In 1989, I experienced my first Killer Whale Show at SeaWorld San Diego. I was 8 years old. Soon I would move to Idaho, where there would be no SeaWorld and no ocean.
It wasn't until 1993, when "Free Willy" hit theaters, that I was able to see a Killer Whale again.
I loved the movie. I watched it numerous times in the movie theater and countless times at home on VHS. Being the same age as the protagonist, I saw myself in that movie and dreamt of being able to work closely with Willy.
As I grew older, a campaign was created to free Keiko - the star of Free Willy. I was entering high school and I followed the story with interest. "Willy" would be in Portland soon and be free - fulfilling his Hollywood adventure.
Later, as far as I knew, Willy was released into the wild to live a wonderful and happy life - the stuff of Hollywood movies.
Then news started to spread about "Willy" (now Keiko) showing up in Norway, giving kids rides on his back. Shortly after that it was announced that Keiko had died.
Time passed and the world forgot, but Mark Simmons did not.
Mark Simmons' new book "Killing Keiko" is a first hand look inside the Free Willy Keiko Foundation and its effort to reintroduce Keiko, "the world's most famous Killer Whale," back into his native waters of Iceland.
Mark's story contradicts and then flat out unravels the entire story the world has been told about Keiko and his "successful release" into the wild.
Mark is an animal behaviorist that began, as many experts on Killer Whales do, with 10 years experience as a trainer for SeaWorld. He and his partner Robin - also a Sr. SeaWorld Killer Whale trainer - traveled to Iceland with the goal of helping reintegrate Keiko into a wild setting.
Ironically Robin Friday says it was a success
Robin Friday also said - Keiko is back where he belongs, in the very waters from which he was plucked almost two decades ago.
After the trainers treated him as a captive whale doing waterworks, new rules designed to diminish all unnecessary interaction: No eye contact unless Keiko is being asked to do something that furthers his development. No rubdowns or massages just out of affection. And soon, just dead fish piped into the water at mealtimes instead of hand-feedings.
"It's a transition for the staff as much as it is for Keiko," Friday says. "It's like preparing your child to go out on his own. You've got to cut the strings."
They cannot both be right, so why would Mark throw his partner under the bus as it wasn't just HSUS that wanted to tough love Keiko it was Robin Friday too as he had been out in Iceland for 3 years and they still wouldn't let go of him, constantly bringing him back.
Their mission was to attempt to undo over 20 years of human interaction, preparing Keiko for life in the ocean, which would be 100% free of human intervention.
Reading "Killing Keiko" is akin to reading a book on the Titanic or Pompeii. You find yourself celebrating the amazing milestones Keiko made. You shed tears of joy as Keiko seemingly improves.
But then you remind yourself that no matter how hard you try, you can't change history.
The book is titled "Killing Keiko" because Keiko didn't die having lived happily ever after the way Hollywood fools us into believing is possible.
Rather, Simmons tells us from first-hand knowledge that Keiko suffered inhumanely and was borderline tortured by the mismanagement and agenda driven politics of the nonprofits managing his release: Humane Society of the United States, Ocean Futures Society, and the Free Willy Keiko Foundation.
Naomi Rose also said - '' Robin Friday, Mark Simmons, and others would grow nervous whenever Keiko demonstrated too much independence on his "walks." If he wandered too far from the tracking boat, they would call him back with underwater tones. Despite the tracking tag on his fin, they seemed afraid to "lose" him, even though in many ways, that was the whole idea.
Naomi now suspected that Keiko’s trainers did not want him going off on his own. Howie had been prescient in the warning: this was a subtle form of sabotoge. Robert and Mark were training him in the way the navy did its dolphins-to follow a boat and remain focused on it, so they did not go AWOL.”
I feel as if this had a huge impact on the release of Keiko.''
To back up that statement, here is a video clip of time spent with Keiko. If he was supposedly being rehabilitated as a wild whale, why were people still doing this with him? This is how Seaworld would have treated their orca back at that time, not how someone would have treated a wild whale.
''Possibly one of the bigger reasons as stated in the above quotes: Keiko’s Seaworld based staff had little to no experience working with wild whales, and most certainly did not actually want Keiko to go free, as during this whole rehab and release project, Seaworld was desperately trying to obtain Keiko both for their breeding program, and so that the public wouldn’t get the idea of trying to free their whales/money makers. Once again, Seaworld has shown their secretive, greedy, do-whatever-it-takes-to-get-their-way side''
See her interview here
That raises a pretty valid point to be fair, what experience do they have working with wild whales?
Page 208 of Killing Keiko says -'' Keiko adapted to the enormous bay quicker than we did. We positioned ourselves at the corners and it would still take 15 minutes to locate him. Truthfully our inability to supervise Keiko in the bay was the root of much discomfort on our part and therefore we continued to separate him into the small area of the bay pen each night. As Naomi Rose said above you were doing that it is a little unfair to slate them as activists as surely his behaviour defeated the whole object of the project.
In August, 2001: Keiko strays as far as 35 miles from the caretakers who accompany him by boat at sea. He initiates contact with wild killer whales on numerous occasions and spends hours at a time swimming with them. Staff track the whale by helicopter using a radio tag. His longest period on his own is six days with a couple of stretches of two to three days of complete separation from the walk boat. Ocean Futures announces that it is unlikely they will be able to maintain a ship, a helicopter and the number of researchers they were able to dedicate to Keiko's reintroduction to date, and must evaluate how effective they can be with fewer assets and must locate additional support.
Richard O'Barry, who has devoted 30 years to freeing cetaceans, argues that the “Free Willy” project was doomed from the start because: “They're still training him. He's in captivity even when he's out at sea. He's psychologically dependent on his trainers.”
There are many that agreed with the above and photo and video evidence along with Mark's own book stating exactly the same, the trainers wouldn't let go of him, not the other way around as when he tried to wanted off they brought him back, and only swam to Norway when he had got rid of the boat to a storm.
This story is a cautionary tale about the mistakes of trusting those who have little to no experience working with animals and how they put their agendas first. That is true, if you want something to be wild you bring in people with experience of wild whales, not ones who still treated him as a captive. These pictures were in Iceland, why were people still doing this with him?
One quote from the book that absolutely is chilling comes from HSUS (note: shocking). They had a saying that Keiko was "better dead than fed". You can probably interpret the meaning.
See the interview from Naomi Rose here combined with Mark's own confession that the team brought him back into the pen at night, shows that maybe a team of captive trainers was not the best solution after all.
HSUS believes it would be better that Keiko die than live in a zoological park.
After having 5 years in the ocean, where he instigated interactions with wild orca, and made choice as to how far he went, when he went out, sometimes for days alone, would it have then been fair to put him back in a tank?
Line after line and page after page, Mark Simmons recounts this horrific tragedy and how our best intentions can be manipulated into fulfilling radical agendas. He adeptly makes the case against allowing animal "rights" groups, who have little concern for an animal's welfare or wellbeing, to lead any discussion over the needs of animals.
Hollywood stories are often very far from reality.
These people were experts on wild whales, which the Seaworld staff were not. HSUS only took over for the last year anyway as Craig McCaw withdrew his support and monies. He had been in Iceland for 3 years, so why were people still interacting with him as if he was doing a show and they were doing waterworks?
This book is a must-read for anyone who feels the tug at their heartstrings over films like "Blackfish". It's a frank and cautionary tale exposing the same cast of characters who also brought us "The Cove," "Blackfish," and now government action like the California House Bill AB2140.
This is very true it is the same cast of characters, see here though how others involved with Keiko tell a different story, especially Keiko's trainer. All telling similar stories but with the underlying theme that the trainers would not let Keiko go. . A differing view is also offered by David Phillips, director of the Free Willy-Keiko Foundation, who claimed Simmons was fired from the Keiko project because of conflict with the head veterinarian.
Using similar emotionally driven tactics, we have become their pawns.
This book is powerful in its message and its delivery. "Killing Keiko" ends with a grown man crying at the end, because no matter how hard you wish it weren't true - they killed Keiko. In the opinion of one man, not in the opinion of everyone else involved from start to finish.
Lastly as a measure of success we need to remember why people were trying to release Keiko. His trainer
Claudia Galindo gives an interview of what life was like for him in the tank at Mexico - see a section of that below. Claudia worked with Keiko from 1990.
“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.”
Mistakes were made with Keiko that is obvious, but as in all things those mistakes will have been learnt from, an orca returning to the wild surely cant be treated as a show animal, when he wanted to wander he was brought back, yet he still had a tracker on him so he could be found, that isn't breaking his dependance on humans either. Surely to become a wild whale he needed to behave like one, so when the exercise is done again these things need to be learnt from.
In light of the above, any release from that torture in Mexico had to be a success didn't it?
An orca treated like this, surfed, dived, caught his own food, swam in the ocean to distances he chose, heard the noises of the ocean, interacted with wild orcas, rubbed on the stones and died of pneumonia the very same thing that killed the majority of the captive orcas. If it kills in tanks too how can it be his release that caused the problem?
Killing Keiko is available for order on the book's website, or on Amazon.com