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Marine Artist Releases Notes on Keiko’s Failed Release

Marine artist and college Student, Eli Smith, published a serious of notes that he took on went wrong in the doomed Keiko Project as explained in the book, 'Killing Keiko'.

By Jenna DeedyPublished 4 years ago 16 min read
Keiko during his time at the Oregon Coast Aquarium in 1998. Some people believe that it would have been better for him to have stayed in Oregon rather than be subjected to a dangerous return-to-the-wild project. Photographer is Unknown.

Eli Smith is an Arizona-based college student and freelance artist with a focus on marine wildlife. He is also a big-time patron of well-managed, and scientifically accredited zoos and aquariums like SeaWorld, and the Dolphin Quest facilities. He hopes to one day be able to work with dolphins and other marine mammals full time when he is done with college. Recently, Smith read a memoir titled Killing Keiko.

The book, which was written by marine mammal expert Mark Simmons, depicts a series of events that took place between 1999-2003 when a group of animal rights extremists was focused on a doomed attempt to release Keiko, the orca who starred in the 1993 film Free Willy. However, a very large portion of the book focuses on Simmons’ time working with Keiko, the colleagues who worked on the project with him and the problems behind what could be considered one of the worst cases of animal abuse on record.

The memoir also shares a lot of behind-the-scenes moments that went on during the years the release project was in operation, the millions of the dollars that were wasted away, and a staff that mainly had very little to no expertise in killer whale husbandry, and care. Smith took about 67 different notes while he read the book on what went wrong during the project and how the mistakes that took place could have been prevented. He has since gone on to publish the notes on his own website, which is focused on his artwork. However, he has granted me permission to share them with all of you, the readers, for educational purposes.

  1. Upon the time the book begins the physical introduction with Keiko in Iceland, it was apparent that Mark Simmons (Killing Keiko Author—Ex-trainer of the Keiko Release Project,) noted that Keiko was over-weight. This was a result of the team feeding him high amounts of herring that he did not need.
  2. The team that was previously a part of the project before Keiko’s transport to Iceland showed inconsistency in training sessions, allowing Keiko to exhibit lethargic (“lazy”) behavior with reinforcement. This proved in effect of poor criteria from Keiko in his training.
  3. The same training team also introduced a delta SD to tell Keiko when sessions were over. This may not seem like a big deal, but a delta SD can cause frustration or anticipation while creating a negative response. Something like that flies in the face of positive reinforcement, where trainers are supposed to end a session on a positive note or behavior an animal performs. This is supposed to keep the experience positive. Keiko would often showcase negative behavior in response to the delta SD.
  4. Over-usage of the bridge (the whistle a trainer blows in response to a correctly performed behavior) was seen often in the earlier days of the project. Results from this can create an irritated whale.
  5. Lack of human interaction, to train Keiko to be more explorative of his ocean world in the beginning, caused fewer positive interactions in Keiko’s environment in his free time.
  6. 6Lack of contra-freeloading to encourage Keiko to put effort into his physical in his release plan resulted in lethargic and unmotivated reactions.
  7. Prior to Robin Friday’s and Mark Simmons’s arrival, the current training team was freely interacting with Keiko in the water even outside of training sessions. How waterwork was supposed to help relate to Keiko’s release and survival, away from man, doesn’t seem to make sense to me.
  8. A fair portion of the caretaker and training team were unqualified in the care of an 11,000 lb. killer whale. Some have never worked in exotic, or marine mammal care especially.
  9. The Free Willy/Keiko Foundation did not recognize the factors that made Keiko not a suitable candidate for release. This is more detailed discussed further down.
  10. Direct communication by the Free Willy/Keiko Foundation to the “on-ground” team didn’t happen often. Most of the direct communications occurred only through Ocean Future Society’s Charles Vinick when he was present on site.
  11. There was a reoccurring romanticized idea by the general public and Free Willy/Keiko Foundation that Keiko would simply “figure it out” when released. More details further down.
  12. Throughout the earlier days of the project, many of the employees were uneducated in the principles of psychology that’s used in animal training to prepare Keiko for release. (This relates to Note 8)
  13. Howard Garrett, an animal rights activist and reporter based in Washington State, claimed Robin & Mark’s presence to be sabotage; concerning Free Willy/Keiko Foundation with his assumptions causing a questionable atmosphere amongst the Board and team.
  14. Dr. Lanny Cornell’s plan to release Keiko was a very simplistic, 4-step list in vague detail, and did give any valuable information in true release protocol.
  15. Lack of understanding of positive reinforcement continued by some staff members. (This relates to Notes 3, 4, 6, & 8)
  16. One of the Board (won’t be mentioned), who visited the Bay Pen, believed Keiko could “understand human speech”. She persisted to talk in a conversational tone to Keiko. Believing the whale was “advocating for treatment of whales by humans in society for his wild brethren”.
  17. After her contract termination, Karen McRae kept in contact with the Free Willy/Keiko Foundation Board, giving her input into the project; interfering in a job she no longer had.
  18. Without full experienced trainer supervision, the staff kept breaking and rebelling protocol through continuing waterwork, delta SD, overfeeding attempts, and over-use of the bridge.
  19. Dr. Lanny Cornell did not pursue any regular husbandry scheduling, resulting in the return of Keiko’s papillomavirus.
  20. A change in fish that was given to Keiko in his diet was switched with consideration of negative effects by the freezer manager. This caused a serious decline in Keiko’s appetite.
  21. Being in a sea pen was not easy, during storms that inflicted Vestmannaeyjar and Klettsvik Bay, Keiko had to continuously swim in place to prevent being slammed by the waves into the sides of the Bay Pen.
  22. Future Ocean Society and Dr. Lanny Cornell denounced any and all behavioral modification objectives, insisting that “avoidance tying behavioral modification to very specific, clear objectives”. In other words, they claimed anything involving behavior and psychological principles would not help Keiko’s release, although the goals were behavioral-based.
  23. Dr. Lanny Cornell orchestrated showdowns at the Free Willy/Keiko Foundation against the behavior release plan, written by Robin Friday, to regard nothing but pseudo-science and inaccuracies about them.
  24. Future Ocean Society encouraged staff to lie to the anxious press about Keiko’s ability of foraging. Saying he was chasing down live fish at the time, he was doing no such thing.
  25. Free Willy/Keiko Foundation assumed Keiko would “run to freedom like a prisoner released from prison”. Assumption Keiko knew what to do when by himself in the ocean was an extreme overestimation.
  26. When Keiko was being trained to swim out of his pen and into the bay, he would become frustrated: slapping his flukes, avoiding the gate (inside the pen), staying on the opposite side of the pen habitat, and facing away from the gate. A clear indication he did not want to participate outside the pen.
  27. In order to make Keiko more independent, a no interaction training policy was put into effect to faze out human interaction. Comparable to solitary confinement.
  28. A pier was set to be built very close to the Bay Pen. Ocean Future Society scrambled to gain paperwork to postpone the project. The blasts, made by fracking, to create the foundation of the pier would’ve ultimately destroyed Keiko’s hearing.
  29. Dr. Lanny Cornell rarely visited the facility, and never met a majority of the staff for several seasons.
  30. Dr. Lanny Cornell did not have permits to transport biological samples out of Iceland.
  31. During a session to attach del-rins (or tracking devices) to Keiko’s dorsal fin, Dr. Lanny Cornell used a utility drill to create holes in the fin. He did not pre-assess where to drill in the dorsal fin and instead, made several quick drills. The protocol is to drill in avoiding blood vessels in the thinner part of the fin, preferably in the back. Keiko resulted in obtaining several bloody drill wounds. After the incident, Dr. Lanny Cornell proceeded to reinforce Keiko himself, when Keiko came out of his line-up without a bridge blown. Reinforcing this can cause the animal to choose that at any time it can stop during a husbandry procedure, such as the one described.
  32. Dr. Lanny Cornell was forced to resign by SeaWorld Orlando for breaking many protocols. Why did the Free Willy/Keiko Foundation hire a vet who has a sketchy record? (This requires further detail from the book)
  33. Upon Keiko’s release trips out to sea, several (too many) boats were assigned to follow the procedure. Joining the walk-boat Heppin, a secondary vessel was also needed, along with a helicopter to watch Keiko’s movements and spotting wild whales. But following these three crafts were two or three more vessels filled with Board Members of the Free Willy/Keiko Foundation, rich donors to the project as “spectators” and press. All this interfering in an experiment that was unknown to work.
  34. Ocean Future Society was planning a documentary, of all the footage collected of Keiko’s release, to put both the team’s and the Cousteau’s names in the history books for “successfully releasing the first captive killer whale into the wild”. The documentary never aired, but the footage from this project is in another film by the Cousteau’s called Ocean Adventures: Call of the Killer Whale in 2009. This filming disregarded the nature of this project along with its science.
  35. Just before Keiko’s first step to wild reintroduction, Robin Friday was removed from giving his educated plan and enforcement to the Free Willy/Keiko Foundation Board.
  36. Robin Baird (not Robin Friday)—Orca Researcher/Animal Rights Activist, wanted to obtain tissue samples from the first pod Keiko was to come into contact with. This act endangered Keiko’s wellbeing in creating a positive atmosphere for the introduction and harassing the wild population of killer whales who aren’t normally followed by a flotilla of vessels with a strange whale they’ve never met.
  37. The training team never resolved their disagreements on the project, which could’ve partially resulted in an unfavorable outcome.
  38. Suspicion grew near the beginning of Keiko’s release that the Free Willy/Keiko Foundation would abandon him in the ocean, expecting him to choose whales over people.
  39. Keiko’s first introduction to a wild pod was disastrous. A five-hour pursuit by the flotilla of vessels on the wild whales, tagging by Robin Baird on the pod (mentioned in Note 36), up-close harassment by the Viking II and her paparazzi, and then barricading the wild pod with Keiko’s presence by the flotilla chasing from behind.
  40. Dr. Lanny Cornell persisted that the Viking II was to keep moving on course, even when all the vessels were ordered to shut off their engines or go neutral and hold the position. This was the move that devastated the first introduction.
  41. Dr. Lanny Cornell adversely disagreed with retrieving Keiko after he went missing during his first introduction.
  42. After Keiko’s first introduction to a wild pod failed, the crew aboard the Heppin spent more than twenty-four hours locating, retrieving and bringing Keiko back to Klettsvik Bay. Keiko showed extreme signs of stress, fear, and fatigue. Keiko barely put any pace up with boat the whole night.
  43. Robin Baird relayed on the radio to the Heppin from Viking II the location of a pod of female orcas on the south side of Vestmannaeyjar. This happened the early morning of the day after the first introduction (see Notes 4). Remember, that Keiko and Heppin were still trying to ‘limp’ back to the pen after the full night retrieval. Robin Baird stated, “He can make it”, even though he could not assess Keiko’s physical condition. (end of pg. 323-325)
  44. Free Willy/Keiko Foundation & Ocean Future Society kept the first introduction reports confidential, despite the protocols of honesty that were set in place.
  45. After the immediate resignation of Robin Friday, Mark Simmons, Kelly Reed, and Tom Sanders along with members of the staff who were involved with the project started to playfully get back into the water with Keiko.
  46. Despite the first failed attempt, Keiko was forced to participate in another introduction less than 48 hours after the first. He was still showing signs of fatigue and exhaustion.
  47. Jim Horton, (hired a little later on) a former SeaWorld trainer & rescuer, found a lung virus booming inside Keiko causing peak respiratory problems that were life-threatening. The result would mean ‘permanent human care’ to treat the condition. Attempting to release his findings to the board, Dr. Lanny Cornell ignored and disregarded the diagnosis; the findings were never released to the public.
  48. The current crew tried cutting down Keiko’s diet by a third of its original size. Attempting to get Keiko to participate in wild feeding behavior with wild whales, Keiko refused multiple times to take part in any wild feeding behavior.
  49. Charles Vinick of Ocean Future Society created stories to the Free Willy/Keiko Foundation, Humane Society of the United States, and Jean-Michel Cousteau that Keiko “would be released in a matter of days”, even though he could not guarantee it. The rumors went as far as lying to the media and press that Keiko “was competing with wild whales during feeding frenzies”.
  50. Video crews, on a boat that assisted in Keiko’s wild introductions, interfered in these sessions. In addition, the boats would start corralling wild orcas towards Keiko’s position with the Heppin.
  51. A French photographer, known by the name of “Sammy” (hired by Jean-Michel Cousteau), repeatedly swam with a wild juvenile orca during introductions. Jeff Foster encouraged the swim, even going as far as attempting to feed the calf herring.
  52. Craig McCaw, a billionaire who was permitted to swim with Keiko when he was in Oregon, funded the project with his wife for several years. The money fell short because of a divorce, funding stopped, but the project kept on it’s course.
  53. Despite how many associations Keiko was given to eat live herring, he never once caught or ate a wild fish. He would play with it for a short period of time or parade it as a prize.
  54. Because funds were dwindling; staffing changed, cuts were made, salaries dropped, and office officials from the Free Willy/Foundation Board were made apart of the training team.
  55. Keiko’s condition with his respiratory system worsened every winter and the Free Willy/Keiko Foundation Board, Humane Society of the United States, and Ocean Future Society ignored the warning signs of his health dwindling.
  56. When Ocean Future Society could not handle the cost of the project, Charles Vinick handed the leadership position to Dr. Naomi Rose of the Humane Society of the United States. Dr. Naomi Rose, who has only studied wild resident orcas of British Columbia from a distance, believed behavioral science had no place in Keiko’s freedom. She proclaimed in a quote that “she would win”with her biological Master’s.
  57. Former SeaLand of the Pacific trainer (former trainer of Tilikum), Colin Baird, was hired to take training lead by direction Dr. Naomi Rose. His past experience involved using aversive training techniques when at SeaLand, and it continued with Keiko.
  58. Combination of low budgeting, hiring of negligent employees, people with no experience or education of killer whale care, and without proper training of positive reinforcement Keiko was deprived of choice from everything this point forward.
  59. Staff reduction was so strictly small and short by 2002. A boat captain named Michael Parks (member of the pen building team) became the lead trainer in Keiko’s daily walk boat sessions. He had no prior experience working with orcas. He used aversely dominant scenarios – resulting in Keiko experiencing helplessness.
  60. Stomach samples of gastric juices in Keiko’s digestive system were taken to see if he had been foraging. The results failed to show that Keiko was evidently feeding—he was not feeding according to the analysis. This fact would be ignored later on by Jean-Michel Cousteau.
  61. In a report to the US Marine Mammal Commission by Jeff Foster, Stephen Claussen, Jim Horton, Tracy Karmuza, Brian O’Neill, Greg Schorr, Jennifer Schorr, and Steve Sinelli expressing several concerns about Keiko’s condition and reintroduction (pg.362-369). It is reported on pg. 366 that Keiko followed a cruise ship when introduced to a wild pod in one session.
  62. Dr. Naomi Rose continued to bash behaviorism in the media: “This isn’t a show. We don’t need trainers to release a whale. We need biologists.” She associated behaviorism to be “artificial” and conducive to only the zoological community. These claims despite the “show” Free Willy/Keiko Foundation was putting on for the media and press for money.
  63. Free Willy/Keiko Foundation gave the quote “better dead than fed” within the vicinity of the work environment.
  64. In Norway, Fernando Ugarte assessed Keiko’s condition, merely only by visually assessing his appearance.
  65. In Norway, the current team gathered a girth measurement of Keiko. However, other forms of measurements that would be necessary to collect on a cetacean were not considered due to lack of education and experience. The data collection like blood samples, ultrasound of the blubber layer, evaluation of the post-nuchal fat behind the blowhole, and muscular condition. The team was not aware that killer whales can go without food for six weeks without any physical effect on their body; Keiko was at sea for three weeks.
  66. Dr. Lanny Cornell took the assessment made in Note 65 and reported Keiko was healthy without running further tests to be certain.
  67. Keiko died Thursday, December 12, 2003. A combination of constant irresponsibility in waterwork, denying behavioral and psychological principles, subjective thinking, fast-acting on imagination, unproven data, greed, romanticized ideology, lack of teamwork, pride, image retaining, inexperienced employees, and aversive training caused Keiko’s demise. His health challenges, training, what was in the best interest of him, what he wanted, and more were never considered. All this happened because of human arrogance, and Keiko, a whale with an extremely big heart, paid a price he never deserved. Keiko didn’t just die, he was killed. Keiko “became the most famous case of animal abuse the world could not fathom” nor would fully know.

If you are a regular reader who is considering reading Simmons’ book on his time with the Keiko Project, please do and Smith’s notes can help better understand how the failure of the project can serve as a very important lesson on why we cannot let limit ourselves into selfish thinking and let go of our own biased thinking in favor of objective thinking in order to understand what is real, and what is not. Once again, a big thanks to Eli Smith for letting me publish his notes for this article.

wild animals

About the Creator

Jenna Deedy

Zoo and Aquarium Professional, Educator, Cosplayer, Writer and B.A. in Psychology whose got a lot to share when it comes to animals, zoos, aquariums, conservation, and more.

Instagram: @jennacostadeedy

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