Ten years ago I led a delegation to Mexico City to negotiate with the amusement park Reino Aventura to give up Keiko the orca whale to a coalition dedicated to his release. Keiko had just become the most famous whale in the world by starring in Free Willy. When I saw him, my heart fell. He was sway-backed like an old horse because he had starved himself to shrink his Icelandic blubber and stay alive. His teeth were worn to nubbins and his gums bled from chewing on the sides of his tank. Papiloma rash spread from his pectoral fins and his dorsal fin had the trademark captive orca droop.
It was a testament to Keiko's resilience that he was alive at all. Captured at two years old from his family off Iceland, Keiko languished for a couple of years in a dark warehouse in Niagara Falls, Canada before being shipped to Reino Aventura in Mexico. At a mile high with water temperature of seventy degrees, the park's tank could hardly have been less appropriate for a wild Icelandic whale.
After striking a deal to get Keiko out, the park reneged because of pressure from the public display industry. The last thing they wanted was for Keiko to be successfully freed, like in the movie. Performing whales and dolphins NEVER are allowed to go free, and the industry's profits are seen to hinge on the illusion that they cannot.
Two years later Earth Island Institute, Warner Brothers, billionaire Craig McCaw and thousands of school kids pooled their money and moved Keiko to a new tank at the Oregon Coast Aquarium. There he healed and wowed the crowds. When ready, he was airlifted to a sea pen in Iceland, where he lived for four years. Periodically he was taken on escorted "walks" out of sight of the shore. Finally, he just swam away one day, and headed, of all places, to one of the last major whaling countries- Norway. There he lived in Taknes Fjord and was much beloved by the local children.
Keiko's death of pneumonia on December 12 tripped the PR machinery of the captive display industry-and Rush Limbaugh-to thunder that Keiko's rehab and release was a frivolous failure because he still liked to hang around people.
Forgotten, apparently, was Keiko's condition when I saw him in Mexico. Captivity was clearly killing Keiko. The average lifespan for orcas in captivity is about six years, as opposed to about thirty for wild males. Also ignored by the critics was the importance of this one individual in galvanizing the world to perform a kindness by alleviating his suffering. Free Willy taught us that captive whales have families and miss them. Keiko taught us that we can accomplish very difficult and expensive projects in the name of compassion. His dogged perseverance, and that of his sponsors, showed us that if Keiko could go this far, there is no reason that all captives should not be considered for release.
The struggle to stop the cruel business of whale captivity was changed forever by this one whale. I am grateful to have known him.
-by Ben White