Dirty Pool III: Keiko

From ANIMAL PEOPLE, Jan/Feb 1995:

ANIMAL PEOPLE hadn’t scheduled a third part
of our “Dirty Pool” series on propaganda interfering with
marine mammal protection, but as the second part went to
press on November 22, Warner Brothers and New Regency
Productions donated $2 million to a new Free Willy/Keiko
Foundation formed by Earth Island Institute, the purpose of
which is to raise $10 million to buy Keiko, the orca star of
both the 1993 film Free Willy! and a forthcoming sequel
made with out-takes; fly him to a yet-to-be-built rehabilita-
tion site in Newport, Oregon; and prepare him for eventual
release. But Keiko’s owner, the Reino Aventura amuse-
ment park in Mexico City, is apparently not yet commited.
The Center for Whale Research in Friday Harbor,
Washington, made the matter look a bit like a re-run with a
November bulletin headlined “How is Keiko, and what can
be done to help?” CWR claims to have struck a verbal deal
in August 1993 with Reino Aventura, to fly him to a reha-
bilitation center in the Bahamas and prepare him for release.
However, the story goes, the Alliance of Marine Mammal
Parks and Aquariums got wind of it and dispatched execu-
tives to Mexico City in the Sea World jet to keep it from
happening. CWR gave up on the deal in May 1994.

This is not a new story. ANIMAL PEOPLE pub-
lished a version of it as a letter from Chris Stroud of the
Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society in December 1993,
as Sea World declined comment. A year later, though,
we’re aware of at least five deals purportedly made by vari-
ous groups on Keiko’s behalf, none of them completed.
The AMMPA version of the Keiko story is that
members had been trying to cure Keiko of a skin virus for
two years before CWR got involved. According to AMMPA
executive director Marilee Keefe, AMMPA and Sea World
were unaware of CWR’s purported deal when a team flew to
Mexico City to install a new water chilling and filtration sys-
tem at Reino Aventura––needed to cure the virus, necessary
before Keiko can be moved to live with other orcas.
Continued Keefe, “CWR threatened to sue us if
we continued our efforts, claiming these efforts somehow
interfered with an agreement they believed they had with
Keiko’s owners. Keiko’s owners consistently stated no such
agreement ever existed. We told CWR we would not contin-
ue our efforts if they persisted in threatening a lawsuit. We
requested that CWR sign a written release so we could con-
tinue to help Keiko. So far, CWR has refused.”
We asked both CWR and AMMPA to document
their accounts. AMMPA and other sources close to
AMMPA promptly sent copies of legal correspondence
affirming Keefe’s version. But Howard Garrett of CWR
retorted, “You just called me a liar! The things I told you
are as good as if they were under oath. That doesn’t mean
they are necessarily true, but it does mean they are true to
the best of my knowledge. I didn’t claim we reached a con-
tract with Reino. It was a verbal agreement, to be followed
by a written letter of intent.”
But attorney Margaret R. O’Donnell on October
24, 1993 claimed there was a contract, advising AMMPA
that CWR was “prepared to pursue all legal remedies avail-
able to it” for alleged “tortious interferance with the contrac-
tual relationship between CWR and Reino Aventura, con-
spiracy, and possibly defamation.”
Reino Aventura general manager Oscar Porter
denied having made a deal to give up Keiko in a letter to
CWR dated November 22, 1993. “Keiko is not for sale,
Keiko is not promised to you, Keiko remains our responsi-
bility!”, Porter wrote, adding, “You have no authorization
from us to use our Keiko, now famous, as the basis for
fundraising. In our previous correspondence, we made that
clear. Yet you persist in doing so. In our view, this borders
on fraudulent activity.”
Along with the “How is Keiko?” bulletin, CWR
published a list of 380 purported cetacean “releases,” most
of them by the captive marine mammal industry, compiled
by Ken Balcomb. “If post-captive release is lethal, danger-
ous, and irresponsible as many marine park spokespeople
now claim,” Balcolm wrote, “then why has it been done so
many times by those very organizations?”
But of the 380 cetaceans “released,” 272 were
orcas caught in mass round-ups during the 1960s and 1970s.
None were removed from their native habitat. Only four
were held captive longer than they had lived in the wild.
Only two were taken from their pods. None were released
from marine mammal parks––and all the releases occurred
at least 15 years ago. No marine mammal park executive
now responsible for orcas was in a management post then.
Of the other “released” cetaceans, 89 were dol-
phins, 32 of whom were kept in marine mammal parks or
under comparable conditions. Sixteen either escaped or
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