LOS ANGELES - More than two decades ago, another orca was languishing in poor health, alone in a small concrete tank, performing tricks in an amusement park.
A group of rescuers, comprised of scientists, ex-trainers and organizations like the Earth Island Institute and HSUS seized the opportunity created by the coverage from the hit movie Free Willy and embarked on a campaign to rescue the film's star: a 9,000 pound orca named Keiko. The goal was to bring him back to health, and return him to his native waters in Iceland.
In 1998, after a long yet incredibly successful campaign, Keiko became the first captive orca whale ever returned to his home waters where he thrived for 5 years before his death from natural causes in 2003.
Today the orca whale Lolita faces a similar fate, alone in a tiny tank at the Miami Seaquarium. Last week Lolita was added to the list of endangered species as part of the North Pacific Southern Resident orca population.
Meanwhile, the Miami Seaquarium and the pro-captivity industry are making false claims and attempting to rewrite the history of the Keiko rescue effort in an effort to justify their position. They claim that Keiko's experience proves that Lolita is better left in captivity, as reported by several news outlets.
David Phillips, Executive Director of Earth Island Institute and Director of the Keiko Rescue effort, calls that a "misguided smear campaign."
"Far from a reason not to relocate Lolita, the Keiko experience is proof positive that relocating and retiring Lolita is doable," stated Phillips.
"The Keiko rescue proved that relocating and retiring an orca can be done in a safe, responsible way that ends the cruelty, and increases both life expectancy and quality of life. There is no reason whatsoever that Lolita cannot be successfully relocated to a retirement sanctuary."
Phillips cites the accomplishments of the Keiko effort including:
• Taking the least healthy captive orca whale in the world and bringing him back to full health. Former SeaWorld veterinarian Lanny Cornell advised that Keiko was likely to live only a few more months if left in Mexico.
• Successfully relocating Keiko from Mexico to a first of its kind rehab facility in Oregon - free of all performances and shows.
• Successfully helping Keiko re-learn how to catch live fish.
• Curing Keiko's papillomavirus and bringing his weight up by 2,000 pounds.
• Successfully relocating Keiko from Oregon to a sea-pen in his native waters of Iceland.
• Successfully transitioning Keiko to a netted off-bay pen in Iceland -- 1,000 times the size of the largest sea-pen currently in existence.
• Successfully bringing Keiko out into the company of wild Icelandic orca whales, where he was able to swim freely and interact with them.
• Monitoring Keiko's 1400+ mile trek to Norway during which it was conclusively determined that he fed himself in the wild.
Keiko did in fact survive the transition from captivity to the wild, despite what detractors may say. When Keiko died in the wild in 2003, he was the second oldest male orca ever kept in captivity at that time, outliving the orcas condemned to spend their entire lives within the captivity industry's 'care'.
Mark Berman, Associate Director of Earth Island Institute's Int'l Marine Mammal Project, stated, "While the industry talks about Keiko as a failure, they fail to mention that 17 orcas died in captivity during the time Keiko was being successfully rehabilitated and released."
"Since 1994 when Keiko came under the care of the Free Willy Keiko Foundation, Keiko's story was even more amazing than the Free Willy movie. By September 1998, after years of dedicated hard work, we saw Keiko enter the sea for the first time since his capture at age two," said Berman, adding "Let's hope many other orcas, including Lolita, may follow in his fluke prints."
"Critics are trying to bash the Keiko program and instead justify lifetime confinement for orcas in cruel conditions." says Phillips. "It is quite transparent that their efforts are more about selling tickets to captive amusement parks than about what is in the best interests of orca whales."
Articles with further info on the Keiko relocation effort
The award-winning documentary Keiko the Untold Story of the Star of Free Willy