A disagreement over Keiko the killer whale’s treatment comes in the midst of a national debate on whether wild animals belong in zoos and aquariums.
The controversy over Keiko, star of two “Free Willy” films, hit a high point last week when the chief of animal husbandry at the Oregon Coast Aquarium quit his job, saying the whale had been “exploited beyond belief.”
“It just sickened me to watch it, and I could not do it anymore,” Neil Anderson said.
Oregon animal-rights advocates believe, like many groups across the nation, that captive animals like Keiko should be returned to the wild or shouldn’t be taken in the first place.
Zoos and aquariums, faced with such criticism and increasing public pressure, have changed dramatically in recent years, moving to more natural settings.
Officials at many zoos and aquariums say they share some goals with the activists, such as environmental protection. But in many cases, they argue, to leave animals in the wild is a naive notion that will doom them to the ravages of humans.
“A lot of these people believe there still is a wild left,” said Michael Hutchins, director of conservation and science for the American Zoo and Aquarium Association. “Frankly, there’s not. There is not an area on Earth that is not affected by development.”
In the old days, zoo managers argued that their collections existed as a kind of “Noah’s Ark,” preserving rare species through the generations until the day human population growth ebbed, and they could be released.
Now, Hutchins says, zoos and aquariums have taken on a more realistic and meaningful mission: preserving native habitats and protecting species long before they go extinct. Their focus today is on educating the public about habitat loss.
In a symbolic change, the Bronx Zoo recently renamed itself the Wildlife Conservation Society.
But many animal advocates argue that visitors learn little about the environment from a trip to the zoo. “It’s not science; it’s not a serious classroom experience … You walk through the zoo; you buy a hot dog; you leave.”
In Oregon, Free Willy-Keiko Foundation officials have steadfastly maintained that they want to return Keiko to the wild. Nevertheless, some who have been close to his care question whether he is a viable candidate for release.
The notion of releasing Keiko picked up steam after a veterinarian announced the whale’s improved health gave him a good chance of release to a bay pen in the North Atlantic.