‘Willy’ Didn’t Yearn to Be Free

Published: December 27th, 2003

Category: Op-Eds

This op-ed appeared in The New York Times Dec. 27 and The Scotsman (U.K.) Jan. 2.

By: Clive D. L. Wynne
Clive D. L. Wynne, associate professor of psychology at the University of Florida, is author of the forthcoming “Do Animals Think?”

When Keiko the killer whale, star of the movie “Free Willy,” beached himself earlier this month in western Norway, the story of probably the most expensive animal in human history came to an end. By the time of Keiko’s death, seven years of effort and more than $20 million had been spent vainly – and unwisely – trying to return the whale to the wild.

Although Paul Irwin, president of the Humane Society of the United States, committed his organization to providing Keiko “with the chance of freedom,” there was never a shred of evidence to suggest that freedom was an aspiration that Keiko shared with the humans who cared for him. Indeed, what we know about Keiko’s response to his attempted liberation suggests quite the opposite.

Born 26 or 27 years ago somewhere near Iceland, Keiko was captured in 1979 and sold as an exhibit. Killer whales, with their awesome size and eagerness to turn a trick for a few pounds of herring, can be moneymakers for aquariums.

Thrust from a fading attraction in a Mexican amusement park into stardom in 1993 by “Free Willy,” about a boy who rescues a killer whale from a rundown cetacean sideshow, Keiko soon became the subject of a real-life rescue effort on a scale not even Hollywood could have imagined.

In a special tank in Oregon, Keiko received remedial training in how to be a proper killer whale – which means killing things. But he never really took to the role. Nonetheless, after two years of boot camp, Keiko was shipped off to Iceland, where he was gradually reintroduced into the wild northern oceans in the summer of 2000. For a while, it looked as if the effort was succeeding, and in the summer of 2002 Keiko explored the North Atlantic.

He may even have caught a few wild fish. But in September that year Keiko showed up on the shores of western Norway performing his tricks for delighted locals. Ever hopeful, Keiko’s “rescuers” shifted him to a more obscure fjord whence they hoped to tempt him into killer-whale society. Steadfastly refusing their entreaties, Keiko died on Dec. 12 after a bout with pneumonia.

A love of animals is no bad thing, but when one beast receives more resources than all but the tiniest fraction of the world’s wealthiest people, we should at least stop and think for a moment.

Keiko should probably never have been removed from his native pod. But, once that was done, nothing in his story suggests that this highly social mammal, imprinted on humans at an early age, was a serious candidate for return to the rough and tumble of life on the ocean waves. It is a classic anthropomorphic fallacy to believe that an animal’s best interests are whatever a human would desire under similar circumstances.

In his latest domicile, Keiko was supported by an international team of experts who fed him dead herring at an annual cost of over half a million dollars and worked feverishly to continue to “free” him. Despite all the money, time and sincere effort, Keiko did not die in the company of his own species, but up against a pier, seeking human consolation.

Credits

Media Contact
Aaron Hoover, ahoover@ufl.edu, 352-392-0186

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