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With Willy going free, debate over captive mammals

Controversy about the ethics of keeping marine mammals captive is growing  
September 7, 1998
Web posted at: 4:01 p.m. EDT (2001 GMT)

In this story:

VALLEJO, California (CNN) -- Keiko, the killer whale that leaps to freedom in the fictional movie "Free Willy," is set to return home this week, a trip animal activists consider long overdue. But at marine theme parks where whales and dolphins have been entertaining crowds for decades, employees say no one cares more about the captive creatures than they do.

Keiko will be flown from the Oregon Coast Aquarium to the Wesman Islands in Iceland, near where he was born, for a new home in a free-floating ocean pen.

What do you think about Keiko's release into the wild?

His handlers will then determine if Keiko, who has lived most of his life in captivity, can adapt enough to the ocean environment to be set free.

Don Knapp on the ongoing controversy over marine mammals
Windows Media 28K 56K

'Circus-type slavery'

Keiko never lived at The New Marine World (formerly Marine World Africa U.S.A.), a theme park near San Francisco that estimates its own captive killer whales and dolphins have splashed and thrilled 65 million people over the years.

But Mark Berman of the Earth Island Institute isn't impressed. He argues that all such "Willys" should be freed. It's wrong, Berman says, to take them from their mothers at a young age for "this circus-type slavery." (Audio 140 K/12 sec. AIFF or WAV sound)

Marine mammal activists say Japanese fishermen captured a pod of 10 killer whales last year. Half were released while the other five were to be sold to Japanese aquariums for a quarter million dollars each. But within four months, two of the captured orcas died.

"It's a worldwide trade that's gone on for too many years," says Berman.

The New Marine World's own orca, Yaka, died of pneumonia last year at age 32. The park says it won't replace Yaka with a killer whale from the wild because of concerns of negative public reaction.

'We really love these animals'

Still, it's standing room only at the park's three killer whale shows each day.

"I don't think anybody cares, or has stronger feelings toward these animals than the people who work with them on a daily basis," says Mike Megaw, a whale trainer at The New Marine World.

The park insists all of its dolphins are captive bred and all of its mammals are well-treated.

"We really love these animals," says Terry Samansky, curator of marine mammals at The New Marine World. "We couldn't (work with them) if we didn't honestly feel these animals were happy and that they were having a healthy, productive life."

The ethical controversy of using whales and dolphins to serve humankind also extends to the U.S. military. The Navy had nearly a hundred of them in training for purposes such as finding undersea mines.

Budget cuts sent some of the mammals to other research groups, including the University of California at Santa Cruz. Billy Hurley, a whale trainer at the school, says the dolphins that his research team got were so dependent on handouts, he doubts they could survive at sea.

Another researcher said she had mixed emotions about keeping marine mammals. While they help us experience, understand and connect with their world, the woman said, they remain trapped in ours.

Correspondent Don Knapp contributed to this report.

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