiko Foundation is now working to free Kshamenk, an orca.

From the Free Willy-Keiko Foundation:

Kshamenk was about five or six years old when captured, which means he had plenty of time to gain experience in natural survival skills such as foraging, navigating, communicating and the use of sonar.

Kshamenk is hostile to trainers and handlers. In fact, he wants nothing to do with people. The fact that Kshamenk has not bonded with people during the time he has spent in captivity makes is much easier to help him once again become a wild animal.

Is there more controversy to come or is Kshamenk a good candidate for release?

More on Whales
Direct Action Against Whalers Works! Japan's Whale Catch Falls Short of Targets
Humpback Stranded in Hong Kong Waters
Swimming With A Baby Blue Whale (Video)

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