Keto: 24 Years Behind Bars
Keto is without doubt one of the most impressive beings I have ever seen. His sleek, torpedo-shaped body has undergone millions of years of evolution with the purpose of traveling from one destination to the next, free from any human-made barriers and obstructions. His cone-shaped teeth enable him to feed on a variety of prey, and orcas have developed a series of sophisticated hunting techniques that demonstrate an astounding ability to strategize, communicate and cooperate. The orca is the largest member of the dolphin family, and one of the fastest swimming marine mammals in the world. Orcas share exceptionally strong social ties, and each pod has its own unique dialect. Enjoying the impressive status as the ocean’s top predator, these social and intelligent marine mammals have no natural enemies. And, as anyone who has ever encountered orcas in nature will testify, orcas radiate awe-inspiring power, agility and strength.
Keto possesses all the remarkable characteristics of his wild relatives but unlike them has never had a chance to use them. He has never chased a live fish or experienced the sensation of swimming mile after mile through never-ending layers of salty ocean water alongside his mother, siblings and other pod members. He has never leaped above an ocean’s surface, nor has he ever seen a real wave or a horizon in the distance. Unlike orcas in the wild, Keto will never use his sonar, communication skills, intelligence and speed to navigate and explore a vast ocean world. Incarcerated in a concrete stadium, surrounded by souvenir shops and ice cream stands, Keto´s main role in life is attracting large crowds of paying spectators who are entertained by watching orcas perform in shows. During high season, Keto and several other orcas perform several times a day at Loro Parque, a zoo in Tenerife, Spain. Loro Parque calls the orca stadium Orca Ocean, although nothing about it resembles the real ocean world. By human design, the only world Keto will ever know is a minuscule, artificial one made from concrete, metal and glass.
Keto is one of seven orcas currently held captive at Loro Parque. A result of SeaWorld’s controversial captive orca breeding program, Keto was born at SeaWorld’s amusement park in Orlando, Florida, in 1995. His mother Kalina was the first orca born at a SeaWorld theme park. Both of Kalina’s parents were captured from the wild. Her mother was yanked out of the ocean in Iceland, and her father was wrestled from his family in Penn Cove, Washington. Keto’s father, Kotar, was captured in Iceland in 1978. He perished before Keto was born when a metal gate came down and crushed his skull.
Keto has lived a turbulent existence. Before his fourth birthday, SeaWorld sent him to its amusement park in San Diego. Then they moved him to the now closed SeaWorld park in Ohio. San Antonio, in Texas, was next. At five years of age, Keto had performed at all of SeaWorld’s orca stadiums. As if that was not enough confusion in the orca’s life, after spending five years in San Antonio, SeaWorld moved him again. They loaded him and three other young orcas—Tekoa, Kohana and Skyla—onto an airplane that would take them more than 4,000 miles away to the Spanish island Tenerife in the Canary Islands in February 2006. Tekoa was a juvenile, just five years old at the time. Kohana was three years old and still dependent on her mother for protection and care, but that did not prevent SeaWorld from shipping her overseas, never allowing her to see her mother again. Skyla was a two-year-old baby when SeaWorld separated her permanently from her mother.
SeaWorld sent the four orcas to Loro Parque on a so-called breeding loan, even though some of them are related to one another and would never breed in nature. Tekoa, Skyla, and Kohana share the same father (Tilikum). Skyla and Keto share the same mother (Kalina). Kohana’s mother and Keto share the same father (Kotar). As a result of Loro Parque’s captive orca breeding program, Kohana has mated with her own half-uncle, Keto, twice. She rejected both calves, and humans hand-raised them. Keto’s daughter, Vicky, died when she was just 10 months old. Adan is still alive and used in shows. In September of last year, the orca known as Morgan, who became separated from her pod off the coast of Holland in 2010 and ended up in Loro Parque, gave birth to a female calf. This calf, too, had to be hand-reared by humans, according to a November 9th post on Loro Parque’s own Facebook page. Loro Parque so far has not revealed who the father is.
A few years ago, SeaWorld had a page on its website listing all its orcas. “Meet SeaWorld’s Family,” the appealing headline read, and a list of all the orcas held at SeaWorld’s amusement parks in Orlando, San Diego and San Antonio followed. They included Keto and the other orcas at Loro Parque on their list of valued and cherished family members. In 2016, however, SeaWorld finally gave in to public pressure and put a stop to its captive orca breeding program. Not long after that, they handed Keto, Kohana, Skyla and Tekoa over to Loro Parque, which continues to breed their orcas and incorporate any resulting offspring into shows. Apparently, SeaWorld takes the word family lightly: An orca is considered family only for as long as it’s convenient for SeaWorld.
Curiously enough, SeaWorld has changed the wording on its website and no longer refers to its list of orcas as family. Instead of “Meet SeaWorld´s Family,” the heading is now much more detached: “Meet the Whales.” There is no mention of former family member Keto or any of the others. And now, thanks to SeaWorld, Keto, whose breeding is 25 percent Southern Resident and 75 percent Icelandic, is trapped for life in a loud show stadium on a tropical tourist destination off the coast of Western Africa.
Travel agencies urged to stop supporting dolphin shows from Dolphin Project on Vimeo.
I saw Keto for the time in 2015. Ric and I had travelled to Tenerife to document the orca show at Loro Parque for a video message to the world’s travel agencies that promote Loro Parque and other captive dolphin facilities around the world. Our message to travel agencies was to put compassion over profits and stop promoting dolphin shows, which several travel agencies, thankfully, have done. Sadly, tourists continue to flock to Loro Parque to watch bottlenose dolphins and orcas perform, and it gives little hope that any of them will ever experience anything other than the restrictions of living in small tanks.
The orca show at Loro Parque is the most theatrical I have ever witnessed. The orcas jumped and beached themselves on command; ear-deafening pop music played, and the spectators cheered and applauded loudly. “More, more!” someone from the audience yelled as Keto’s trainer made him perform dance moves on the concrete slide out. Keto, the largest of the orcas at Loro Parque, is easily recognizable with his dorsal fin that bends to the left. His submissive behavior stood in stark contrast to his impressive appearance, and it saddened me greatly to see this majestic being fully exposed on the slide out where his trainer gave the command to spin around and around, much to the spectators´ delight. “Look, he is dancing!” the girl next to me exclaimed, and she and the other spectators applauded wildly.
Loro Parque presents Keto to the audience as an ambassador of his species even though he has lost every connection with the ocean. He has spent his entire life deprived of everything that is natural and meaningful to an orca and will never live in accordance with his true nature. Spectators are amused by the tricks he performs, and I still can’t help but wonder if any of them ever stop to think about what it must feel like to be trapped for life in a barren, artificial show stadium, listening to the same blasting pop music and performing the same senseless tricks over and over.
After Keto has compliantly performed the silly dance moves that his trainer instructs, he opens his mouth and waits for his trainer to hand him some dead fish and artificially-colored gelatin. It is obvious that he is hungry, and that is perhaps the most heartbreaking aspect. In nature, Keto would be an apex predator. At Loro Parque, he depends completely on his human keepers for food and attention. These powerful beings become powerless in captivity, and killer whale shows do not teach respect for nature and its inhabitants. On the contrary, they teach the audience that humans have a right to control and dominate gregarious, intelligent beings and reduce them to helpless, docile performers in the name of superficial entertainment.
Despite the absurdity of the ocean’s top predators performing tricks to receive dead fish, the audience at Loro Parque is told repeatedly that the relationship between the orcas and their trainers is based on “love and respect.” Greenwashing—making the show appear valuable to conservation—is an important part of any dolphin show. At Loro Parque the backdrop is used to display various conservation messages, such as “For the orcas to survive, we must embrace our role as caretakers of the sea.” So, while the pop music is blasting away, and the orcas jump and dance on command, the audience is supposed to somehow make a connection between the use of orcas as performers in rowdy shows and the protection of orcas in nature. It is an illusion, of course, and people do not leave the stadium with a desire to go out and save orcas from harm. They leave with a desire to see more orcas perform, thus creating an even bigger demand for the captive breeding and captures of orcas from the wild.
How anyone can think it is justified to sentence these magnificent beings to such monotonous, boring lives is incomprehensible to me, yet today, more than 40 orcas perform in dolphinariums worldwide. Imagine the frustration that builds up as the years go by. All that suppressed energy and having to become something they were never meant to be causes stress and mental strain. Over the years, many incidents of aggression against trainers have occurred. Loro Parque has had its share of orca aggression, but this information is not revealed to the audience, of course. No one says a word about how Keto, on December 24, 2009, attacked and killed his trainer during a training session (just two months before Tilikum killed his trainer at SeaWorld in Orlando). The shows at Loro Parque have continued as if nothing happened, and the grand words love and respect are repeated as the orcas go through their repertoire of trained behaviors. But if the orcas’ relationships with their trainers are based on love and respect, why did Keto kill his trainer? Why did Tilikum? And if the trainers’ relationships with the orcas are so adoring, why can’t trainers get in the water with them? These are questions that Loro Parque and SeaWorld have never provided any answers to.
When the show we were watching ended, some of the orcas resumed lying motionless on the water’s surface. Others swam in endless circles in their barren confinement. Keto followed his trainer along the perimeter of the tank, his mouth wide open. His eyes were fixed on the bucket that contained the fish. I wondered if he was still hungry and looking for a hand-out.
No orca should have to live this way. Indeed, captivity of orcas defies all logic. These are free-ranging, acoustical beings that in nature would swim over vast distances doing many different things. Confining them to such tiny, barren tanks and making them act in ways they never would if given a real choice does not teach respect for nature at all. Instead, it teaches spectators that orcas’ natural behaviors and amazing survival skills are of no real value or importance, and it is perfectly fine, therefore, to brush their behavioral, physiological and psychological requirements aside if it serves the purpose of providing entertainment for holiday makers.
As I left the stadium, I looked back at Keto one more time. That was the last I saw of him: a magnificent, complex being, so filled with potential and vigor that remain suppressed and unused in Loro Parque’s shallow, lifeless tanks.
Captivity has sentenced Keto to an existence with no choices and no decisions to make, no places to travel to, and nothing new to see or do. In a few hours, hundreds more spectators were seated, and the exploding sound of pop music and their laughter and applause filled the orca stadium. As the orcas performed their trained, abnormal behaviors that have been designed to attract the large paying audiences, the words love and respect were used repeatedly to describe the compliant orcas’ relationships with their keepers.
I cringe at the thought of Keto having to perform those absurd dance moves. And I cringe at the thought of large, applauding audiences whose only concern appears to be finding ways to pass time and have fun while on holiday. Keto’s only real hope is for people to stop buying tickets to watch him perform. And I believe that day will come when people realize that orcas are incredibly complex, social and intelligent beings created by nature to play a role—in nature.