Ethical Debate: Should we have freed Willy?

Jean-Michel Cousteau with an orca. Photo credit: Carrie Vonderhaar, Ocean Futures Society

The  death of Sea World trainer Dawn Branchaeu revived an old debate over whether it is appropriate to keep orca whales in captivity. Many people are calling for all captive orcas to be set free, but I continue to support aquariums because of the roles they serve as educators and conservationists. Although several readers have pointed out that the sea world incident itself would make for a solid ethical debate, I am instead going to take you back more than 15 years to a movie that started this whole movement: Free Willy.

The movie chronicles the adventures of a boy who works at an aquarium, where he befriends a captive orca whale. Because the whale is sad in captivity, he eventually frees it.

Image from IMDB

After the success of the movie, there was a real-life campaign to free Keiko, the whale who played Willy in the film. Unlike in the movies, however, an animal that is used to being fed in an aquarium can’t just be set free in the wild- it needs to be reacclimated. This was done with Keiko, and it is chronicled in the Cousteau film “Call of the Killer Whale” and on Keiko.com. Jean-Michel Cousteau, President of the Ocean Futures Society, kindly agreed to answer my questions about this fascinating story. I believe that the lessons learned from releasing Keiko can help us decide what to do about currently captive orca whales.

WhySharksMatter (WSM): Tell me the story of rehabilitating and releasing Keiko the Whale.

Jean-Michel Cousteau (JMC): In 1993, the “Free Willy” film was a surprise hit and that, combined with press coverage detailing Keiko’s poor health and inadequate living conditions in Mexico City, created a groundswell of support, particularly from children throughout the world, for his release, to live up to the spirit of the film. In response, Earth Island Institute negotiated with the Oregon Coast Aquarium for his rehabilitation and the Free Willy Foundation was formed with a donation from Warner Brothers, a donation from the Humane Society of the U.S., money from a then-anonymous donor, the donation of Keiko by Reino Aventura, and unsolicited money sent in by children from around the world.

WSM: What was the source of the idea to free Keiko? Why did you all think that releasing Keiko was the right thing to do?

JMC: The source of the idea was public outcry from the film, not only on the issue of captivity but because Keiko was in such poor health and in such poor conditions, living in artificial seawater, 7,200 feet above sea level, breathing smoggy air, cramped in a small pool, and swimming in circles to entertain the crowds.  It was clear that if Keiko were to survive, he had to be moved. It was not a project that anyone would have taken on as an experiment, but it became the only humane thing to do, especially under such public outrage and scrutiny.

WSM: Do you think it’s fair to other orcas that Keiko was chosen based on his celebrity from “Free Willy” while they remained captive?

JMC: As described above, Keiko was not “chosen” above other captive whales, but his celebrity was key in attracting attention to his poor health and bad conditions.  The issue was less one of captivity in general and more about doing something to save this one specific whale.

WSM: Advocates for aquariums (such as myself) often argue that while the life of an individual animal may be worse in captivity than in the wild, having captive animals helps the species as a whole by promoting education and conservation to the public. What do you think about this?

JMC: The elation we feel in the presence of such a magnificent animal should not be used to justify the destructive assumption that we have the right to imprison these animals for our pleasure.  That is a dangerous assumption and leads to the belief that all of nature is for our pleasure and we have the right to manipulate it.  That is anti-educational.  We need to educate people to cherish and respect animals and places they may never see or touch because they are a vital part of our own survival.

WSM: How did Keiko react after being released? How long did he live?

JMC: It is important to make the distinction that it was not the intent to “release” Keiko, but rather to “reintroduce” Keiko to the wild.  These are not mere semantics.  In order to live in the wild, Keiko had to re-learn to live with a pod of orca and be accepted by a pod.  He had to learn to catch his own wild food.  And to survive, he had to learn to hunt with a pod, sharing the food caught for all by the family unit. This was a learning process for Keiko and for his care givers and trainers.  It was a slow and methodical process over more than three years during which Keiko spent increasing amounts of time with wild whales.  During the fourth summer, he spent all his time in the wild, catching his own food and swimming adjacent to wild whales.  Was he truly accepted? We will never know; we can only observe that he ate with them, lived near them and was free in the wild.  He joined them in swimming away from Iceland.  He traveled more than 1000 miles in the open ocean over three weeks to Norway, arriving in good health without losing any weight during more than 10 weeks on his own. Thereafter, he lived freely, with free choice to come and go as he wanted in a fjord in Norway.  Caretakers provided food because there was not a ready supply of wild food and because wild orca did not come into the fjord regularly.Keiko died of a respiratory ailment in the winter of 2003 at the age of approximately 28 years, the oldest male whale that had been in captivity.  His final five years were spent in ocean conditions and he lived his final years swimming free with caretakers nearby to provide sustenance and companionship. In a nutshell, what we have all learned from this experience is how easy it is to capture a whale (or any living creature) and how difficult it is to put one back.

WSM: How much total money went into rehabilitating and releasing Keiko? How many people were involved? How long did it take?

JMC: This effort was initiated and carried out because so many people at Warner Brothers, Earth Island institute, the Humane Society of the U.S., the Free Willy Keiko Foundation, and Ocean Futures Society felt a deep responsibility both to Keiko and to the children of the world who demanded his rehabilitation and return to the wild.  Donations were evidence of the commitment of tremendous resources to an idea and an ideal. More than $40 million was expended to create facilities in the U.S. and Iceland, hire and train staff, transport Keiko and care for him over the more than eight years after his move from Mexico to Newport, Oregon, and then to Iceland/Norway.More than 75 people were directly involved, many for almost the full eight years, dedicated by their hearts and the joy of children everywhere.

WSM: Do you think it was appropriate to spend so much time, money, and effort helping an individual whale instead of on species or ecosystem level cosnervation?

JMC: That was never a choice.  Hundreds of people and millions of dollars were spent in response to saving this one unique whale in unpredictable and unprecedented circumstances.  I do think that the exorbitant cost of rehabilitating, retraining and releasing Keiko taught us that this is not an option to be considered with other captives unless we know exactly the pod they belong to and that they could be reunited.  Since most of those whales have been in captivity a very long time, it would be an experiment of hope and undertaken with caution.

WSM: Given your experiences with Keiko, do you feel that rehabilitating and releasing more captive orcas is feasible?

JMC: For the reasons stated above, no, unless there are special circumstances and ample funding and expert personnel.  I do believe we must take care of these captives for the rest of their lives and prevent them from reproducing.  The cost could be borne by letting the public see them and be assured they are well cared for, but without any of the entertainment aspect.  They are temporary ambassadors and we should study them in the most humane way and with the greatest intelligence we can muster.

WSM: In the wake of the recent tragedy at Sea World, many are saying that all captive orcas need to be freed. What do you think about this, both ethically and logistically? What do you think happened in that situation?

JMC:  For the reasons above, I do not think all captives can be successfully returned to the wild and it would be cruel to simply release them, almost certainly dooming them.  Ethically, we need to care for them for the rest of their lives and prevent any future captures or breeding programs.  We will never fully understand the incidents at Sea World other than that they are tragic.

WSM: Tell me about the Ocean Futures Society

JMC: The mission of Ocean Futures Society is to explore our global ocean, inspiring and educating people throughout the world to act responsibly for its protection, documenting the critical connection between humanity and nature, and celebrating the ocean’s vital importance to the survival of all life on our planet. Membership is free at www.oceanfutures.org

WSM: Is there anything else you’d like to say about this subject?

JMC: We must remember that we are a young species and we are still learning about the world around us.  Without creating enemies, we need to move on from the captive orca industry which is appearing more and more barbarian in that we engage in what I think we will see as unethical, cruel and unwarranted ways to contain these animals for our pleasure.  No amount of research or disputed educational value warrants these acts. It is time for us to change and to move on and create new, healthier, more respectful bonds with the natural world. It is the only way we will save ourselves.

End of interview

Returning our discussion to the recent tragedy at Sea World:

Many people have said that this incident is proof that orcas should not be in captivity. I disagree- aquariums promote education about the oceans and conservation of marine species to the public. Even if the life of an individual animal is worse in captivity than it would be in the wild , the species as a whole benefits as a result of public education.

I concede that Keiko’s living conditions in the Mexican aquarium where he lived for part of his life were abysmal. My views on the value of aquariums only extend to those that follow AZA (or similar) regulations concerning the treatment of their animals.

Do you think that it was good that we spent so much time, money, and resources (75 people, $40 million, and years of effort) to give one individual whale a few years of freedom, or should we focus our efforts on species or ecosystem-wide conservation efforts?

Do you think it’s fair that Keiko was freed while other whales weren’t because he starred in a movie?

Do you think we should repeat the same process for the orcas presently in captivity?

~WhySharksMatter

  1. After reading the circumstances that Keiko was living in,

    “poor health and in such poor conditions, living in artificial seawater, 7,200 feet above sea level, breathing smoggy air, cramped in a small pool, and swimming in circles to entertain the crowds”

    I think that it was a great idea setting him free. Like Cousteau said, it “became the only humane thing to do.”

    I have no issue with the amount of time, money and recourses used to give him a few years of freedom. In addition, most of the money spent was donated which shows that many people strongly believed in making this happen. I feel that if people are willing to give their own money to help a good cause that doesn’t even involve them, it must be worth it.

    In my personal opinion, I would like to see all Orca whales set free. Although many may argue that their captivation is great for education, they are living in completely unstable environments. I understand that releasing Orca whales that are already captivated back into the ocean would not be a bright idea, so my best hope for them is that they take better care of them and supply them with a better environment.

    Another point I wanted to make. I commented on another blog about whale sharks in captivation, and said that I agreed with the captivation of them. Here is the difference: The whale sharks live in a peaceful environment at the aquarium where they are looked at from afar or swam next to but never touched. They are given proper care and their environment is made to suit them as if they lived in the wild. That is when captivation is used for education.

    Then, you have Orca whales, which are trained to do flips and tricks and put on a show for a crowd of people. They are stuck in a small pool that they can barely move in. They are bluntly there to put on a show to make Sea World some extra money. It’s amazing to watch, but at the same time, it’s somewhat torture for the whales. It’s not how they are supposed to be raised and I find no education purpose behind it.

    • “I have no issue with the amount of time, money and resources used to give him a few years of freedom. ”

      You really can’t think of somewhere else in the world where 40 million dollars would be better spent?

    • The main part about the money point I was trying to prove was that “most of the money spent was donated which shows that many people strongly believed in making this happen.”

      If the money is donated for that cause, well then no, I can’t think of somewhere else in the world it could be better spent. Or wouldn’t we of donated money to that instead?

    • “If the money is donated for that cause, well then no, I can’t think of somewhere else in the world it could be better spent.”

      That doesn’t make logical sense. The source of the money is completely irrelevant in determining whether something is a worthy cause.

      In this case, an individual whale was granted a few years of living in the wild. Even if orca whale conservation is the cause you feel most strongly about in all the world, there are lots of more effective ways to spend your money (for example, projects that benefit the whole species and not just one individual, projects that have lasting impact instead of just until one already-old whale dies, etc).

      Also, when money is donated for something, that usually means that it is not being donated elsewhere. Most people don’t have an unlimited supply of money.

    • The point about the money is that a lot of it was donated for an exact purpose. That purpose being to release one specific whale. I do think that if people really cared about the orca population as a whole then the money could have been put to better use. However, the donors didn’t care about the orca population as a whole, they donated money to release this one whale. I don’t think it would have even been possible to take the donated money and use it for anything else, being as it was donated for a specific cause. Also, you seem to put a lot of thought and passion into the education and awareness of these captivated animals. Don’t you think that such a big effort, which obviously received global attention, provided just what you say aquariums promote? -Public education. I would also be interested in knowing what the price of taking adequate care of the mammal for the rest of its captive life would have been. It seems reasonable to me that over the long term almost the same amount of money might have gone into caring for the animal in captivity anyways.

    • You definitely have a point regarding the difference in captivity of whale sharks versus captivity of orca whales. Orcas would not be constantly performing tricks and providing entertainment for people in their natural enviroment; they would be doing what they were born to do, hunting for food!

  2. While I agree that aquariums are good from an educational standpoint, Sea World is not an aquarium, it is an amusement park. Watching an Orca do a jump through a hoop isn’t doing much for education. I just don’t see the value in keeping Orca shows. Orcas are meant to swim hundreds and thousands of miles, and hunt in packs… the little pools where they live just don’t cut it. It’s possible to still educate people about Orcas in a much better manner without having them in captivity. Pods of Orcas can be viewed from a boat, in their natural environment, and I think that would do far more for education than Sea World does.

    • “pods of Orcas can be viewed from a boat, in their natural environment, and I think that would do far more for education than Sea World does. ”

      If you are live in a place near the ocean, whale watching may be feasible. If you live in Cleveland, though (where I saw my first Shamu show), you may never see the ocean in your whole life. Saying that people should just go see the animals in the wild means that you only think those rich enough to travel around the world should get to observe certain animals.

    • That’s how it works. We don’t have Blue Whales in captivity, but we still care about them and work to preserve them. I’ve never seen one, but I still care about them. I grew up near Washington, DC and remember going to the Smithsonian and seeing the giant life-sized reproduction of a Right Whale. It was amazing, and no animal was captured or killed to make that happen. In the world of IMAX, I don’t see a reason why Orca shows are necessary.

      Like I said, I agree about aquariums, and animals that can successfully live in captivity. I don’t put Orcas in that category.

      I don’t feel that the should necessarily be released, though. If they’re already in captivity, they should probably remain there.

    • I’d just like to add that people can’t always get everything they want. Some people never see the ocean. Some people never see the desert. Some people never fly in an airplane. Some people will never visit a large city. And so on… Human selfishness and curiosity is not justification for keeping whales in captivity.

    • I wonder if there is any zoo that could hold you captive in… I hope you don’t mind, it’s just for education and conservations. I believe it would be a great demo for us to observe your behavior, how you came out with these thoughts, because like some people who never have chance to see whales, we never have chance to understand people like you. Besides, I don’t really care about you, an indiviual animal, but maybe there will be many kind people set up a “Free WhySharksMatter” funds and donate lots of money to set you free, let you back in human society. But, if we follow your opinion, these money could be used in better ways. So, good luck in zoo.

  3. Great interview, I have the utmost respect for Jean-Michel Cousteau.

    Unfortunately I vehemently disagree with you regarding the benefits of marine mammals in captivity for purposes of education.

    As Jean-Michel’s father once said:

    “No aquarium, no tank in a marine land, however spacious it may be, can begin to duplicate the conditions of the sea. And no dolphin who inhabits one of those aquariums or one of those marine lands can be considered normal.”
    Jacques Yves Cousteau

    These facilities are anything but normal for marine mammals. We do not and cannot replicate their environment, they live their lives (proven to be decades shorter than in the wild) in stark cement holding tanks without any sort of stimuli other than what they receive from their handlers.

    Marine parks such as SeaWorld are for profit organizations that use their guests as the acid test for their definition of “education”. Their educational component is not peer reviewed nor considered scientific. It is simply defined as a “informal educational experience” NOT education.

    Dolphins and orcas being ridden and made to do tricks for food teaches us “zero” about these animals and more about us. This is simply stupid tricks for our ego.

    However, if these same aquariums run rescue programs I truly see the benefit of rehabilitation and release.

    There needs to be a mandatory review of what is considered “educational” by a third party organization.

    These facilities participating in “marine shows” should not be allowed to continue their breeding programs and ultimately phased out.

    Your article is quite timely. The house committee just heard testimony on the issue of marine mammal captivity yesterday. You can view the video here:

    http://www.c-span.org/Watch/Media/2010/04/27/HP/A/32312/House+Hearing+on+Marine+Mammal+Education.aspx

    I suggest you and your readers watch it.

    Jeff Shaw – Founder
    Oceanic Defense
    http://www.facebook.com/OceanicDefense

    • Thanks for commenting, Jeff.

      I’m concerned about something you said- “Their educational component is not peer reviewed nor considered scientific. ”

      What education programs ARE scientifically peer reviewed? Schools? Museums?

  4. Great interview. I like JMC’s responses were thoughtful and well expressed, and I am glad to have read his opinions on this.

    Not as big a fan of how the author expressed his own views though. Repetition is not quite as persuasive as reasoning and exposition….and I feel that’s all he did here: repeat his opinion a few times and consider that sufficient for discussion. I’m left having no idea how he felt after talking with JMC and hearing that his views are diametrically opposed to his own, or how JMC’s argument impacted (or didn’t) his beliefs. If there is nothing to connect those two things, then I wonder why bring your own beliefs into what is really an interview piece. The beliefs started out one way, and they ended up that exact same way with *no* processing of what had just been said. Might as well leave it out at that point as it feels as though it has nothing to do with the interview, which is the point of the piece, imo.

    But then, since I don’t believe in keeping them in aquariums, I guess I was expecting to read a more substantive explanation of why the author feels this way, especially in light of JMC’s disagreement. But all I read was the same statement a few times and that was that.

    I appreciate all the work you guys do, and really enjoyed reading My Cousteau’s comments on the subject. Thanks for putting this together and for posting it!

    • “Not as big a fan of how the author expressed his own views though….might as well leave it out at that point”

      I apologize for voicing views that you disagree with, but this is supposed to be a debate. Sometimes you’ll meet people who disagree with you. Try to convince me that I’m incorrect- I’m happy to discuss the point further.

      I also don’t think that Jean-Michel’s views are diametrically opposed to mine. We both think that it isn’t practical to rehabilitate every currently captive orca whale because of the enormous expense involved.

  5. Large fish and animals bigger than say dolphins (maybe still too big?) shouldn’t be kept in tanks. Those than can be easily released should be and those that cannot should not be replaced. (Any suffering animal should be euthanised). Use the resulting empty tanks for smaller fish to have more water to swim in. The education argument is rubbish – seeing a whale shark in a little tank taught me nothing at all and just made me sad. If I saw a video of the same fish filmed in the ocean on a big screen, it would have been a lot better and more ethical.

  6. Hi David,
    In your reply to Oceanic Defense’ founder, you ask:
    “What education programs ARE scientifically peer reviewed?”

    You may want to take a look at this study “Do Zoos and Aquariums Promote Attitude Change in Visitors? A Critical Evaluation of the American Zoo and Aquarium Study” in the peer reviewed journal “Society & Animals – Journal of Human-Animal Studies’ that refutes the non-peer reviewed study by the AZA on their key argument for the keeping captive animals.

    http://www.nbb.emory.edu/faculty/personal/documents/MarinoetalAZAStudy.pdf

    You may also be interested in the C-Span video of U.S. House Committee Natural Resources hearing into whether captive marine mammal abusement parts are ‘educational’

    Witnesses talked about the issues surrounding the education and conservation programs associated with public display of marine mammals
    http://www.c-spanvideo.org/program/293204-1

  7. I applaud the work that Jean-Michel and others have done on behalf of Keiko. We learned a lot, and we especially learned that restoring an animal to the wild, especially an intelligent, social animal like a killer whale, is very complex. As to what *should* be done, I have no idea. I am certain that the current situation is unacceptable. I relay on people like M. Cousteau to guide us. (Note that Sea World is a profit-making corporation. Its #1 priority is to its stockholders, not its customers nor its animals.)

  8. I am really disgusted that you think entertainment places like Sea World are purveyors of education and therefore it is ok for them to keep these beings in slavery for their entire lives. What if beings from another planet came here, took some of us, and put us in small glass boxes with just enough air and food so we’d stay alive but deprived us of all the other aspects that make our lives worth living. Then, in order to get the food, we had to stand on our heads, jump up and down, etc. And they labeled it the Humanquarium: come learn about these amazing creatures from another world! Would that be ok? Would you volunteer to go? Would it be ok with you if your wife, or sister, or child, or father were scooped up out of your home and taken away to live out their lives in that glass box in a foreign world? Is that ok with you? Because unless it is, then I find you to be a hypocrite and regardless of the good work you do for sharks, I no longer want to receive messages from you. Because there is NOTHING you can say to justify what we are doing to Orcas, whales and dolphins in captivity. Nothing. Just because a few kids, like you and like the trainer killed at Sea World, were inspired to do your work because you saw these shows is not enough to justify it. Millions of others see these shows and go home and never do anything to help marine mammals or other animals. To them it’s just like watching TV and then they forget about and consume the next sound bite of entertainment. You can rationalize and compartmentalize all you want, but in the end it’s kidnapping and slavery in the name of entertainment. The same is true of elephants and big cats used in the circus! Are you down with that too?

    • So… in your universe, whales and dolphins are equivalent to humans. That’s a bit of a slippery slope, don’t you think? Where do you draw the line?

    • “kidnapping and slavery in the name of entertainment”

      Traditionally and legally, those words are used to describe things done to humans, not to whales.

  9. Please forgive if my english is not perfect, I don’t have any editor to help me. 🙂

    What is sad David is that it seems you haven’t understand JMC’s point : Wild animals need to live in the wild.

    And if a guy from Minnesota or Iowa cannot see directly these wild animals, well, he should be explained to get over it!

    Our entertainment (what you call “education”), can be done in many other ways than by disturbing other specie.

    We have now the chance to have fantastic documentaries broadcasted on TV channels, DVDs, internet.. and they can show us how great is the life in the wildness, so why would we have to capture these animals to make them fit in a box that is far too small for them? Why should we go to their habitat(and pollute it) to witness it?
    Do you think it is education to show a kid that keeping a whale normally travelling 30 miles/day in a swimming pool is OK? Then the kid will think : well, if they do so, why can’t get a snake? Or an opossum? Or a Giraffe because it’s cute!!

    So far Seaworld or any other Zoo – and their sad copies in developing countries (Mexico but also Thailand, China…)- has only lead to trafficking and slaughtering. Because people now believe it is OK to detain wild animals by their side and these wild animals are now available in the next pet store!!!

    No wild animals should be detained, none. We need love and recognition, we are eager to know more? Great! Now we have ways other than slavering other species, we have the responsibility to respect their life.

    We are part of nature, nature doesn’t belong to us, so let’s start by respecting the other specie because our survival is actually depending on them.

    As long as we don’t understand this, we will remain spoiled and selfish children. I hope we will wake up before too many species have declined… it’s really time for us to reach maturity…

  10. I don’t believe it was right to save Keiko and not the other. I think that seen Keiko was saved then other whales should have been saved also. I liked that people wanted to get involved in something but really after Keiko got released the public didn’t care as much about the other whales in captivity. I don’t think that the money thing is a big deal if money could be raised to set all the other whales free. I think that it would have been a good idea to move Keiko from the place he was before because it sounded really horrible for Keiko. If animal is kept in an aquarium or captivity the animal should be treated well.

  11. The great irony in this debate is that the very reasons we value marine mammals – their charisma, intelligence, apparent personality, and the fact that we see anthropomorphic characteristics in their behavior and appearance – are the same reasons we want to protect them and the reason people want to get close to them (whether in an aquarium, semi-enclosed dolphin encounter, or in harassing wild animals). So marine mammals are doubly cursed. For every person inspired to protect them, another dozen are going to want to ‘play’ with them. Sometime in the last 60 years we turned them into Disney caricatures.

    But here’s the rub. We hurt marine mammals. All of us. If you use plastic, buy imported goods, travel by ship, use public utilities, drive a car, or rely on a military for protection, you have indirectly hurt marine mammals and the entire ocean. We have to fix that. Part of the solution involves changing attitudes, behaviors, and entire lifestyles, but part of the solution also involves fixing what we’ve already broken.

    When whales strand on the beach, manatees are injured by propeller strikes, dolphins are injured in fishing nets, how do we help them? We know how to treat injured marine mammals because we have been working with captive ones. We have the facilities to rehabilitate injured marine mammals because of aquariums. And when a marine mammal is so severely injured that it cannot return to the wild, we have the means and the collective will to care for it for the rest of it’s natural life because people want to see them.

    I’m not saying all aquariums and Sea World-type exhibits are good, they aren’t. But to say that all aquariums are universally bad is to say that we have no responsibility towards those we’ve hurt.

  12. I’d like to try to draw the focus away from SeaWorld (as it seems it’s generally agreed upon in the thread that SeaWorld sucks at education and animal care) and talk about aquaria in general.

    Something I’ve noticed the last few times I’ve been to aquaria is the lack of interaction with educators. It’s not something you notice until you go somewhere that has volunteers or employees hanging around, ready to answer questions and engage in conversation and EDUCATE.

    The last aquarium I went to was the Shedd Aquarium in Chicago. At one point in my visit, I passed a part devoted to stone fish where two volunteers had been stationed. My girlfriend and I stayed and talked with the volunteers for at least five minutes, looking for the third stonefish in a tank. I definitely remember this better than most of the rest of the visit.

    Obviously, this isn’t feasible to have volunteers for every tank in every aquarium. However, doing animal “shows” like bird, reptile, seal/sea lion, dolphin etc. etc. shows are really beneficial to the education experience. These could be altered somewhat to be more educational and less jumping through hoops. Volunteers and employees could also be stationed as well as possible to come into contact with as many of the public as possible, just to converse share information about the displays.

    The way aquaria educate now, then, is sub-par. I do think that this wastes the sacrifices we impose on captive animals, because the visitors aren’t getting everything out of their visit that they could be.

    That said, I think that it’s good Keiko got his five years of wilderness. Was it worth the cost? Since the cost didn’t come from one source (taxpayers, for instance) and it made the donors feel good, I have to say yes. Was it fair to other captive marine mammals that Keiko got acclimated and released based on fame? I can’t say cetaceans really have a sense of justice. They probably don’t care. Should the process be repeated for orcas in captivity? If conditions are sub-par (I do think they are at SeaWorld) and there’s the money for it, sure.

    By the way, David, I’m curious– was this interview conducted via email? I only wonder because of what J up there was complaining about– you seemed to ask some questions without acknowledging that Mr. Cousteau had already answered parts of them. I was going to mention the possibility to him, but I figured I’d ask first.

    • You would enjoy the Florida Aquarium in Tampa – LOTS of volunteers. Sadly, not so much on the National Aquarium in Baltimore.

    • I worked for five years at the National Aquarium in Baltimore. We have an army of dedicated, well trained, and well educated volunteers constantly interacting with the public. More than 500 people volunteer at the NAIB every week. In contrast, the Florida Aquarium has 270 volunteers total.

  13. I don’t believe we have the right to capture and use any animal for our own benefit.

  14. I must say that it is clear that those who believe that AZA accredited zoos and aquariums have little educational value have never had the pleasure of working in one. While my own opinions on large marine mammals in captivity has not fully been formulated as of yet, I can describe what it is like to educate someone about ocean life with the aid of an aquarium to ignite discovery.

    As an educator at an AZA accredited aquarium it is clear to me their importance. Nothing disheartens us more than seeing the manatees improperly identified as sea lions or walrus’. There is nothing more baffling than explaining to someone that “Endangered” does NOT mean that the animal is a danger to humans. These are true accounts, and the fact is that people just do not know. With the aid of zoos and aquariums they start to know and just to have the possibility of some child or adult gaining interest in a cause is enough for me to continue to give my support and energy to the aquarium.

    The educators are very passionate, and they are prevalent AZA accredited facilities like SeaWorld, trying to engage people enough to start a love for an animal. As Jacques Cousteau told Jean Micheal Cousteau: “Jean-Michel, people protect what they love.”

    • “Nothing disheartens us more than seeing the manatees improperly identified as sea lions or walrus’.”

      If mis-identification of a species is what causes you the most distress, I suggest you give yourself a more in-, well-rounded education when it comes to animals and humans. You can be very text-book knowledgeable and cite fact after fact, but when you choose to ignore the larger problems facing wildlife such as extinction, poaching, pollution, habitat destruction, exploitation, abuse, etc., you are not truly educating. The idea that zoos and places like Sea World are preserving species is ridiculous. How many of the animals bred in zoos are released back into the wild? None. If we are preserving animals so they can only exist in zoos, that is not preservation at all. Preservation and conservation means to PRESERVE and CONSERVE what is in the wild. It is the exact opposite of what zoos and Sea World does- which is TAKE from the wild and then “educate” the public about the problem of endangered species, habitat destruction, etc. In other words- “do what I say, not what I do.” It’s so hypocritical and sad.

      As I said in another comment, the only people who defend captive wildlife programs, are those who stand to benefit from the exploitation of the animals. If your benefit is “feeling good” about teaching people how to properly identify an animal, I can assure you, that can be done without live animals in tanks and cages. How does teaching the public to properly identify an animal protect or benefit the ANIMAL anyway? Do you think it cares one way or another what people call it? Are these people ever going to be in a situation in the wild where they will encounter one of these animals and knowing the facts they learned at the zoo or aquarium is going to be helpful in any way whatsoever?

      And protecting what you love means protecting it in it’s natural environment. It doesn’t mean putting it in a cage or on display to “protect” it. That’s not love- that’s selfishness and ego.

    • So you think we’ll just magically get people to care by yelling at people that they should care? “Look at this picture in this book! This animal needs help five thousand miles away in a place you’ll never go, and in fact, will probably never hear of again… Give us money to help them!”

      Please tell me you don’t think that’s likely to work.

  15. I really feel the point is being missed here. We do not have any right to decide to keep an animal like that in captivity. It is not ethical/safe/fair etc. I did my dissertation on the effects of captivity on Orcas and I found out they were altered in ways I’d never even considered. Basically, they can never live the full life they were born for. How sad is that? I understand the argument about education but there are others ways people can learn about cetaceans. If seeing them in the wild is too expensive then what about virtual experiences, with the world being so big on computers at the moment. I COMPLETELY disagree with this practice and it makes me sad to see it. However, I also see why it probably wouldn’t be feasible to just release them all, maybe those already in captivity are destined for that for life now. But no more should be captured, and no more bred. This outdated practice needs to be left behind. Let’s teach people to respect and preserve the natural world in its own environment, without using it for their own gain. I’m afraid having worked and studied in zoos and the like, I am very cynical about the majority (and i say that because i also know there are some extremely good wildlife parks/aquariums out there who are really making a difference). But i find it hard to believe that in a lot of cases it isn’t mostly about the money, especially when large marine mammal shows are involved. I also think there was a valid point made earlier in that maybe the shows should involve more educational material/discussions of what life is like in the wild. I recently watched an orca show in France and was appauled to hear loud rock music, see huge flashing lights encouraging the audience to clap and stamp their feet, and to watch the orcas performing some ‘pantomime’ about rescuing their trainers from drowning in the sea after a fight with some baddies. I am afraid I fail to see why this would all be necessary. No wonder these animals get stressed.
    I would like to conclude that as a child I dreamt for many years about working with killer whales like Jesse in Free Willy and getting to ride one, but as I’ve grown up I’ve sacrificed this selfish desire to get involved with conservation instead, and hopefully help the species as a whole.

  16. I think that all wild animals have their right to be free. We should not have them staring at us from behind inside cages or in any confinement whatsoever.

  17. How can you seriously justify having an animal like a whale in captivity by citing educational value? How many people come away from Sea World knowing more about whales? The education argument has no substance whatsoever. If education was the goal, why have the whales do tricks? What value does showing a whale in a large pool doing tricks on command teach children about whales? How does having whales in captivity, promote conservation or preservation? It’s contradictory and hypocritical. The idea that zoos and places like Sea World promote education is so misleading and dishonest, it’s very frustrating to hear over and over again. “Education” programs usually involve a class trip where students will learn one or two random facts (i.e. a whale eats “x” amount in one day) that are meaningless in the long-run and which they could learn from viewing video footage or presentations which don’t involve live, captive whales.

    I honestly feel no sympathy for the trainers who get themselves killed and despite repeated claims that he/she “loved” the whales, the truth is if they really loved them, they would not be working with them, but working against places like Sea World and working to protect those in the wild. Whales don’t need human love anyway. They need our respect and that means respecting their right to live freely in their natural habitat. We are not talking about domesticated dogs and cats- which do not exist in the wild. These are wild animals- even those born in captivity.

    People are selfish and the only ones who defend places like Sea World, Busch Gardens, circuses, the exotic pet industry, etc. are those who stand to benefit from the exploitation of these animals. There is absolutely no excuse and it is sickening that people have not evolved past their own egos.

    • “I honestly feel no sympathy for the trainers who get themselves killed and despite repeated claims that he/she “loved” the whales, the truth is if they really loved them, they would not be working with them, but working against places like Sea World”

      Do you actually care more about the life of a whale than about the life of a human who dedicates their life to studying whales? Really? Aren’t you a human?

      No one who disagrees with your extremism cares about animals? There’s no room in your myopic worldview for differences of opinion?

    • “We are not talking about domesticated dogs and cats- which do not exist in the wild.”

      Actually, that’s not true. The animal we domesticated to get the dog (aka: the wolf) very much exists in the wild, as do several varieties of wild and feral dogs living without human interaction. Last I checked, there was still some debate about which particular breed of wild cat we initially domesticated to get the modern housecat, but most, if not all, of the contenders also still exist in the wild.

      Oh and ““I honestly feel no sympathy for the trainers who get themselves killed,” surprises me not at all. You need help. Seriously.

  18. David,

    Nice article here–definitely a touchy subject, and I think you handled it well. Any news on “4 Things You Need to Know about Sharks?”

    -Austin

  19. I see the word “Education” Used non stop through out this feed. And I encourage the readers/posters to take a minute and see how many studies/interactions can fit under the word education. Not only are aquariums and zoos educating people that visit the parks they are also learning about the animal every day they spend with it. The common visitor would not understand the amount of research that goes into having each animal in a zoo. Records are kept and papers do get published. This is all education.

    Now as far as domesticated. Almost all these animals are domesticated in some way. yes they came from a wild source but they have been in the states so long that park is their home. Once you take that animal out of that park you would see that it takes a lot of work to get the animal to calm down. Now that goes from anything from the elephant to something as small as a mouse. Think about it if I took you from your home would you scramble? It is very rare for animals to be taken out of the wild anymore! If we are able to learn about animals in a zoo setting that only enables us to help them in the wild.

    Orcas are providing Sea World and other organizations education. We would not have learned so many things about these animals if we did not have them in captivity. When we talk about education maybe you should also look at all the other things Sea World does to educate a person. Camps, outreach to organizations, as well as rescuing animals… hmmm…

    Orcas are not trained to do any tricks, do you think a human goes in and jumps out of the water to show the orca how the trick goes? Ummm No! Orcas do those so called “tricks” in the wild but in captivity the trainers have used their wild habits and put them to a hand signal.

    Maybe all those people who want to bash a zoo and aquarium should volunteer in one of these institutes and see for themselves what is happening. Or maybe they should try to go onto a research vessel and see the devistation that they are doing because humans are destroying the planet? Some people just will never understand and will not be able to think outside their comfort zone.

  20. Well, David, as you can see, you stepped into a well-intentioned hornet’s nest.

    As a shark advocate/ocean conservationist, filmmaker, and someone who was a dive volunteer at a major aquarium for many years, my position is:
    * I agree with Jean-Michel that releasing all currently captive orcas and dolphins would not be feasible or broadly successful.
    * I have seen firsthand the educational value of aquariums and zoos, but there is a definite difference between an aquarium and an aquatic amusement park.
    * Some species – like whales, dolphins, and other pelagics – are typically not suitable animals for captivity because their open-water lifestyle can not be replicated. (White and whale sharks and tuna are current exceptions but they require enormous enclosures and it’s new – the jury is still out as to their long-term health.)
    * Seeing these animals in the wild or with today’s multimedia technology (surround theaters, 3D, etc.) can be suitable alternatives.
    * I too was inspired to love the sea as a child watching Bubbles, the pilot whale, do tricks at Marineland. But that’s not the only way to develop an appreciation for marine life and I would like to think that we are, albeit slowly, finding better ways to promote conservation.
    * I would hope that the days of “educating” people by seeing dolphins jump through hoops of fire and seals balancing a ball on their nose is coming to a close. But because of the economic incentives at hand, I’m afraid it will be a slow evolution.

  21. Great and very considered interview!
    I feel that it’s creating a non-issue to question whether Keiko should have been freed “just” because of his celebrity.
    Because of the film, people became aware of his conditions, and this prompted action.
    Whatever the reason they became aware of this, we should not question the compassion and caring that resulted. The equivalent is saying that one should not give to the homeless person they see, because this is unfair to those we don’t. Obviously it is easier to feel for the creatures that we know are suffering, but one “right”, even if only a drop in the bucket, is always valuable in itself.
    And as Cousteau pointed out, much was learned from this experience that might benefit other captive Orcas, like knowing we can’t just free them without follow up.

  22. I do not think that the pros of keeping orcas in captivity are worth the cons. I know we have benefited a lot from having whales in captivity in terms of our knowledge of the species and in some ways it does make people care more about the fate of these animals because they feel closer to them after seeing them in person, BUT I feel that keeping an animal away from the life that it should have had is wrong. If the whales kept in captivity were there because they were rescued from the wild for some reason (i.e. injury) then I would not have a problem with the situation at all. My problem is that they are not all rescued or rehabilitated whales- they are whales that are born into captivity with no chance of living a wild life.
    Whales especially suffer in captive life compared with other animals. In the wild orcas travel up to 160km a day, there is not way any aquarium could ever come close to giving whales a life that resembles one they would have in the wild.
    As far as the extraordinary lengths people went to in order to free Kieko I think that if that’s how they want to spend their money then that is up to them. David questioned a few times whether it was worth it to spend so much on saving one whale instead of putting that money towards species conservation. To that I say even though all the money was put towards one whale in particular, the effort itself got so many people interested and involved with the species conservation as a whole, so I think it did benefit the species, rather than just Kieko.

    • “To that I say even though all the money was put towards one whale in particular, the effort itself got so many people interested and involved with the species conservation as a whole, so I think it did benefit the species, rather than just Kieko.”

      An excellent point.

  23. I actually do believe that it was good to spend all of the money, people, and resources on Keiko’s reintroduction into the wild. (I’m assuming) that all of the money was from donations that yes, the film did inspire. If the money was donated for that specific purpose then the mission was accomplished; not only did he get back into the wild but every child and every whale-lover felt the satisfaction of not only seeing him be reintroduced but also of being a part of something so big. We spend so much tax money, roughly $100,000 to keep one person in jail for one year, I do not see the issue with spending donation money on freeing Keiko. While I would like to see more whales reintroduced to the wild, I would be against it if it would hurt them rather than benefit them; it’s a matter of calculating the costs and benefits. On the note of whether or not it was fair to free him because of him being a “celebrity”, we must remember that this is an animal and not a person! We would probably feel this way about any orca (or any creature for that matter) that was reintroduced to the wild in the sense of “Why this one?” We are talking about two different things. Furthermore, it must be pointed out that Keiko was in fact sick and his survival depended upon his reintroduction. If funds are in fact available via donations and organizations I would be in support of reintroducing them into the wild if it was on the contingency that they would die if it did not happen. I also do believe that an eco-system wide conservation would be great, and in essence that is what begun with Keiko. It all starts with awareness which drives motivation and in essence inspires change.

  24. Education on marine life is important but if the animal is placed in poor living conditions it is not benefitting from anything. Placing an over sized fish in a small tank only leaves people thinking that the fish would be happier in its natural habitat. Maybe some people learn a lot when they go to the aquarium but more times than none you see people taking pictures in front of the tanks or with the animals while skipping over the information. Endangered species should receive help but their living conditions should not affect their ability to return to their natural habitat. But then again if we, humans, were not exploiting our natural resources marine life would not need an aquarium to keep them safe.

  25. I definitely think that the money spent on re-acclimating and “freeing” Keiko into the wild could have been better spent on research to benefit the species as a whole. I think that Keiko should have just been moved to a bigger, better aquarium, especially since scientists do not know if he ever really connected to his new pod in the open ocean. Whales seem to have a strong bond and connection to one another, and they seem to be a very unique, intellectual species that would need to feel connected to their surroundings in order to live a comfortable life. For this reason, I feel that it is especially sad to keep such special animals in captivity, however if researching a few can make a difference in the entire species, I think that it is necessary to keep some in aquariums. Scientists should really try to create the best aquarium conditions that they can for these whales. Also, I feel that whales should be bred in captivity so that they can form a family there and not feel that they have been taken from their home in the ocean. I do not know much about whales, so I don’t know how, or if they “feel,” but I’m assuming that whales do feel a sense of comfort in their natural habitat, that they may not feel in captivity.

  26. I could think of many other places where those 40 million dollars could’ve gone but even I it hurts, using this money to free Keiko was what many people wanted. Obviously, it is heartrending that having all these other delicate situations around the world some people decided that saving Keiko was more important. Even though this is kind of disappointing, at the end, is the people who owe the money the ones that decide what they want to spend it on. I think that choosing Keiko to be the one freed wasn’t fair or unfair, the whale was living in poor conditions and it was fortunate of being well known by people.

  27. I do not believe it was good that so much time, money and resources were spent to give one individual whale a few years of freedom. The efforts on species or ecosystem-wide conservation would have been a much better use of the money instead. It’s an irrational use of funds and was only carried out because of an emotional conviction.

    It was not fair that Keiko was singled out and freed while others suffered, but that is the way with celebrity. If interest in his freedom was generated, and a different whale that had suffered more was released, the public would’ve been outraged. Public opinion is stubborn and selfish, and because of it, that is why Keiko was released while others were not.

    I do not believe we should repeat the same process for the orcas presently in captivity. The death was a freak accident and was very uncommon. It is also not possible to afford to release every one of the orcas without them being in risk of danger upon leaving captivity.

  28. I do not think that these creatures should be held in captivity for our educational benefit. I understand if animals are captured in order to save their lives but after they are better they need to be released back in to their natural habitat. I find Sea World and other aquariums that put on these “shows” to be despicable. They are only using these animals for the income and do not have their best interests at heart.

  29. I think orcas that are born in captivity should always remain in captivity because they do not know anything other than that. It is important to have animals in zoos and aquariums so we are able to learn as much as possible about them. Also, due to earth’s current environmental situation animals are becoming extinct everyday. It is important to be able to breed animals and since orcas are an endangered species, it is to their benefit that we keep some in captivity. If someone disagrees then boycott seaworld and do not spend any income towards these programs. Trainers have been killed multiple times, there is no way to predict how an animal is going to react. Go swim with a wild pod of orcas and see if you learn anything about them.

  30. I do not believe it was a good idea that we spent so much time, money, and resources in order to free, or reintroduce, Keiko into the wild, but I also agree that there wasn’t room for debate. The scrutiny that would have come from not releasing him would be everlasting, and I do believe this set a precedent for the future. We spent this money because the circumstances were very unique, and this produced nationwide knowledge about why we should consider ending the capture of orca whales all together.
    Keiko was not freed solely because he was starred in a movie, as Cousteau had said. Attention was brought to Keiko because of the movie, but he was freed because of the bad living conditions he was faced with every day.
    I know that we should not spend $40 million on each captive orca to reintroduce them into the wild. What I believe should happen is that we keep the current orca from mating, and once they have died out we no longer capture anymore. Yes, the whales we currently have captive have educated us and produced a passion to conserve but I feel as though that passion and education will not fade and it is unnecessary to capture more.

  31. I do believe that it is unfair due to the fame of one whale that caused an uproar in his release. There are still numerous of others that desire the exact same trial and error. On the other hand I also feel that it is extremely dangerous to allow these rare endangered species to be set free collectively within the wild. It would be a horrible to have the death of these whales on our hands of released. Perhaps it should be monitored within a specific area rather than set free. Just as there was special treatment taken for one “Willy” there should also be beneficial treatment for all.

  32. To free or not to free Willy? This article has mad it rather difficult to choose. There seem to be many pros and cons as to whether or not it should be done however im left thinking that keeping Willy in sea world was in-fact the best choice. There have been studies shown that when an animal is taken into human hands it is extremely difficult for the animal to return to their natural habitat and survive. Due to the fact that Willy had been there for so many years, I find it hard to believe that he would have been able to survive on his own. I do however feel that there should be an end to this. These whales are not meant to live in “artificial seawater, 7,200 feet above sea level, breathing smoggy air, cramped in a small pool, and swimming in circles to entertain the crowds.” By humans placing these animals in these types of environments is simply unfair and should be classified a type of animal abuse. It is one thing if the animal was injured to an extent that it needed the help of humans to survive however, if it were for any other case, I believe it is completely out of line. In conclusion, I feel strongly that these animals should be left alone in their natural habitat.

  33. This disgusts me that you do not agree that we should phase out captive whales and breeding programs ‘whysharksmatter’! Even the man you interviewed is against captivity. Orcas can educate the public in their natural habitat, not in a concrete tank, performing stupid tricks. the remaining killer whale should live out their days like royalty and then their should be more no more whales or dolphins captured and anymore breeding programs. I myself have been on multiple whale watches and that is an excellent way to educate the public about cetaceans without disrupting the ecosystem.

    • A few things, Kell.

      1) I didn’t say that captivity shouldn’t be phased out, I said that spending millions of dollars of the conservation movement’s limited resources on individual animals instead of species and ecosystems is not practical.

      2) “Even the man you interviewed is against captivity” That’s just about the most ridiculous thing I’ve ever heard. Why should the viewpoint of someone I interviewed have anything to do with my viewpoint? I should only interview people I agree with?

      3) ” Orcas can educate the public in their natural habitat” Not if people don’t see them there. I’m glad that you are financially secure enough to travel to the wild habitat of orcas, but most people are not.

      4) “whale watches… an excellent way to educate the public about cetaceans without disrupting the ecosystem” There’s actually a great deal of controversy surrounding whale watching because of the disruption to the behavior of wild animals.

      5) Finally, the purpose of this whole series of blog posts is to stir debate. I’m glad that it has succeeded.