Blackfish and Keiko The Untold Story of the Star of Free Willy

The Problem and the Solution to Marine Mammal Captivity

With the recent release of the documentary film Blackfish, by filmmaker Gabriela Cowperthwaite, and David Kirby’s book, Death at SeaWorld, the time is right for the highly profitable marine park industry to re-evaluate the manner in which it earns money — having captive killer whales perform tricks and stunts in walled tanks. A needed shift in mission statement could offer the marine park industry an entirely new win-win purpose and put their publicly supported corporate money to its highest and best use.

The new mission statement would engage everyone, the marine park facility, the orca trainers, and the public at large, in a truly educational mission: to rescue, rehabilitate, and release both captive orcas and their trainers. The trainers would be re-trained to work with the orcas in seapens in the open ocean placed whenever possible near the orca’s family pod and country of origin. The orcas would no longer be required to be show animals but would learn and grow in a natural habitat with the goal of eventual release. The question is how this change will be achieved?

There are two must-see documentaries that spell out both the problem and the solution to this complex issue. These films can help greatly to frame the answers to the life-threatening problems facing captive orcas and their trainers.

Blackfish focuses on the plight of Tilikum and the life-threatening situation his trainers work in. Tilikum is an alpha male orca owned by SeaWorld, who has a well-known history of killing three human beings during his captivity. Like Keiko, Tilikum was captured in Iceland at about the age of three. To anyone who watches Blackfish, the mandate for change by marine parks is inescapable.

Keiko The Untold Story – The Star of Free Willy focuses on the life and legacy of Keiko, the beloved orca who starred in the hit film Free Willy. Colin Baird, an orca trainer and expert cast member in the documentary, who first worked with Tilikum and then Keiko, admits that when working with Keiko in Iceland “… there were days that he wouldn’t get in the water with him.” This may have been due perhaps to Keiko’s long period of captivity and Colin’s firsthand experience having had a co-trainer killed while working with Tilikum. To date, Keiko is the only captive orca to have been successfully rehabilitated and released from captivity. He was an unlikely candidate to succeed in such an effort because of his capture a very young age. Keiko thrived in his post-captivity period for more than five years, gaining over 3,000 pounds, mixing it up with wild orcas, and inspiring a generation of children around the world to get involved in an effort to free other killer whales from captivity.

It is our first hope that folks will watch Blackfish. Probably for the first time they will understand in a most graphic way the problems inherent in keeping these orcas captive. We believe that they will most certainly conclude that it is not only not worth the risk, but is just a wrong way for human beings to engage with these magnificent creatures. But then the question arises as what to do.

It is our second hope that folks will watch Keiko The Untold Story – The Star of Free Willy and finally learn the truth about the tremendous embrace of freedom that Keiko demonstrated during his incredible journey back to his home waters in Iceland and Norway where he thrived for five years. From the beginning of Keiko’s rehabilitation in 1995 to his death in the ocean in 2003 much was learned by the Free Willy-Keiko Foundation, the organization charged with his release, about what works and what doesn’t, and what is required to rescue, rehabilitate, and release a captive orca to the wild or to retire one from a tank to a seapen, including the cost and fundraising necessary for such a task.

Currently there are forty-five captive killer whales worldwide. Some of them were captured from the ocean, others were born in captivity. With the goal of releasing these orcas, many divergent groups have formed, with each disparate group seeking the rescue, rehabilitation and release of an individual orca. For example there are now separate groups in several different countries seeking the release of Morgan, Lolita, Corky, Kshamenk and the now infamous Tilikum. The Free Willy-Keiko Foundation, with its hands-on experience and knowledge, is well poised to act as a clearing house for these many groups seeking the release of captive orcas. We invite these groups to work with the Free Willy-Keiko Foundation.

Rescue, rehab and release can be done successfully and the marine park industry has the money to effect it (a billion and a half dollars a year). They just need the will and the voice of the public to proceed with all haste.

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Nowhere in recent history has a captive mammal garnered so much attention as Keiko, the orca star of the 1993 hit film, “Free Willy.” The film’s success, partnered with growing public interest in animals held in captivity, launched a children’s crusade that called for Keiko’s release into the wild. The result: a multimillion-dollar project that spanned four countries, weathered endless controversy and lasted nearly a decade. Through first-hand accounts by the marine mammal experts charged with his care, “Keiko The Untold Story” follows Keiko, his life, his legacy of hope, and the untold story of his extraordinary years in Iceland and Norway.