interviewINTERVIEW WITH JEFF FOSTER
Keiko's trainer.  In themid-'80s, he worked for Sea World in their Icelandic operation. (This interview was conducted in early summer 1997.)



YOU HAD MENTIONED EARLIER ABOUT PEOPLE ACTING MORE WITH THEIR HEARTS THAN THEIR HEADS ....

I think we read more into these animals since they're in an aquatic medium. I think we would like to believe that they're kind of like our extra-terrestrials. That they're extremely bright and they're very social -- and they are very social and they don't -- they have some really unique characteristics and adaptations that we're just starting to understand.

But as far as equating them to human intelligence, I think that it's very difficult to do and especially, as I say, we're still learning a lot about them and they do have some wonderful adaptations. But you know, I think that we read a lot more into it than there really is there.

YOU'RE REALLY CLEAR ON THAT AND THE FEW PEOPLE THAT I'VE TALKED TO SO FAR ARE NOT.

I've been around for a long time and I've seen both sides and I had a chance to work with animals all over the world. I think that each animal is unique and each animal has their own wonderful characteristics and it's --in the aquatic environment, it's so unfamiliar to us that I think we sometimes like to think that it's a marvelous world out there but actually -- and it is, but it's a harsh environment also.

PEOPLE HAVE SAID THAT THE REASON ALL CETACEANS SHOULD BE FREE IS BECAUSE WE'VE LEARNED EVERYTHING WE'RE GOING TO LEARN FROM THEM IN CAPTIVITY.

I don't agree with that. I think that we're just starting to learn about them. We had killer whales in a managed situation for a little over thirty years and we're just scratching on the surface right now. We know very little about these guys. We know very little about their social structure. We know -- it's just in the last few years that we've learned what their gestation period is and the composition of their milk and acoustically, we're still just scratching on the surface and we have a lot more to learn before we can really say that. I think people are presuming a lot more than that's really there.

WHAT, FOR EXAMPLE, WOULD YOU BE COMPLETELY UNABLE TO LEARN?

Well, we only know about a few species and even those species, we don't know that much about. Every day, we're learning a little bit more and it takes dedicated researchers not only in a captive situation, but also in the field to put this puzzle together. And as I say we know virtually nothing about our aquatic environment. We know more about the moon than we do the oceans.

YOU SEEM TO BE DRIVING TOWARDS A SORT OF CONSERVATION MESSAGE?

Well, the world is getting to be a smaller place all the time and these natural parks in Africa, for example, they're getting smaller and smaller and they're kind of turning into roadside zoos, in some cases. And we're going to have to start managing these parks like we manage zoos. And to develop those skills, we have to do it in a captive situation and the next step is imagine aquatic environment. We over fished a lot of the fisheries throughout the world. We've certain populations of animals, like harbor seals in California and sea lions, have really blossomed in the last few years and their may need to be a time when we're going to have to start managing them. And whether that's through birth control or some other method, we do have to -- this is a small planet and we have to be a little more effective in how we're dealing with it.

SEA WORLD IS A PLACE THAT YOU HAVE WORKED.

Sea World is a wonderful spot. It's changed a lot in the years. They have a very strong educational message. I think that a lot of the facilities out there now don't promote education as much as they should. I think that, we have a responsibility if we're going to be housing these animals to learn as much as we possibly can from them and to educate the public to these animals' needs, whether it's in the wild or in captivity.

WHEN DID YOU START WORKING FOR SEA WORLD?

Sea World bought out the Seattle Marine Aquarium I believe it was in '72... and then they started collecting their animals up in the Puget Sound. And that started pretty much in the early seventies and went until '76 and the last animals that were caught in the Puget Sound were collected in '76. And after that, they went to Iceland and started pursuing the animals over there.

AND YOU DID WORK THERE IN THE FIELD? WHAT WAS THAT LIKE?

It was interesting it's a very harsh environment in Iceland. There's a large number of animals over there and they were very selective in the fisheries and collected animals that we thought would do very well in a captive situation. It was real exciting.

WHY?

Just because we were learning so much and it was a real adventure.

YOU WERE WORKING WITH LOCAL FISHERMEN -- HOW DID THAT WORK?

Local herring fisheries. Apparently Sea World was contacted in the early seventies. The Icelandic government had approached the American government and had asked if the American government would be interested in using their whales for target practice because they were...there was a lot of competition between the herring fisheries there and of course, the American government laughed that one off. But we realized that there was a large stock of animals up there and that might be a good spot to acquire animals for a captive situation. So we went up there and worked with the fishermen and tried to educate the fishermen and we collected some animals.

I HAVE HEARD THAT THEY WERE USING THE KILLER WHALES FOR TARGET PRACTICE?

Well, the fishing industry twenty years ago, they did a lot. And the U.S. government, to my knowledge, never participated in anything like that but there's competition for -- the food which is the herring and it was the livelihood for a lot of fishermen. And when there's competition usually, it's the animal that loses. It was an educational process for everybody and once the fishermen realized that these animals, weren't eating as much as they initially thought and that they have a niche in the environment, things changed over there.

It all boils down to education and the more we learn about these animals, then the more we can pass on to the general public and the communities, I think the better off the animals are.

KEIKO CAME FROM ICELAND--HE WAS COLLECTED IN ...?

Age seven, okay. In '79. Those were again the early years in Iceland. Iceland opened up in '76 and Sea World was involved in some of the early capture efforts over there with...dolphin...and in '79, Keiko was collected.

AND WHAT'S THE CLIMATE THERE NOW IN ICELAND?

Well, they'd like to still do some harvesting of some of the larger whales over there and I think that there will -- it's a traditional country where they would like to have some of their traditional foods and one of them includes eating whales. It's the larger whales; it's not really the killer whales so I think that -- at this time they are trying to find themselves. And conservation groups are pushing pretty hard so that there's no collection being done there anymore. And the whaling industry is pushing pretty hard to do further research to see if it's if it's feasible to effectively manage these animals and harvest a few of them.

WHEN THE FOUNDATION SEEKS TO BRING KEIKO THERE, WHAT DO YOU EXPECT TO FIND?

It's hard to say. We haven't been over there yet; and so the public sentiment again, it goes back to education. If we can educate the general public in Iceland what we're trying to do and how we're going to go about doing it. Hopefully, they'll be receptive. And if not, then we'll try to find another site so...

THE KEIKO PROJECT -- IS IT ABOUT ONE WHALE OR IS IT A LARGER...?

It's much larger than that. It's one little piece to the puzzle. It's what we can learn from Keiko, hopefully we can apply it to the wild populations and vice versa. And so, it's an exciting time and I think that we have a wonderful opportunity here to really learn about the species, a species that's misunderstood and a species that we virtually know nothing about.

THIS IS A PERSONAL, PHILOSOPHICAL QUESTION. YOU'VE KIND OF COME FULL CIRCLE. YOU STARTED WITH THE EARLY DAYS OF THE CAPTURES --COMING ALL THE WAY AROUND TO THIS HISTORIC, REALLY, ATTEMPT AT A FIRST RELEASE.

I really haven't changed my attitudes towards zoos or aquariums. I still believe that there's a necessity for them, but I also think that we can learn from this. And the more we learn, the better off we are and better off the species is. And again, hopefully, we can apply what we're learning here from Keiko to the population down the line. I mean, this is the starting point; and fifty or a hundred years from now hopefully these techniques that we're going to develop here, we can use for endangered species or other populations around the world.

I'M CURIOUS ABOUT THE POLITICS.....SEA WORLD'S VIEW OF THE KEIKO STORY?

Well, I think it's a threat. What we're trying to do here is to walk in the middle of the road and nobody's been there before. I've talked about the pendulum before and we have the marine mammal industry on one side of the pendulum and the activists on the other side of the pendulum . We are walking down the middle. And we have taken shots from both sides, but what we're trying to ultimately do is learn as much as we can and hopefully it'll benefit both sides.

YOU USED THE WORD "THREAT". CAN YOU DESCRIBE THAT...?

The industry feels that they've been established in a captive situation, that they should be maintained there. Our feeling is that this is a unique chance to try to learn more and there's rehab networks all over the country and pretty much all over the world right now and do on a day-to-day basis where they will find an animal that comes up on the beach and will try to rehabilitate that animal and they get it healthy again and release it back into the wild and we're kind of doing the same thing. We're taking this animal that has been in a captive setting and seeing if we can re-introduce it.

SO THE INDUSTRY HAS BEEN INVOLVED IN RE-INTRODUCTION?

Yeah. They've had seals and seal lions and focus on whales that they've rehabilitated and released back into the wild. And you know, there haven't been a lot of studies done on some of these animals and we don't know how effectively our efforts are and in the rehab that's been done. And again, the industry has been very supportive in this and it's a way to learn something about it; and then, re-introduce them back into the wild. But I think that they mean well. The bottom line is everybody wants to do the right thing, and we want to do the right thing for these animals. And if we have an animal that washes up on the beach and is picked up by the general public that doesn't know any better it's kind of our responsibility to try to release him back into the wild. And Sea World has kind of led the way in this. And they do this on a day-to-day basis and have thousands of animals that come through their doors that they've rehabilitated and released.



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