by Whit Gibbons

March 7, 2004

I just read an article about Keiko, the killer whale star of the movie "Free Willy," who died in December 2003. You are probably thinking that right after the Academy Awards I would be writing something about his receiving a posthumous lifetime achievement award or the like. Of course, in the nonhuman mammal category, his competition might have included Lassie, Benji, or even King Kong, so he would probably have worn his black and white outfit for nothing.

Anyway, the article, written for Communiqué, the membership magazine of the American Zoo and Aquarium Association (AZA) by Michael Hutchins, who is the AZA chair and director, does not speak favorably of some of the real-life efforts to free Keiko. The primary point is not one to be readily dismissed. In short, more than $30 million was donated, most by a single billionaire, toward efforts to rehabilitate and socialize Willy, and return him to the ocean wilds. Hutchins's position is that such funds would have done far more for conservation and ecology if they had been given to major wildlife programs directed at benefiting entire species or populations. Is dedicating millions of dollars to a single individual, albeit a big mammal, as important as trying to understand and address the environmental problems facing whole species?

Willy was only the stage name for the killer whale, whose real name apparently was Keiko. Why he is not just referred to as Willy at this point, I did not even bother to pursue. But whatever he is called, he was captured in 1979 off the coast of Iceland when he was 2 years old. The details are a little fuzzy, but after his capture the baby killer whale went to a Canadian aquarium facility and then to what animal rights activists make sound like a Mexican jail. Apparently, the star of the Free Willy show was living in the Mexico City amusement park during the time of filming. After his rise to stardom, Willy was said to be suffering from various ailments, including skin problems, and was brought from Mexico to an aquarium in Oregon. He was eventually released into the ocean around his childhood home of Iceland.

I feel certain there are people who could give you a step-by-step chronology of when Willy was where from the age of 2 till his death in the seas around Norway at the age of 26 or so. But could these same people, however well-intentioned their efforts to secure the welfare of this one individual, tell you much about the ecology and behavior of killer whales, or orcas, as a species? The typical Willy fan might know that killer whales are the largest members of the Delphinidae, the dolphin family, but do they know that males reach adulthood when they are about 18 feet long, whereas females do so at less than 16 feet? Or that the biggest males can weigh almost 10 tons, whereas females seldom reach 6 tons?

Killer whales live in all oceans worldwide and are most prevalent in cooler areas toward the poles. Although they eat a variety of prey, such as fish and squid, killer whales are the largest living predators of warm-blooded animals (seals, baby walruses, penguins) and often hunt in groups of 40 or more. Marine vertebrates apparently panic when a school of killer whales is approaching, akin to the response of people in a small town to a visiting motorcycle gang with a bad attitude.

Although these big dolphins are not threatened environmentally, many smaller dolphin species around the world face difficult times. How can someone justify spending $30 million on one specimen of a non-endangered species instead of using the money for projects to enhance ecological understanding of other dolphin species that appear headed toward extinction or to fund conservation measures for the species? Ironically, when people develop an emotional attachment to one individual of a species of wild animal, that attachment can override their concern for the species itself. Directing their energy--and money--into true conservation, ecological research, or environmental protection of the species would probably serve a far greater good.

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