Statement on Releasing Captive Orcas

Jean-Michel Cousteau up close with KeikoFebruary 26, 2010

The recent tragic death of an orca trainer has raised the question of whether orcas in captivity should be released.

It is a complicated question with no simple answer, but this is my experience.

For four and one-half years, I was directly involved with the release of Keiko, the male orca made famous in the film, “Free Willy.” Public outrage at his continued captivity and poor health resulted in a movement to rehabilitate and free him. Millions of dollars in private donations made that possible in an unprecedented experiment with scientists, animal husbandry experts and my team and others.

Like many of the orcas now in captivity, Keiko was captured at a young age. The belief was that if we could identify and find his natal pod, we could release him and he would be accepted back into the wild in the company of other orcas. That never happened. After years of training, at great expense, Keiko was finally able to catch and eat live fish and was returned to the waters in Iceland near where he was captured. He never integrated with the wild whales he encountered. He often swam back to the boat for protection and waited at the gate of his enclosure to be let back in.

Keiko finally left his constant human caregivers and swam over 1,000 miles, feeding himself, from Iceland to Norway, where he entered a fjord and stayed, dependent again on human attention, until his death by a pneumonia-like disease.

If we know the location and pods from which individuals were captured, every effort should be made to create a safe enclosure for them there and to observe whether they are recognized and possibly accepted by the orcas associated with the pod when they were captured. Such proposals have been made for Corky and Lolita and are possibly worth considering. I think there would be tremendous public support for a humane, experimental program like this as we read comments by our Ocean Futures Society members.

But one way or another, we are totally responsible for the care and wellbeing of all captive orcas for the rest of their lives, especially those born into captivity.

My dream would be that it be illegal to capture any orca anywhere for any reason. The orcas now in captivity could be prevented from reproducing and would live their lives in retirement under the best conditions we could provide. There would be no “shows,” no entertainment, only activities to keep the orcas active. They would die of premature death like all captive orcas. A sad chapter in the history of our treatment of sentient, intelligent, complex animals like orcas would finally close, with the recognition that captivity of these animals has moved and changed us as well.

My dream would also be that we honor the lives of these captive orcas by assembling an international group of brilliant scientists, animal cognition and behavior experts and human psychologists and that they devise humane studies to understand as best we can the intelligence and mental capabilities of these temporary ambassadors of the sea. We are in the presence of alien intelligence and we are asking them to jump. It is a tragedy of a different magnitude.

With the proper effort, we might open new frontiers we barely even dare to dream about—confirmation of another thinking, intelligent being with whom we share the planet. Yes, it is a dream but how can we live with ourselves if we don’t try?

Our efforts could be spent on educating people with the emerging 3-D technologies or eventually, as my father dreamt, using holograms to instill wonder and awe in observing images of these truly majestic orcas living a life free and wild in the vastness of the ocean. They are our counterparts in the sea.

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Warm regards,


Photo: Jean-Michel Cousteau up close with Keiko of “Free Willy” fame at the bay pen that was constructed for Keiko in Iceland, where he continued to be rehabilitated for release into the wild. Courtesy Ocean Futures Society

Video: Jean-Michel Cousteau helped return Keiko, the killer whale, to the wild following 22 years of captivity. It was an expensive effort paid for with private funding. After more than four years of effort, Keiko was free but never completely free from human support. Based upon his experience, Jean-Michel says that killer whales that have spent many years in captivity cannot be completely rehabilitated and returned to the wild. These whales should be taken care of for the rest of their lives and we should focus our efforts on stopping any future captures.