Killing Keiko (4.5 stars)
Source- review copy
Published by Callinectes Press on 20th October 2014.
I read the Kindle edition. The hardcover is 432 pages.
I genuinely don’t know where to start when reviewing this book as it has left such a lasting impression on me. It’s very, very rare that a work of non-fiction moves me to tears, so I suppose I should start off by saying that I have been fortunate enough to see whales in the wild. Over a decade ago I visited Tysfjord in Norway to watch wild orcas and last year my partner and I visited Baja and spent two weeks watching whales in their own environment. For me, whales belong in the oceans. They don’t belong in zoos, aquariums whatever. They are wild animals who should not be ‘trained’ for human amusement. I don’t mean to rant, but for me there is no middle ground. I’m sure anyone who has witnessed whales in their own habitat completely agrees with this.
Keiko’s story is somewhat different. Keiko was the majestic bull orca whale who was propelled to stardom a couple of decades ago as the whale in the ‘Free Willy’ movie. At the end of the movie, ‘Willy’ was released back into the ocean after being kept as the star attraction in a theme park and swam into the sunset, reunited with his family once more.
The movie itself prompted a huge campaign to free Keiko, when it was discovered that he had been taken from his own orca pod in Icelandic waters at the age of two-years-old and had spent his entire life in an amusement park in Mexico, confined to a tiny tank in cruel conditions and bullied by other whales. Friendly in nature, he was completely acclimatised to human company and had been conditioned (trained) to become nothing more than a money-spinner for an aquarium, his dorsal fin had flopped and his skin was badly diseased. In a sad case of life imitating art, his story echoed that of his movie misnomer, only in this case, a happy ending did not look altogether likely. Schoolchildren and large environmental organisations soon clubbed together in their droves in order to raise funds to try and release Keiko back into the wild- and Killing Keiko recounts that famous story from a man who himself was at the heart of the project.
So, it’s pretty obvious that this book isn’t going to have a happy ending from its title. Anyone familiar with Keiko’s desperate plight knows that already. What they probably don’t know though is the details behind the mammoth journey to try and rehabilitate the whale and get him back into the ocean and the amount of manpower it took to try and accomplish the impossible. I read this book with a sinking feeling, yet it gripped me at the same time. I knew the final bittersweet outcome yet I was still impressed by the author’s commitment (along with the majority of his team) in caring for Keiko. Releasing a captive whale into the ocean was simply unprecedented; particularly one who had spent sixteen years of his life away from it, dependent on the care of humans (whose fault was that??) for food and medicine and it was always going to be a herculean task to accomplish. Doubt clouded the project from the outset- could Keiko ever be free?
The Free Willy Keiko Project (FWKP) was set up in Iceland to try to condition Keiko to be released back into the ocean and by the sounds of it faced countless obstacles from the start. It did not help that so many people involved had different approaches as to how to deal with Keiko in such an unprecedented situation. The book does a great job in describing the conditions Keiko is kept in his new island habitat (a sheltered bay on an island chain) and the behavioural conditioning he is put through to try and adjust him into becoming familiar with his ocean territory once more. There is some beautiful sensory writing and accurate portrayals of the environment- I could almost feel the chill of the wind seeping through the pages.
There are some photographs included within the book too- though not as many as I had anticipated. I think a few more photos (and spread out at that) would have enhanced the content of the book a little better. It is a pretty chunky read and some photographs interspersed within the text and not merely bunched together in the middle would have lifted it somewhat.
My heart broke at so many points during this book but it angered me too. Recognisable emotions and behaviours in the whale, such as frustration and confusion repeatedly come to the fore as Keiko responds to his new training regime, which is repeatedly altered by different trainers and ultimately contradicted over and over. I also felt so sad that when he encountered a pod of wild whales for the first time, Keiko was just utterly terrified. How can a whale of such magnitude be so terrified by something that any other whale would find natural? Devastating.
I do genuinely believe after reading this book that the vast majority of people involved with the FWKP wanted to help Keiko, it just appears from what this book suggests at least, that a lot of them went about it in a very misguided manner. There were clashes of egos, misunderstandings and jealousies that really did not help the animal in question whatsoever and it seemed from the start that had these been managed it could have been much more beneficial for the animal’s welfare. Like Mark A. Simmons himself says, perhaps if consistency had been applied throughout the project (both in training and other aptitudes), FWKP might not have ended in the way it did.
Real life just isn’t like the movies and in this instance there is no happy ending for anyone involved- especially Keiko. Stories of animal cruelty/abuse always move me to despair yet it is important that lessons are learned from what happened. I also personally believe it is also important that whales are not captured from their natural environment and placed in theme parks in the first place, which is where I suppose my opinion differs to that of the author’s- himself a former killer whale trainer who throughout the entire book does not bad mouth his former employers at Sea World once, which I found somewhat irritating (though he does go for the jugular for one of the ex-Sea World veterinarians and justifiably so). That being said, it is looking unlikely that captive orcas can ever again be released into the wild, judging by Keiko’s experience, so the whole contentious issue just becomes a vicious, desperate circle.
I have given this book 4.5 stars as I did find the introduction to the book somewhat clunky (it was contributed by a different author) and I was conscious throughout that we were only ever hearing one side of the story. Killing Keiko also grew a tad dry in places when the author talked (badmouthed) some of his former colleagues on the project- admittedly some of their intentions seemed slightly less altruistic and inexperienced, but the author and his close friend are portrayed to be the only real voices of reason throughout the whole project and I find that hard to comprehend. I personally just wanted to hear about Keiko.
I would also add that if anyone out there reading this still believes in the validity of outdated, criminal institutions like Sea World or in keeping such magnificent creatures in tanks to perform for the public, that they watch the movie ‘Black Fish.’ Enough said….