Remember the 1993 movie "Free Willy"? Similar to the movie "Born Free" where a couple reintroduce a tame lion cub back into the wild savannahs of Africa, "Free Willy" shows a performing killer whale breaching a barrier to return to the open sea and a supposedly happy life ever after.
"Free Willy" was based on an actual killer whale named Keiko. The story did not end happily ever after. In the July 2009 issue of the journal Marine Mammal Science, marine biologists describe his fate in "From Captivity to the Wild and Back: An Attempt to Release Keiko the Killer Whale."
Reintroduction of killer whales, also called orcas, has only been successful when the whales were only temporarily kept for short periods in sea pens. This was not the case for Keiko. Keiko was captured in 1979 near Iceland when about two years old. He lived in tanks with other killer whales for six years before going to an amusement park in Mexico. There he was a solitary performer for ten years.
When it was decided that Keiko should be returned to the wild, in part under public pressure from the public response to the movie "Free Willy," Keiko was moved to an enclosure in Oregon and then to a bay pen in Iceland.
Keiko received training to introduce him back into the open ocean and for eventual release into the wild. For two years, Keiko followed his trainer’s boat on open ocean swims in the proximity of wild killer whales that migrated each summer to Iceland waters. Keiko’s DNA matched the DNA from these local whale populations. In 2002, Keiko was led out to the group and after one month, took off swimming from Iceland to Norway.
Keiko’s migrations and diving behaviors were monitored by radio transmitters using satellite tracking. When Keiko swam to Norway, he left the regular migration route and showed up alone in very shallow water, near shore in Norway. Perhaps he had heard the voices of fishermen, but in any case, he was back to interacting with the local people, where he "...often initiated the interactions and swam actively from one group of people to another."
But Keiko became lethargic. His caretakers had to rescue him, feed him fish, and take him for short swims in nearby waters. Keiko still had free access to the bay and open water, but he always returned. Keiko died in December 2003, at half his life expectancy, from pneumonia. He never integrated into wild killer whale pods. The researchers concluded: "...Keiko’s release to the wild was not successful, since though physically unrestricted and free to leave, he kept returning to his caretakers for food and company."
Another release in 2002 of a lost killer whale named "Springer" was successful because she had been in captivity only one month, was a juvenile, and returned to her maternal group. Keiko was not part of a social unit, was not young, and had been in captivity most of his life. Therefore, the researchers in retrospect found Keiko "...a poor candidate for release."
With talking animals in the movies and on Saturday morning cartoons, we have a tendency to put our thoughts into animal actions. Each new generation of youngsters, ever more divorced from real animal experiences, is ever more susceptible to animal rights fairy tales.
This is county fair season in Kansas. Any Kansas farm kid can tell you that some domesticated animals will no longer make it on their own in the wild. However, it is very unlikely that the animal rights groups that promoted the release of Keiko will ever admit this failure.