Why Freeing Willy Was the Wrong Thing To Do

Willy was never really free. The killer whale star of the Hollywood movie Free Willy had to be cared for by humans even after he was released and he never successfully integrated with his wild kin. Researchers now say attempts to return him to the wild were misguided.

"We believe the best option for [Willy] was the open pen he had in Norway, with care from his trainers," says Malene Simon of the Greenland Institute of Natural Resources, who participated in efforts to reintegrate the cetacean in the wild and is lead author of the study. "He could swim as much as he wanted to, had plenty of frozen herring – which he was very fond of – and the people that he was attached to kept him active."

The killer whale, whose real name was Keiko, died in December 2003, at about 26 years old. Despite efforts to integrate him with wild killer whales in Iceland towards the end of his life, he proved unable to interact with them or find food.

"While we as humans might find it appealing to free a long-term captive animal," the researchers say in the paper, "the survival and well-being of the animal may be severely impacted in doing so." The only cetaceans that have successfully been returned to the wild have been young and only kept in captivity for short periods.

The team's comments contradict those made by members of the Free Willy-Keiko Foundation, who declared in 2003 that his case had challenged the perception that whales cannot be returned to the wild. But Simon's account of Keiko's last few years shows just how unsuccessful his release was.

Public pressure

Keiko was born into a wild group of killer whales, also called orca, in Icelandic waters. He was captured in 1979 at about two years old and spent over a decade in a small tank in a Mexican amusement park, isolated from others of his species.

It was during this time, in 1993, that Keiko made animal stardom when he "played" a leading role in the hit film Free Willy, which tells the story of a boy who befriends and eventually releases a captive orca.

The film's success engendered an international letter-writing campaign, Free Keiko, which sought to release him into the wild. "There was a strong public pressure to release Keiko to the wild, preferably to his 'family' group in Iceland," say the researchers.

Yielding to this pressure, Keiko's owners transferred him to Iceland and in the summers of 2000 and 2001, he was trained to follow a boat out into the open water where wild orcas were feeding.

Going hungry

In 2002, he was fitted with tracking devices, and once again led out to join the wild orcas. This time, his trainers would hide below deck when Keiko approached in an attempt to minimise human contact. But lacking the necessary social skills, Keiko at first mostly floated motionless at the surface, facing towards the wild pods several hundred metres away.

After 10 days, he returned of his own accord to his penned-off area in a nearby bay. Vets extracted a sample from his stomach – the transparent, slimy liquid they found suggested Keiko had not fed.

Two days later he was led back out to sea. Again he didn't feed, although he did start to make dives. The tracking devices showed that he spent most of his time above 4 metres, and most of his dives were less than 26 metres. In contrast, wild orcas spend most of their dive time between 50 and 75 metres.

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