The price of Willy

From ANIMAL PEOPLE, March 1996:

NEWPORT, Oregon––Keiko, the orca star of the
1993 film Free Willy!, was already the costliest, most controversial
whale in history long before he splashed into his
new surroundings, a $7 million state-of-the-art tank at the
Oregon Coast Aquarium. Enjoying four times the space he
had in his 11 years at the El Reino Aventura amusement park
in Mexico City, Keiko increased his activity so much as to
double his appetite within his first week of arrival, as the
biggest package ever flown by United Parcel Service.
But the successful relocation only escalated the
debate over whether and if Keiko can––or should––actually
be freed. Moving him was the easy part. There were disagreements
over who should move him, where, for what
purpose, but even El Reino Aventura general manager Oscar
Porter readily agreed in principle that he needed better quarters.

Ahead remain the hardest questions––about his
prospects for release; about finding him companions, including
a mate, if as seems likely, he cannot be reunited with his
unknown family pod somewhere off Iceland; the question as
to whether he should be allowed to breed, inescapable if he
gains a mate, since at age 15 he has reached sexual maturity;
debate over the seriousness of his chronic skin condition,
officially a papiloma virus but indelicately described by some
experts as “genital warts”; a variety of scandals and rumors
of scandals besetting some of the Free Willy/Keiko campaign
participants, notably the Humane Society of the U.S., a latecomer
to the effort led by Earth Island Institute; and intense
discussion of just where Keiko’s future fits among the urgent
priorites for marine mammals.
There is also the matter of whether or not Keiko
wants to be released. Longtime Free Willy/Keiko campaign
supporter Bill Russell of Bandon, Oregon, was among the
first visitors to see Keiko at the Oregon Coast Aquarium.
“At the risk of anthropomorphizing,” he observed
“it seems that Keiko is taking a very great
interest in viewing humans, especially very
small humans, through the window. He
spends a lot of time right up close to the window,
with his eye just a few feet from the
smallest human visible to him.”
Orca release advocate Paul Spong
seized on the Keiko transfer as an opportunity
to revive interest in the campaign to free
Corky, an orca captured in Puget Sound in
1969, now at Sea World San Diego. Spong
and In Defense of Animals hope “to assemble
the world’s largest Free Corky banner, to
include panels from all over the world,”
according to Susanne Roy of IDA, “which
will be assembled into one huge banner to be
unveiled on Mother’s Day.”
But amid the celebrations of Free
Willy/Keiko enthusiasts came a hint that at
best the campaign brought Pyrric victory.
The declared Free Willy/Keiko campaign
goal is no more whales in captivity, but the
short-term result is apparently more whales in
captivity, as just 12 days after Keiko’s
removal, Ric O’Barry of the Dolphin Project
issued an emergency warning that staff of El
Reino Aventura were “en route to Cuba to
take dolphins hostage” to replace him.
O’Barry was also en route to Cuba,
hoping to “establish a dolphin sanctuary in
Cuba where the dolphins can be prepared for
release into the wild. The goal,” O’Barry
explained on January 10 to Manuel Cases,
president of the Spanish-based Asociacion
para la Defensa de los Derechos del Animal,
“is to stop future captures in Cuba and show
the Cuban government how it can be in their
longterm interest to establish a dolphinwatching
program that will attract European
tourists. All of this would be a windfall of
positive publicity for Fidel Castro.”
O’Barry and Cases have been trying
to negotiate the release of four dolphins
caught off Cuba in 1993 and kept ever since
at a failing dolphin swim attraction near Cala
Calers, on the Spanish Riviera.
Hot topic
For weeks surrounding Keiko’s
transfer, discussion of Keiko occupied
almost as much space on MARMAM, the
online newsgroup for marine mammologists,
as every other topic combined.
Johann Sigurdsson, deputy director
of the Marine Mammal Research Institute of
Iceland, on January 9 reiterated previous
statements that Keiko would not be welcomed
back into his native waters.
“No doubt the groups involved will
try to pressure the Icelandic government to
change its mind,” returned British dolphin
trainer John Dineley, noting the 1995 success
of Greenpeace International in persuading
Shell Oil to tow an out-of-service drilling
platform to shore, rather than scuttling it in
the North Sea, as was originally planned.
But Dineley raised another point:
“What if they find Keiko’s family and learn
they primarily hunt and eat marine mammals?
What then? Throw the occasional seal
into his pool so he can get a bit of practice ?”
Said Thomas Jefferson of the Hong
Kong-based Ocean Park Conservation
Foundation, “If one were to examine the scientific
and humanitarian reasons for releasing
a killer whale into the wild, and pick a candidate,
Keiko would be at the bottom of the
list. Personally, I think the preservation of
an entire species ought to be a higher priority
that enhancing the ‘mental health’ of a single
individual of a species that probably numbers
in the hundreds of thousands worldwide.”
Added Steven Leatherwood, author
of many definitive reference works on whales
and dolphins, “I’m sure the entire budget of
all marine mammal research and conservation
work conducted to date in the entire East and
Southeast Asia region, outside of Japan, is
only a fraction of that spent so far on the Free
Willy/Keiko feel-good campaign. The whale
enthusiasts spending their money, and the
public’s, on this silly project should have to
pay with their silence when the baiji, vaquita,
and bhulan disappear from neglect.”
The remarks of Jefferson and
Leatherwood gained poignancy when professor
Zhou Kaiya of Nanjing Normal
University in southern Jiangsu province on
February 6 revealed the death of an 8-foot,
352-pound female baiji––the largest on
record––who was apparently killed by someone
trying to electrocute fish. Leatherwood
believes the total baiji population left in the
world may be only a few dozen, one of
whom has been in captivity for three years
while scientists hoping to start captive breeding
have searched unsuccessfully for a mate.
Serge Dedina of the Department of
Geography and Regional Development at the
University of Mexico observed that spending
the cost of the Free Willy/Keiko campaign on
whale conservation projects could not only
do more for whales, but also, if undertaken
in developing nations, bring more return per
dollar. “For $10.5 million,” Dedina said,
“you could fund the management of the
Vizcaino Biosphere Reserve in Baja
California Sur, Mexico, for a number of
years. The seven-million-acre reserve is
home to gray whales, black sea turtles,
green sea turtles, pronghorn, bottlenose dolphins,
on and on.”
For Daniel P. Costa of the Earth &
Marine Science faculty at the University of
California in Santa Cruz, the most disturbing
issue “is that the public is being led to believe
that freeing Willy/Keiko is a conservation
project. It just isn’t. Killer whale populations
are not threatened in the wild,” he
claimed. “There is likely to be minimal if
any conservation value in learning how to
rehabilitate and release a killer whale. We
need to learn how to breed and release smaller
cetaceans such as the baji and vaquita.
However,” Costa continued, “I would not
put captive release programs at the top of my
priorities. The important thing is to properly
manage and protect the habitat of these
endangered populations. There isn’t much
point to a captive release program if there is
no habitat left, or it is so degraded as to be
useless for maintenance of a population.”
Ken LeVasseur, of Hawaii, who
with Steve Sipman staged the unauthorized
release of two dolphins belonging to linguist
ic researcher Louis Herman in 1976, noted
that, “The statements concerning a better use
of the Free Willy/Keiko funds are virtually
identical to arguments used by anti-captivity
activists for 15 years. The common ground is
that both factions agree most of the money
spent holdng cetaceans captive is better spent
in more natural environments.”
Offered Leslie Strom, of Wide
Angle Productions, “Look at it in terms of
marketing. Keiko is a symbol whose plight
millions of people have responded to. Many
are involved with a marine mammal issue for
the first time. Perhaps the start of the Free
Willy/Keiko movement was a fluke,” Strom
continued, “but the opportunistic bandwagon-jumping
that came after it was not.”
Suggested Stacy Braslau-Schneck,
“Those involved in conservation might learn
from the Free Willy/Keiko campaign how to
promote their own mascots. Why not start a
‘Save Billy the Baiji’ or ‘Save Bertha the
boutu’ campaign, using individual animals to
gain support for the whole species?”
But stranding expert Phil Clapham
was skeptical. “I believe the idea that Keiko
will inspire people to be interested in
cetacean conservation is a fallacy,” he said.
“We’re just reinforcing to the public the
notion that individual animal rescues are
somehow important in the grand scheme of
things. I don’t know if anyone could significantly
change the mindset that makes people
give to feel-good events rather than the more
complex, important stuff, but it wouldn’t
hurt to try. We owe critically endangered
species such as the baiji at least that.”
Clapham also noted that, “Like it
or not, the closer one gets to actually physically
‘saving’ a whale, the more money will
come in from the general public. We experience
this with mass strandings of pilot
whales. These events, while sad, are a natural
occurrence, probably going on for as
long as pilot whales have existed, and probably
have little impact on the population, but
people from Kansas and other remote places
will send in, unsolicited, their ten bucks in
response to news reports. Ask them to contribute
to work that really matters, such as
habitat conservation, and the response is at
least an order of magnitude smaller.
“Same thing with the gray whalesin-the-ice
fiasco in 1988,” Clapham continued.
“It would have been hard to design a
more absurd situation: a Soviet icebreaker
coming in from far away, while on the other
side of the Bering Strait that year, the same
Soviets killed around 190 gray whales in their
native hunt. By some accounts, $2 million
was spent to free three individuals, one of
whom died anyway, from what was essentially
a natural event. But the money
wouldn’t have been spent on anything else.
just as the people who gave to Keiko would
not, in most cases, give to baiji conservation
or anything that really matters.”
Doug Cartlidge of the European
Cetacean Organization passed the buck back
to the aquarium industry. “I sympathize with
Steven Leatherwood’s predicament, and
applaud his efforts with the baiji,” Cartilidge
said. “However, would it not be more sensible
for those earning millions from exploiting
cetacea to have jumped in to help? Their
annual profits far exceed those of the conservation
and animal welfare organizations.”
In fact, the New York Aquarium
and the Vancouver Aquarium, among others,
are heavily involved in wild marine mammal
conservation; Sea World is a longtime leader
in stranding rehabilitation. Sea World and
the Alliance of Marine Mammal Parks and
Aquariums also donated more than $100,000
worth of time and equipment to El Reino
Aventura to improve Keiko’s circumstances,
before Earth Island was involved.
More was in planning. “Three
years ago,” recounted Timothy Desmond,
“Earth Island and Richard and Sheila Donner
had the option to develop a home for Keiko
on Cape Cod that would have doubled as a
critical care facility for hundreds of marine
mammals who strand themselves near the
Cape every year. It would have served the
whole regon. It won the support of the local
community. It was fundable, according to
the professional fundraisers that Warner
Brothers hired, at about the same cost, and
could have been done in far less time.
“However,” Desmond charged,
“the activists couldn’t stand not having complete
control over the political agenda and the
money. They conducted a coordinated attack
on the proposed Cape Cod sanctuary and
killed it. Their argument was that it was a
display facility and Keiko would do shows.
But there were no entertainment facilities in
the design, only a unique combination of
pools capable of taking care of large numbers
of stranded cetaceans. I know this because I
was hired to develop the plan for Warner
Brothers and Richard and Sheila Donner. So
now Keiko goes to guess what? A captive
display facility, in an area with very few
cetacean strandings. Many marine mammals
will die because of the lack of that critical
care facility, while Earth Island will float the
illusion of releasing Keiko in fundraising.
Now many marine mammal display institutions
have stopped accepting stranded marine
mammals, due to the threat of the morbillivirus.
So effectively there are even less
facilities available. What an opportunity lost!
And why? Ask Dave Phillips,” executive
director of both Earth Island Institute and the
Free Willy/Keiko Foundation.
Long critical of the Free
Willy/Keiko campaign, for reasons he laid
out in the June 1995 edition of ANIMAL
PEOPLE, paralleling most of those above,
Paul Watson of the Sea Shepherd
Conservation Society has also long endured
attacks by Earth Island Institute, among others,
for his acceptance of funding from casino
magnate Steve Wynn, whose portfolio
includes a Las Vegas dolphinarium.
Watson thus couldn’t resist calling
Phillips to congratulate him on becoming a
major investor in the captive marine mammal
industry––and a procurer of animals for

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