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Killing Keiko

August 11, 2014

Free Willy to Killing Keiko: Adventures on the high seas of the North Atlantic

This Thursday, Aug. 14, marks a notable and exciting Science on Tap event as part of Georgia Aquarium’s lecture series. We are honored to welcome renowned animal behaviorist and author Mark A. Simmons, for the launch of his compelling book, “Killing Keiko.” This book not only recounts the true and tragic story of Free Willy’s release into the wild after rehabilitation, but opens readers’ eyes to the importance of animals in human care.

Below is a personal letter from Simmons himself, opening up about his connection to the Keiko Release Project and what ultimately inspired him to write “Killing Keiko.”

I’ll never forget meeting Keiko for the first time. I had come directly from a decade working with many other killer whales in a zoological setting. It was clear to me, almost immediately, that this animal was very different. It seemed almost as if he’d forgotten, or never knew, that he was a killer whale. Unlike any orca I had known, Keiko did not possess one predatory bone in his body. He lived for the times when the release staff would spend hours playing in the waters of his sea pen. He carried them on his back, rolled to and fro as they scratched his belly and often pushed them high into the air on the tip of his rostrum. In between the interactions, Keiko pined for the continued affection of human contact. No telltale sign of an imposing majestic killer whale revealed itself in this gentle giant.

Keiko at Keiko's Sea Pen Facility in Iceland

The same qualities that made Keiko so special to those who knew him also threatened any real chance at his surviving a harsh and unforgiving wild. I knew the odds were stacked heavily against our beloved charge, but I also believed we had the ability to provide him the best chance. Crafting a meticulous strategy of reprogramming, I was driven to find the bull killer locked somewhere deep inside.

I joined the Keiko Release Project as the director of husbandry at the start of 1999. Applied behavioral science was my wheelhouse, my area of discipline. It was my job to design Keiko’s rehabilitation program - create the blueprint by which he would transition from a life with humans to becoming a wild animal. It was also my responsibility to implement that plan.

What transpired over the course of Keiko’s release has never been shared with the public. Killing Keiko is a cautionary tale, told not only from my experiences, but through years of collaboration with many front-line members of the release team spanning Keiko’s life and death in the North Atlantic.

It’s taken me some years to finish this book. I doubt it will ever erase the incredible pain of having to say goodbye, but then, that was never the purpose behind the telling. The overwhelming challenges Keiko faced carry with them lessons far too valuable to leave buried in the past; they need to be shared. Also, that Keiko lived free as a wild whale in his last years of life is a fantasy on par with the Hollywood version of “Willy.” I am not okay with the public being misled. He died needlessly and suffered greatly throughout his time at sea, and until now, these facts have been callously and purposely hidden.

Keiko Swimming Beside the Walk Boat in Open Water

It will be my honor to share more about Keiko during Georgia Aquarium’s “Science on Tap” series which is also is the venue for the launch of my book Killing Keiko, The True Story of Free Willy’s Return to the Wild. You can join us the evening of Thursday, August 14th, where you’ll hear a first-hand account of, my personal journey, alongside the world’s most famous whale during his release to Icelandic waters.

Given recent emotional calls for the release of killer whales and other marine mammals from human care, I firmly believe the truth of Keiko’s journey is more important now than ever before.

I can’t imagine a better place from which to launch the publication of Killing Keiko. Georgia Aquarium stands tall among the most qualified, relevant and aggressive protectors of marine wildlife today. I’m looking forward to Thursday night and hope you’ll meet me for a memorable evening in the Oceans Ballroom to honor Keiko’s life and discover lessons yet to be shared.

- Mark A. Simmons

Science on Tap with Mark A. Simmons will take place Thursday, Aug. 14 at 6:30 p.m. This is an extraordinary opportunity and we hope you can join us. To learn more about the event and purchasing tickets, please visit us here online.

For the latest Georgia Aquarium updates, follow us on Facebook and Twitter.

Pre-order your copy of “Killing Keiko” today. You can also follow Killing Keiko on Facebook and Twitter.

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