by Merritt Clifton
I had not planned to write a third part of my “Dirty Pool” series on propaganda interfering with marine mammal protection, but as the second part went to press on November 22, 1994, Warner Brothers and New Regency Productions donated $2 million to a new Free Willy/Keiko Foundation formed by Earth Island Institute, the purpose of which is to raise $10 million to buy Keiko, the orca star of both the 1993 film Free Willy! and a forthcoming sequel made with out-takes; fly him to a yet-to-be-built rehabilitation site in Newport, Oregon; and prepare him for eventual release. But Keiko’s owner, the Reino Aventura amusement park in Mexico City, is apparently not yet commited.
The Center for Whale Research in Friday Harbor, Washington, made the matter look a bit like a re-run with a November bulletin headlined “How is Keiko, and what can be done to help?” CWR claims to have struck a verbal deal in August 1993 with Reino Aventura, to fly him to a rehabilitation center in the Bahamas and prepare him for release. However, the story goes, the Alliance of Marine Mammal Parks and Aquariums got wind of it and dispatched executives to Mexico City in the SeaWorld jet to keep it from happening. CWR gave up on the deal in May 1994.
This is not a new story. Chris Stroud of the Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society published a version of it as an open letter in December 1993, as SeaWorld declined comment. A year later, though, I am aware of at least five deals purportedly made by various groups on Keiko’s behalf, none of them completed.
The AMMPA version of the Keiko story is that “members had been trying to cure Keiko of a skin virus for two years before CWR got involved.” According to AMMPA executive director Marilee Keefe, AMMPA and Sea World were unaware of CWR’s purported deal when a team flew to Mexico City to install a new water chilling and filtration system at Reino Aventura “needed to cure the virus, necessary before Keiko can be moved to live with other orcas.”
Continued Keefe, “CWR threatened to sue us if we continued our efforts, claiming these efforts somehow interfered with an agreement they believed they had with Keiko’s owners. Keiko s owners consistently stated no such agreement ever existed. We told CWR we would not continue our efforts if they persisted in threatening a lawsuit. We requested that CWR sign a written release so we could continue to help Keiko. So far, CWR has refused.”
I asked both CWR and AMMPA to document their accounts. AMMPA and other sources close to AMMPA promptly sent copies of legal correspondence affirming Keefe s version. But Howard Garrett of CWR retorted, “You just called me a liar! The things I told you are as good as if they were under oath. That doesn t mean they are necessarily true, but it does mean they are true to the best of my knowledge. I didn’t claim we reached a contract with Reino. It was a verbal agreement, to be followed by a written letter of intent.”
But attorney Margaret R. O’Donnell on October 24, 1993 claimed there was a contract, advising AMMPA that CWR was “prepared to pursue all legal remedies available to it for alleged tortious interference with the contractual relationship between CWR and Reino Aventura, conspiracy, and possibly defamation.”
Reino Aventura general manager Oscar Porter denied having made a deal to give up Keiko in a letter to CWR dated November 22, 1993. “Keiko is not for sale, Keiko is not promised to you, Keiko remains our responsibility!” Porter wrote, adding, “You have no authorization from us to use our Keiko, now famous, as the basis for fundraising. In our previous correspondence, we made that clear. Yet you persist in doing so. In our view, this borders on fraudulent activity.”
Along with the “How is Keiko?” bulletin, CWR published a list of 380 purported cetacean releases, most of them by the captive marine mammal industry, compiled by Ken Balcomb. “If post-captive release is lethal, dangerous, and irresponsible as many marine park spokespeople now claim,” Balcolm wrote, “then why has it been done so many times by those very organizations?”
But of the 380 cetaceans released, 272 were orcas caught in mass round-ups during the 1960s and 1970s. None were removed from their native habitat. Only four were held captive longer than they had lived in the wild. Only two were taken from their pods. None were released from marine mammal parks and all the releases occurred at least 15 years ago. No marine mammal park executive now responsible for orcas was in a management post then.
Of the other released cetaceans, 89 were dolphins, 32 of whom were kept in marine mammal parks or under comparable conditions. Sixteen either escaped or were released without follow-up; 12 were released successfully; four were released unsuccessfully.