20 Years After ‘Free Willy,’ Debate Continues Over Its Star Keiko

Killer whales, it seems, are just about everywhere these days, with the recent release of the documentary Blackfish, the paperback version of Death at SeaWorld, and the 20th anniversary of the blockbuster film Free Willy, which starred an orca named Keiko, who was rehabilitated and eventually returned to the ocean—in real life, as well as in the movie.

Last month, TakePart reported on the anniversary and the HD theatrical release of the documentary film Keiko: The Untold Story of the Star of Free Willy. Two full decades after Keiko finished “acting” in the movie, his story is still causing controversy.

It cost millions to transport Keiko from his subpar tank at Mexico City’s Reino Aventura theme park, where he festered in warm tap-water mixed with sacks of table salt, to a specially built “rehab” center on the Oregon coast, then to another specially built seapen, floating inside a small cove in Iceland.

After several months in his pen, Keiko was allowed to swim around the cove, which was blocked by a net from the sea. Eventually, the net was outfitted with a gate and Keiko was taken out for “walks” by a boat. He was fixed with a satellite tag to make sure he did not get lost. One day, after two years of this regime, he took off, ending up in Norway, 700 miles to the east, where he lived another 15 months before dying of natural causes. All told, he spent five years living in the sea.

Keiko is gone, but the debate lives on. Critics say the entire project was a waste of money and cruel to Keiko, who should never have been allowed to swim by himself in the ocean (even though that was exactly the stated purpose of the entire undertaking). They say he died alone, and prematurely, neither of which was true. He had three loving caretakers by his side when he expired, at approximately age 26, close to the average life expectancy of 30 for male killer whales in the wild and among the oldest captive male killer whales ever.

Last week, The New York Times produced a retro video on the whole Keiko saga, leaving open the question of whether his release was a good idea, and suggesting that perhaps it was not.

Naomi Rose, who worked on the Keiko project while at the Humane Society of the United States, was “disappointed” with the video, according to her comment on the paper’s website. “The editing of the piece made it seem as if the ‘tough love’ protocol somehow left Keiko abandoned,” she said. “All it did was encourage him to try life on his own for a few weeks, all the while on the virtual leash of the satellite tag. When he decided he had had enough of that, we accommodated him and continued to care for him for the rest of his life.”

But even as people wrangle over the details of Keiko’s life post-captivity, it is important to remember what his life was like during captivity. TakePart was recently contacted by a former animal trainer at Reino Aventura, Claudia Galindo, who is now an anti-captivity activist living in the Pacific coast state of Nayarit, where she guides small-scale whale-watching tours. Galindo started working at the park in 1990, two years before filmmakers arrived to shoot Free Willy.

By all accounts, conditions in the Mexico City aquarium were extraordinarily rotten, especially compared with Keiko’s ocean home. Critics of SeaWorld may abhor the life led by marine mammals there, but life at SeaWorld is paradise compared to what Keiko and other animals once endured in Mexico.

“I saw animals who didn’t want to work being withheld food,” Galindo says. “Lots of mornings upon arrival, we would find Keiko pushing his rostrum against the wall and crying. He even got a mark from how hard he was pressing against the wall and door.”

Keiko, whose skin broke out in a horrible bumpy rash from a viral infection, often suffered from an upset stomach, Galindo says, and would constantly require medication.

Despite his dodgy health and tiny, tap-water pool, Keiko was almost universally regarded as affectionate, at least toward most people. “He was very gentle and kind; he loved kids so much that we could sit one of the trainer’s kids on his belly and he would let that kid ride on him,” Galindo recalls. “He was so patient.”

On two occasions, however, she did witness the docile whale act aggressively. Once, he snapped at the park’s veterinarian. The second time, he took a swipe at the park’s owner, Galindo says. No one was hurt in either incident.

Keiko was also the only killer whale at Reino Aventura, so a number of bottlenose dolphins were passed through his tank in an effort to keep him company. And though in the dolphin family, orcas would never associate with bottlenoses in the wild. Given the isolation of captivity, however, they can form deep and lasting bonds with these smaller cetaceans.

There was a female dolphin named Lulu, for example, who was much more of a troublemaker than the gentle giant Keiko. “When people got in the pool, she would sometimes herd them into the middle and wouldn’t let them out,” Galindo says. “She’d roughhouse them until they were super frightened.”

Lulu’s male companion, a dolphin named Silver, was also very close with Keiko, Galindo says. “But he was sick, and he died.” When Silver fell ill, she recalls, the orca’s behavior toward his ailing friend was powerful evidence to suggest that these animals are extraordinarily social and compassionate.

“They were really good friends,” she says. “Keiko carried him around even before he died, to help keep him afloat,” Galinda told me by phone last week. After Silver died, “Keiko still carried him on his back and would not get into his holding cell to let the trainers retrieve the body. It was so sad. Keiko wept for his friend. His vocalizations were heartwrenching.”

Galindo couldn’t take it anymore. After a few years working at Reino Aventura, she quit. “I was sick and tired of seeing animals suffer,” she says. “Plus, the park wanted to use us girl trainers for some stupid, ridiculous water ballet show routine. I was hired as a trainer, not as a clown.”

Today, Galindo’s opposition to captivity is unwavering, just like that of the four former trainers in Death at SeaWorld. Also like those four, she feels that, “having worked with captive animals, I am able to really educate people on the proper way of admiring them,” which is out on the ocean.

Her condemnation of the industry that brought us Keiko is severe. “These marine parks are nothing more than whorehouses, with the small difference that women who work at a whorehouse know what they are doing, and in most cases choose to work there.”

But captive marine mammals “don’t have a choice and are not asked,” she says.

The way I see it, Keiko was one of the lucky few captive cetaceans ever given a choice. He did not have to leave the security of his Icelandic sanctuary; he elected to. And that’s far more “choice” than most captive orcas have ever been given.

About David Kirby

DAVID KIRBY is the author of 'Evidence of Harm,' which was a New York Times bestseller, winner of the 2005 Investigative Reporters and Editors (IRE) award for best book, and a finalist for the New York Public Library Helen Bernstein Award for Excellence in Journalism, and 'Animal Factory,' an acclaimed investigation into the environmental impact of factory farms which NPR compared to Upton Sinclair’s classic work 'The Jungle.' His latest book, 'Death at SeaWorld,' was previewed by Library Journal, which wrote: “Lives are at stake here, and Kirby can be trusted to tell the story, having won a passel of awards for his investigate work.” Booklist called the book “gripping” and “hard to put down.”
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