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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?