Done with Cetacean Woo

11 05 2007

Last night I finished Freeing Keiko and I am quite glad to be done with it. It was an interesting book, introducing me to a lot of the personalities involved in Keiko’s release into the wild (as well as all the in-fighting that occurred over the whale), but I can’t say I particularly enjoyed it. Perhaps it was because the author, Kenneth Brower, focused primarily on the people and offered up their quotes about events; it was a bit difficult to get a mental image of what was going on at times. Perhaps this is to be expected as Brower wasn’t around for many significant events and had to get the information from those that were, and oddly enough the whale itself seems to take a backseat to the people; Keiko is represented more as a focal point which everyone revolves around rather than an actual animal.

Outside of Brower’s failure to effectively confront cetacean-woo (at one point he even contemplates whether whales can “hear” colors via echolocation with a vet), I didn’t particularly like the last chapter. While Brower has been generally unkind to aquarium industry folks (and I don’t necessarily blame him for that), he outright attacks anyone who questioned Keiko’s release into the wild after the whale died in Norway several years ago. This is odd because Brower himself seems to question all this time, money, and effort going into the release of one whale for a few moments in the book, yet anyone who came out against the release is branded as a crank or in-bed with the aquarium industry.

As one representative of the Humane Society in the book admits, I would have hoped that the Oregon facility in which Keiko was kept (as well as the facility in Iceland) would be still used to rehabilitate captive orcas for reintroduction into the wild. The release of Keiko could have made precedent and pressure could have been put on those who keep the whales to actively participate in a rehab program. This was not to be, however; Keiko’s Oregon tank got turned into a new exhibit that put the aquarium into debt and I have no idea what’s become of the Iceland facility. There are plenty of people who still remember Keiko, but I wonder what lasting impact the project has had; Keiko was released but wasn’t really ever free, always under the care of trainers and vets until death with the exception of when he swam from Iceland to Norway. I really don’t know if I would call that a success, and even if the intentions of those caring for Keiko were good they did little to break the bond between whale & trainer or discourage the whale from going near boats.

The argument is made towards the end of the book that most of the projects money came from a telecommunications billionaire who would have lost the money anyway, so it’s better that it went to the whale. This might be true, but what about all the money from Keiko t-shirts, donations from kids breaking their piggybanks, etc.? A lot of people devoted a lot of time, money, and effort to the release of this whale, and it is not likely to happen again. If Keiko wasn’t featured in a film in which his fictitious persona was released, the project would never have happened, and at this point the aquarium industry is dead set against giving up any of their whales. Even if they did, there would be no guarantee that the whales would be effectively rehabilitated, and in a way I would merely wish that the breeding programs would end and those whales living in captivity would be left to live their lives; it would be great to see them free, but I don’t think that’s a realistic goal.

Hindsight is 20/20 however, and the Free Willy Foundation couldn’t have known the ultimate outcomes of their project until all was said and done. An admirable effort was made in an attempt to rehabilitate a once-captive whale (in which the succeeded), but the release seemed to give them more problems then they bargained for. Still, while Keiko is not forgotten his story has already begun to fade away, and I doubt Sea World, Miami Seaquarium, or any other park will give up their cetaceans until there is a significant change in the public about keeping cetaceans in captivity. Even the official Keiko website has been without updates since the winter of 2006, and most people merely remember the basic outline of the story. Hell, I picked up Brower’s book in the first place because I didn’t really remember anything outside of an attempt being made to free the whale and a hazy recollection that he had died, and it seems that Keiko’s impact was not so wide or large as was originally hoped.

I don’t think cetaceans belong in aquariums or should be engaged in breeding programs merely because it’s all about the money; the whales are not in danger in the wild and suffer psychologically from being in captivity, yet they’re what everyone goes to see at aquariums. I remember seeing them as a child at Sea World and returned to the Orlando park this past summer, only to be disgusted by what I saw. They were reduced to little more than sea-going clowns, on-stage for our amusement, and the show itself had almost a pagan flavor to it; believe in Shamu (actually Tilikum), chant the name “Shamu”, channel the power of the killer whale, etc. They didn’t actually say that last bit, but it was there was the heavy suggestion of some transcendent communion between man & animal; maybe the trainers need to keep convincing themselves of that so they can go to work every day.

In any case, in the end I’m not sure whether to think those in charge of Keiko did the right or wrong thing; it’s wonderful the whale was rehabilitated but it seemed that there were too many interests (and too many cooks) involved in the release of the whale and too much attention put on him. It’s hard to push an animal to be independent of humans when they’ve been reliant on them their entire lives and continue to have daily training sessions and contact with people. I don’t think a similar project will be undertaken anytime soon, and maybe it shouldn’t; maybe we should focus on trying to increase the care of the whales in captivity and put an end to breeding programs that keep aquariums populated with psychologically-stunted stars.


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