How should we keep a whale?

It’s not the happy ending of “Free Willy,” where Willy, an orca whale portrayed by the captive killer whale, Keiko, jumps over a breakwater to join a family of whales in the wild, but SeaWorld’s recent announcement that it would end its captive breeding program and phase out its theatrical orca whale shows are commendable steps.

In a commentary for the Los Angeles Times, Joel Manby, president and chief executive for SeaWorld, admitted that the marine park helped to create the popular sentiment for orcas that will eventually end its captive killer whale program.

“We are proud of contributing to the evolving understanding of one of the world’s largest marine mammals,” Manby writes. “Now we need to respond to the attitudinal change that we helped to create.”

While SeaWorld’s marine shows, which featured orcas performing leaps and other tricks, no doubt were a factor in that “attitudinal change,” news coverage and campaigns that were critical of the whales’ treatment, including the recent documentary, “Blackfish,” also certainly led to increased demands to improve the treatment of the whales.

But SeaWorld and Manby are fighting the suggestion that the marine park take the next step and move the whales to a sanctuary, sea pens where the orcas could live out their days in an environment where they are not surrounded by concrete and glass but still provided care and feeding.

It’s an option worth further exploration and discussion, but one that is already informed by the less-than-successful effort to free Keiko, the whale featured in that 1993 film. Following the movie’s release, Keiko’s celebrity helped promote and fund the effort to rescue him from the Mexican marine park where he lived. He was moved to a rehabilitation pen in Oregon, where the work began to reintroduce him to the wild.

As shown in a 2013 video produced for the New York Times, Keiko’s reentry into the wild saw only limited success. After spending $20 million to retrain him to fend for himself, Keiko was freed in 2002 in the waters off Iceland where he was born and was tracked in the company of a pod of orcas. But by that fall, Keiko showed up near a fishing village off Norway’s coast. Habituated to humans, Keiko couldn’t break that relationship. He fell ill and died later that winter.

The sea pens would keep the whales in that fringe area between the whale and human worlds, but it would take a significant fundraising effort. Keiko’s years in his Icelandic sea pen cost an estimated $3.5 million a year.

Our region has a part in this history. During a 1970 roundup of orcas in Penn Cove, off Whidbey Island, five orcas died and seven young orcas were captured, including Lolita, who has lived at the Miami Seaquarium since her capture in a pen that violates federal standards for its size.

Manby, in his commentary, defends SeaWorld’s role in educating the public about marine life and increasing support for efforts that protect animals in the wild. Manby also makes the point that there are greater threats to these animals than zoos and aquariums, including poaching, loss of habitat and environmental disasters, such as oil spills.

But the education that zoos and aquariums provide and those threats to wildlife don’t absolve us from the responsibility to ensure that the animals that we continue to hold in captivity are treated well, provided environments that are as similar to their natural habitats as possible and aren’t forced into theatrical performances that actually work against the public’s insight into their true natures.

Returning Lolita to Penn Cove isn’t likely, but Miami Seaquarium and other aquariums and zoos should follow SeaWorld’s lead and reexamine their breeding programs and how their animals are exhibited.

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