Keiko, the only captive Orca to ever return home
Written by: Karla Munguia Colmenero, Ambassador for Keiko, the Untold Story of the Star of Free Willy
The first time that I saw Keiko was in Reino Aventura, amusement park in Mexico City, back in 1983.
Back then, I didn’t know what I know today about Orcas in captivity.
I was 6 years old when my parents took me to Reino Aventura, amusement park in Mexico City who’s main attraction was Keiko, an orca in a pool that seemed gigantic to me.
I remember that we sat close to the edge of this “massive” pool in anticipation to see the great show. I can’t describe what Keiko did that day, but what I do remember is the most exciting moment of the show: giving Keiko a fish from a specially built platform.
The trainer asked the most exciting question I’ve ever heard in those first 6 years of my life: “Who wants to feed Keiko with a fish?”. I jumped over and over, raising my hand and screaming: “Me, me, me!”, hoping for the most epic moment of my life to unfold. The trainer scanned the loud audience and she finally locked her eyes on a girl who was beyond excited. It wasn’t me. It’s not necessary to say that I was devastated.
“I want to be an Orca Trainer!”
“When I grow up, I want to be an Orca trainer”, I proudly announced to my mom. Back then we lived far from Mexico City, so it took me a decade to see Keiko again, but the idea of becoming a trainer remained in my mind until my teenage years.
I thought about how wonderful it must be to spend the entire day with an Orca. Climbing on its back or belly, being pushed in the pool, doing exciting tricks and kissing him, especially kissing him!
In 1993 I returned to Reino Aventura with my younger cousin to show him Keiko “in action”. The first thing that I noticed was the tremendously small space of his pool. He would swim around and around in a space that 1o years before seemed like a little ocean. Keiko followed the trainer’s instructions while I kept my eyes on him. “What’s wrong with his fin?”, I asked my mom. “No idea…” she replied.
This time, I didn’t jump to be chosen by the trainer to give him his fish. I didn’t cry, but I felt a profound sadness.
“I don’t want to be an Orca trainer!”
A year after my second visit to Reino Aventura I returned with my high school friends. The first thing I wanted to do is check on Keiko.
When I was a little girl, my mom used to dress me like a doll. I’m not exaggerating. One day, she prepared the perfect outfit for a party and once I was ready with a dress that matched my shoes and my ribbons on a perfectly hairdo, she said: “I’m going to take a quick shower and be right back”. I was about a year and a half old. When she came out of the shower, she found me inside a bucket filled with water (my first encounter with scuba diving), all dressed. This is exactly how I saw Keiko, like an Orca stuck in a bucket.
Once again, I left the place with a broken heart, like the 6 year old girl that cried because she didn’t feed Keiko, but his time, my tears where only for him.
Willy is free!
Some of us in Mexico knew that the star of the movie Free Willy was Keiko. This blockbuster film not only made him famous around the globe, but it also changed his life in ways that I will share below. I learned about his departure one night, when my mom was watching the news. I remember being in the kitchen crying my eyes out as we witnessed Keiko being transported from his “bucket” to Mexico City’s International Airport. I cried for so long, that my father mocked me for hours.
I knew that he was on his way to Oregon, but there were also rumors about Michael Jackson wanting to buy him, so in my mind I had blurry information, until 2011.
On December 12th, 2003, I was at my desk waiting for lunch time. I was done writing my morning articles for the newspaper – I covered weddings, baptisms, farewell parties, bachelorette parties… and if you’re wondering, no, I didn’t enjoy that job, but that’s another story – so I decided to check the latest news coming from AP, Reuters and AFP.
The words “Keiko dies” caught my attention immediately. I clicked on the news and learned that Keiko died in Norway. “Wait, what was he doing in Norway?”, I thought. The news hit me hard. I called my mom to let her know and walked out of the newspaper to mourn Keiko’s death.
After living three years in South Africa, where I worked as camera operator and editor for Animal Planet, I returned to Mexico on May 2010. My return was quite complicated. I faced a different feeling from the one when arriving to Africa, knowing that I finally got to where I’ve always belonged. Mexico seemed an alien country where I didn’t belong.
Returning to civilization after living in the heart of South Africa, on a vast game reserve surrounded by pure wilderness, was a shock. No traffic except for the giraffes or elephants crossing the bumpy roads. No shopping malls, no noise, no crowds, no trash. I read so many books that I didn’t even missed watching TV and I would fall asleep listening to an owl calling on the top of my hut while lions roared in the distance announcing “time to go hunt”.
If I add that all my friends were married with children, I felt like a lonely elephant in a zoo. I stopped being me, just as an elephant stops being an elephant in a zoo. Just as a captive elephant who will never feel, smell and walk the African soil. An elephant that will never communicate with the rumbles coming from their massive bodies that make Africa shake to its core.
I learned as much as I could about African animals during those years. I had the fortune to watch them, study them and film them in their natural habitat, being what they’re supposed to be, doing what they’re supposed to do. From my experiences in Africa and my 19 years scuba diving in open waters in Mexico, South Africa and Australia, zoos, aquariums and all places where animals are held captive are a big “no-no”.
If I want to learn something about an animal, I watch documentaries or I read about them. I don’t need to see them in a zoo or aquarium. I’ll give you an example: I’ve heard a captive lion roar as well as a wild lion. They’re entirely different. A wild lion’s roar is so powerful, that I had to cover my ears. My body, the camera, the tripod and the entire vehicle were vibrating with this powerful sound. When I heard a captive lion roar, I thought he was vomiting. I’ve seen the athletic body of a lion that has to be on the move constantly in order to find food. I’ve also seen a caged lion accumulating fat on his belly while eating chicken feet. That’s not a lion.
Keiko, the Untold Story
In 2011 I found Keiko again. I was looking for a job while navigating Facebook when a page appeared on my feed: Keiko, the Untold Story of the Star of Free Willy.
I immediately clicked on it and discovered that this page was about a documentary about Keiko’s life. “This is wonderful! I can finally learn what happened to him! I need to contact the Producers so we can bring this film to schools in Mexico”, I thought.
Ambassador for Keiko the Untold Story
After many emails between the Producers and me and revised contracts, I became Ambassador for the film. My mission: bring Keiko to schools in Mexico to share with kids, teenagers and parents Keiko’s life while raising awareness about Orcas in captivity.
You must know that most of us in Mexico had no idea of what happened to him, at least in my case, and I used to call myself Keiko’s fan. During that time social media didn’t exist and internet was just starting to become a thing. It was in 2011 when I finally watched the documentary and learned not only what happened to Keiko after leaving Mexico, but what happened before.
What I learned about Keiko
The first thing that I would like to share with you is: Keiko wasn’t Mexican, as some people in Mexico think. Keiko was born in Iceland, where he was ripped from his family at age 2. MarineLand, a nasty place in Canada that holds the only captive Orca in the country called Kiska, and whom we’ve seen hitting her head against the tank, ordered 4 orcas for their “shows” back in 1979. Unfortunately, Keiko was caught in the nets “unintentionally”.
Keiko arrived in this tank where the other orcas bullied him. Orcas, like wolves and elephants, are social beings. Their family structure is as important as it is to us, so taking Keiko from his family was devastating to all the members of his pod. Taking him from their mother’s side was like taking a 2 year old human baby from their mother. Orcas and humans have a similar life span (a female Orca can live up to 90 years), so Orcas have a strong bond with their grandma, mom, siblings, cousins, uncles and aunts, just as some of us humans do.
MarineLand, not knowing what to do with this bullied orca, offered him to aquariums around the world. Reino Aventura paid US$350,000 for him.
The reality behind the “show”
During the 11 years that I’ve been Ambassador for the film, I’ve learned atrocities about Keiko’s life as well as other Orcas held captive in Sea World (USA), MarineLand (Canada), Loro Parque (Spain), Mundo Marino (Argentina), and many more amusement parks or aquariums who mask this cruel experience as “educational and entertaining”.
Keiko lived in a tank where he barely moved, filled with tap water from Mexico City. On top of that, they would bring him bags of salt to “salinate” the chlorinated water, which is absolutely impossible. This was more like a recipe for disaster where they were “cooking” him. Yes, the water in the tank was so warm, that it was like cooking him for a soup.
I know more details of Keiko’s life and the key moments where his health improved, but I rather let the experts who followed him every step of the way tell the story.
Keiko in schools
I truly believe that education is the key to change the fate of these incredible beings. And I know from first hand that children get it. They’ve shown interest to keep Orcas in the wild, not in tanks. Saying this, we’ve put together a wonderful package so Keiko can visit schools. This package includes a license to screen the film, a Study Guide to engage students with Keiko and, to make it more exciting, a screening with the Director for a session of Q&A’s.
To learn more about Keiko for Kids, click here.
I would like to finish this blog with a thought about freedom. For the past 2 and a half years I’ve been living in captivity, just like Keiko. I’ve been going around and around in a place where I lack space, freedom of choice, freedom of doing what I used to do before COVID hit. I’ve read on sites that fight for animal rights something like: “you’ve been captive for almost two years, now imagine how it’s like to be held captive forever”. This is the case of all captive beings, not just Orcas. I’m talking about dolphins, sea lions, walruses, elephants, wolves, lions… it’s a long, long list.
One of my biggest dreams is to see wolves in Alaska. While this dream comes true, if it does, I rather see them in documentaries or books because I know that wolves in a zoo are just a physical representation, as their essence, their nature, their being, has been taken away from them.
So, what did I do to stop capturing animals for human “entertainment”? It’s quite simple: I don’t buy a ticket. Making this decision didn’t affect my life. I didn’t lose anything, quite the opposite. I felt the power that I have to stop this nonsense so that this cruel industry disappears once and for all. I’m convinced that it’s more gratifying to feel that one less person in these places, will help both captive and wild Orcas.
I’m deeply grateful to the people involved in Free Willy, to the children around the world who raised their voices so Keiko could return to Iceland. And yes, sure, Keiko died three years after arriving in Iceland, but he died in the ocean, not in a “bucket” located in one of the most crowded and polluted cities in the world. I wish the same for the rest of captive Orcas. If we’ve been exploiting them, breeding them, using them like clowns, the least we can do is retire them in sanctuaries where they no longer have to perform. We owe them that, we owe them the privilege of dying with dignity, in the place where they belong.
I dedicate this blog to Mark Berman, the man behind Keiko’s return to Iceland, and Theresa Demarest, the brave filmmaker behind Keiko, the Untold Story of the Star of Free Willy.