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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Captive and Free

Air Date: Week of

Paul Forestell, a marine mammologist and Director of Research and Education for the Pacific Whale Foundation in Hawaii talks with Steve Curwood about the complex scientific issues involved in returning captive sea mammals to the expansive ocean.


CURWOOD: The question of Lolita's fate has generated a real-life debate that is reminiscent of the Free Willy movies, which stirred up feelings in favor of returning whales and dolphins to their natural settings. But the practical problems are complex and challenging. Paul Forestell is a marine mammologist and director of research and education for the Pacific Whale Foundation, in Kihei, Hawaii. He's had considerable experience studying and working with both captive and free cetaceans in the ocean. Dr. Forestell maintains Lolita is a prime candidate for reintroduction, but he's concerned that science doesn't know enough just yet to be sure her release would succeed.

FORESTELL: There are a whole range of difficulties that involve the changing physiology of the animal, the possibility or the danger of introducing foreign pathogens into the area where you would place the animal. Whales and dolphins, as we know, are highly social animals, and they need to be able to fit back into the social fabric of the group from which they were removed. A dolphin in its own environment, or a whale, is going to have to withstand a wide range of depth, water temperatures, water clarity, water condition challenges, that are not part of what such an animal would face in captivity. So over an extended period of time, it's ability and its, even its knowledge base, its learning base about how to deal with that wide range of habitat types is going to either be nonexistent or much reduced.

CURWOOD: So you're saying this is like taking somebody out of the city and putting them back in the jungle and they never really were there before.

FORESTELL: I think it's very much like that, yeah. But I think to conclude that because there are problems there that it's not worth exploring, solving those problems, is rather turning a blind eye to what we know today about the complexity and intelligence of whales and dolphins. It seems to me that, if there is an opportunity to be able to either capture animals or hold animals in facilities and engage in that primarily as a commercial activity, that there should be an obligation to figure out ways to make sure that if necessary, animals could be reintroduced or released.

CURWOOD: What do you think it would take to be able to put Lolita back? Does she need to have a halfway house?

FORESTELL: Yes, I think -- I think there would first of all have to be a series of training programs in-house, essentially in the display facility in which she is now, in order to ensure there's a certain level of medical readiness. That behaviorally, she is able to capture fish and be able to feed on live prey. Essentially, then, there could be a series of transitions to a more and more ocean-like setting. Ultimately, I suppose, one would argue for a kind of large ocean pen in which she could be left to assess her medical readiness to be able to go out on her own, and to explore the likelihood that if she were in the vicinity where old pod mates could be found, whether or not in fact they do show an interest in each other and do give an indication that she would be essentially accepted back into the group.

CURWOOD: I'm afraid we probably can't get through this interview without talking about Keiko, who played Willy in the movie Free Willy.


CURWOOD: Now, Keiko is going from its tank in a Mexican marine park to a new home in Oregon. From your perspective, Paul Forestell, what's been the impact of the film Free Willy on public consciousness in this area?

FORESTELL: Well certainly there, as a result of the first release, there was a tremendous upsurge in interest in the display industry and orca and an outpouring of concern about keeping animals in captivity. Fundamentally, however, I think that Free Willy, or movies like Free Willy, have about as much relevance to understanding the natural history of whales and dolphins as Pocahontas, the movie Pocahontas has to understanding the history of Indians in America. I have a real concern about the so-called attempts to educate the public about whales and dolphins, that are happening today. I think there is education perhaps going on, but I'm afraid that it's in a very wrong direction.

CURWOOD: Tell me what you mean.

FORESTELL: Well, one of the things that really catalyzed it for me is a recent commercial I saw on television advertising Barbie dolls, and in this particular case it was an advertisement for a Baywatch Barbie doll, that comes complete with a stranded dolphin that Barbie has saved. And this effort to sort of develop these corporate icons of whales and dolphins are really creating a very comic book image, in my view, about who and what whales and dolphins are. We've really seen an interesting change in human attitudes toward whales and dolphins over the past 25 years or so. You know, what began as a kind of peace movement, hippie type of save the whales, is now in my view turning into a very, almost cynical attitude about whales and dolphins.

CURWOOD: Cynical?

FORESTELL: And everywhere you look, there are these corporate logos in which whales and dolphins are being used as corporate can-openers into people's wallets. In the last few years I've seen whales and dolphins used to advertise computers, toilet fixtures in Australia, women's sanitary napkins in the United States, beer in Japan. Basically, what used to be a sacred image, if you will, has now just become one more logo to be used to get at the wallet. And I think that by introducing people to captured animals in an entertainment setting helps perpetrate that lack of true understanding of who whales and dolphins are and how they fit in our environment.

CURWOOD: Thanks for taking this time with us. Dr. Paul Forestell is director of research and education for the Pacific Whale Foundation in Kihei, Hawaii. Thank you, sir.

FORESTELL: My pleasure; thank you very much.



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