Originally published on April 9 here and republished with permission from the author.
By Mark Simmons:
Recently, Jean-Michel Cousteau sent a letter to the LA Times. In his letter he called for SeaWorld’s whales to be put in ocean sanctuaries in following the example and success of Keiko’s release. Knowing first-hand the many failures of the Keiko release attempt and the unnecessary suffering inflicted upon that animal, I could not sit quietly and ignore a deceptive narrative being sold to an unsuspecting public. I submitted a response letter to the editor of the LA Times, which was published. Almost immediately, yours truly became the focus of a sensational smear campaign.
When the truth hurts, shoot the messenger. It’s an age-old strategy of deflection. An all-too-common but effective means to dissuade an audience from listening to a whistleblower. It seems I struck a nerve.
Among the barrage of refutations, they claimed I was not the “Director of Husbandry” on the Keiko project and that I was fired from the team shortly after Keiko arrived in Iceland. They say that I am biased and profit by selling dolphins from Taiji and the Solomon Islands to aquariums or zoos around the world. They even suggest my involvement in the Keiko project was that of a SeaWorld spy, a sleeper agent intent on sabotaging the release effort (I kinda like that one).
I’m a firm believer that evil only prospers when good people do nothing to rebuke it.
I, nor my company Ocean Embassy (OE), have ever collected a dolphin, owned a dolphin or sold one. Not in any country (in fact, I’ve never even been to Taiji, Japan). Okay, yes, I have participated in the collection, evaluation, tag and release of hundreds of dolphins; here in the United States and as a member of a government permitted Health & Environmental Risk Assessment project. A project that has produced over 60 peer-reviewed scientific documents on the health of our coastal ecosystems and the animals that depend on them. But I digress.
Between 2005 and 2007, OE responded to a horrible situation in the Solomon Islands setting up medical triage to help animals that were starved near death by a disreputable individual. We released a number of those animals that could be safely returned and managed the transport of remaining animals on behalf of Kerzner International to a new and state of the art facility in Dubai. Thereafter, Ocean Embassy lobbied the government of the Solomon Islands to enforce stricter regulations on their marine resources and insisted that they require a multi-year population study before continuing any exports of marine mammals. We even wrote official letters in partnership with U.S. researchers to block ongoing exports.
Unfortunately, in the Solomon Islands (a nation that hunts dolphins) anyone with a sock-full of cash can do almost anything they want. We lost that battle, left the Solomon Islands and never returned. Ocean Embassy spent over USD $250,000 and ultimately failed to stabilize the situation. It was and is the worst example of what happens when personal greed and political corruption parade under the mask of responsible wildlife management. Those seeking to defame and damage my character fail to have even the most basic facts straight.
Their revision of the Keiko release attempt is no less twisted; bent to their will and agenda. I was the Director of Husbandry. I was not fired, but left of my own volition when the Free Willy/Keiko Foundation board insisted on continuing to place Keiko in harm’s way. “Killing Keiko” is the culmination of five years of work and much more than just my first-hand experiences on the project. It is also the result of collaboration with over 30 members of the front-line release team that spanned Keiko’s time from Mexico City to his death in Norway in 2003.
I left a fair amount of incriminating information out of the book; things I could not unequivocally verify. Such as an alleged admission by Mark Berman (of Earth Island Institute) that they knew from the start Keiko could not survive on his own, nonetheless “he’s the only whale we have to release.” In Oregon, video was staged where Keiko appeared to respond to wild whale vocalizations when in fact his trainers were off camera prompting his responses. There are volumes of examples along these same lines covering negligence to blatant corruption. I did not write about myriad suspect activities that took place for two reasons, either a) they were not directly material to Keiko himself, or b) I was unable to cross-verify the story from more than one source. Everything I did write about in the book “Killing Keiko” is backed up with hard evidence, internal communications, board documents, video and eye-witness accounts from those with official involvement in the project, including my own involvement.
“Keiko, The Untold Story” is a film funded and produced by the same people who were responsible for Keiko and proclaim the project a success. The same people calling for the release of SeaWorld’s whales. The same people now aggressively attacking my character. I can back-up every fact printed in “Killing Keiko” and every statement I have made on the subject. Can they?
- Over 40 individuals were involved in Keiko’s release covering a seven-year span. Why then does “The Untold Story” focus on two individuals present only in Keiko’s last year of life?
- The producers claim Keiko frolicked with wild whales. Where is the footage? Why is every scene of Keiko with wild whales only mere seconds at a time?
- No evidence exists whatsoever that Keiko ever ate on his own. Even gastric samples showed an empty stomach each time he was tested. Keiko repeatedly followed fishing boats and recreational craft and solicited for food from humans. How can they so boldly claim he fed himself when all evidence points to the exact opposite conclusion?
- Keiko spent the first two years in Iceland and every winter thereafter in his bay enclosure. In the summer of 2002, there were 23 days between the time Keiko was left alone at sea 60 miles offshore of Iceland to the time he showed up in Halsa, Norway. This is the only time in that five years that Keiko was without the constant daily support and supervision of the release team. During that period there was no eye-witness sighting of Keiko, only satellite data points plotted on a chart.
- In the winters of 2000, 2001 and 2002 Keiko nearly died from a recurrent respiratory infection. Had it not been for the cocktail of medications he was supplied by the release team, he never would have survived the first winter in Iceland.
The above is a modicum of the reckless claims contradicted by hard evidence and facts. Keiko was never “released.” He never survived on his own, not even a little. Each time they attempted to ween him from his human foster family, Keiko resolutely (and predictably) sought out humans who fondly returned his affections. They petted him, fed him and even got into the water with him. That is, until the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS, now partnered with SeaWorld) moved him to a secluded location in Taknes Bay where he ultimately perished.
When Keiko died, he suffered a drawn-out, slow death promulgated by malnutrition and aggravated through deprivation of everything familiar to him. He did not die “after release,” he died under their inadequate care and on their watch. The attempt to release Keiko was never about what he needed. It was always about the animal rights agenda and proving a point to the world.
All the wishing in the world cannot change these facts. Revising history is not only dishonest, it hurts all of us by ignoring the lessons we must learn in order for progress to be possible. I support the scientific development of “reintroduction.” Given the state of the most studied wild populations of killer whales, it is plausible that reintroduction may become a necessary tool in future preservation plans. However, the release of an animal whose entire life and learned history stems from human care is wholly irresponsible not only with regard to the individual animal involved, but also wild populations that can be exposed to unseen hazards. Case in point, Keiko had a cutaneous papilloma virus believed to be contagious. If only for that reason, he should never have been exposed to wild orca.
Keiko’s story is a cautionary one from which we still have much to learn. I won’t be intimidated or silenced by the derisive tactics and personal defamation employed by Earth Island Institute, HSUS or the producers of “The Untold Story.” Only the truth can set us free.
Mark Simmons, animal behaviorist and author of Killing Keiko, is a former SeaWorld Senior Trainer and was the director of the Animal Behavior Team for the Free Willy/Keiko Release Project.
Today Mark serves as the Executive Vice President of Marine Mammal Consultancy, Ocean Embassy. Simmons has spent nearly three decades working in close contact with Killer Whales, dolphins, and other marine mammals and is a frequently sought speaker and expert in the rescue and rehabilitation of stranded and injured animals.