The Thunder Child

Science Fiction and Fantasy
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Vol 1, Issue #3
"Stand By For Mars!"
March 2006

Non-Fiction Book Reviews
by Caroline Miniscule

Freeing Keiko: The Journey of a Killer Whale
.....From Free Willy to the Wild

Kenneth Brower, Gotham Books
316 pages, 8 pgs color photos, no index

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Author Kenneth Brower, an environmental activist,is a journalist who has had articles published in Atlantic Monthly and National Geographic. Among his other published books are The Starship and the Canoe and A Song for Satewal.

In 1979, a young killer whale (perhaps one or two years old) was captured off the coast of the East Fiords of Iceland. Given the name Siggi (later changed to Kago), he was given to a small aquarium in Iceland. After a few years he was sold to Marineland in Ontario, Canada, who intended to train him for sale to an amusement park. After five years in Canada, he was sold to Reino Aventuro, an amusement park outside Mexico City. Here, he is renamed Keiko.

In 1993, Keiko starred in the movie Free Willy, about a young boy who determines to return a captive orca to the wild. As a contingency of his appearing in the role, the movie producers intend to give their star, Keiko, his freedom as well. But Keiko had grown up and spent fourteen years in captivity. He had never had to feed himself, let alone hunt down and then kill his own food. He'd never interacted with his own kind, having spent his time in Mexico only with dolphins and humans. How could he be made free?

In Freeing Keiko, Kenneth Brower recounts Keiko's journey from captivity to his return to the wild, to his eventual death in Norway on December 11, 2003. Throughout this story, one's sympathy for Keiko remains absolute. One's sympathy for Brower, however, quickly disappears.

Brower likens Keiko's history to an Icelandic saga, and he does not tell it impartially. Brower is an 'abolitionist'—he wishes to bring to a halt the use of dolphins and orcas as amusement park attractions. While in one sense this reviewer agrees with that view, there's no need to be vicious about it.

For example, Brower points out that only once in all their history has a captive killer whale killed a human. His comment:

That incident, in which Tillicum, a captive whale in British Columbia, pinned his trainer to the pool bottom, drowning her, is generally deemed to have been horseplay, just a misunderstanding, a simple failure of the whale to appreciate the difference between human breath-hold capacity and his own. But could the episode have been something darker? Could it have been, if not murder, then justifiable homicide?

Justifiable homicide, indeed. But Brower takes that notion further. Brower quotes Keiko's Mexican trainer, Karla:

"He's my best friend. He's everything to me. He's really gentle. He really cares for us. He kind of talks to me, in his way. Ih I have problems in my life, I will come over and talk to Keiko and tell him about it. He sits there and pays so much attention to me. And if I'm sad, he'll be sad. He'll let you know he's there for you."

Brower's response? "In those sultry Mexican afternoons, as Karla poured out her heart to Keiko, who seemed so sympathetic, could his real thoughts have drifted to pinning her for eight or nine minutes to the bottom of the pool?"

Table of contents

Book One: Mexico
1. Bent Fin
2. Lost World
3. Gulliver
4. Second Sight
5. Hollywood
6. Free Willy
7. Memo From Carthage
8. The Tail
9. Mona Lisa

Book Two: Oregon
10. Billionaire
11. Blowholed Behemoth
12. Boomer Balls
13. Sequelae
14. Bear Shirts
15. Rift Zones
16. The Galactic Federation
17. Listening to the Blowhole
18. Red Ants
19. Son of Man-Fish
20. Grandissimus
21. Austronauts
22. Eleven Years of Solitude
23. Steelhead

Book Three: Iceland
24. Ultissima Thule
25. Aurora Borealis
26. Globemaster
27. Five Hundred Killer Whales
28. Seatabs (R)
29. Coven of Eels
30. Turk-Gudda
31. Storms
32. Olafsdòttir
33. Whale Walking
34. Millennium
35. Regime Change

Book Four: Norway
36. Norwegian Sea
37. The Creature From Korsnes Fiord
38. Blood and Ice
39. Taknes Bay
40. Finis
41. A Pyramid of Stones

In other words Brower criticizes orca trainers for anthropomorphizing their charges, yet he is as guilty as they are in attributing human emotions to them.

Brower's ill-natured personality intrudes again in chapter 16, Galactic Federation, in which he finds it necessary to devote a whole chapter to poking fun at those people who claim to be psychics and able to communicate with captive killer whales. Why make fools of them—after all they are merely people who also want captive whales and dolphins released as he does.

Despite its flaws, Freeing Keiko is a must read. It's a study in logistics—millions of dollars were spent to prepare Keiko for his release, from moving him from Mexico City to an aquarium in Oregon where he was able to recover his health and have much more room to swim, play...and perform for the public, to his transport to Iceland, to his release there, to his eventual death from pneumonia off the coast of Norway.

The book ends just after Keiko's death. Unfortunately, Brower does not go back and give the subsequent histories of all those who participated in his life, which is a pity. One would have liked to have known.

Did Keiko want the freedom that the men and women of the Keiko Foundation tried to give him? Brower believes so. Read the book, conduct other research, and decide for yourself.

External sites:

1) Free Willy-Keiko Foundation
2) Killer Whales: A SeaWorld Education Department Resource
3) British Columbia Wild Killer Whale Adoption Program

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