interviewINTERVIEW WITH DAVE PHILLIPS
FOUNDER OF THE FREE WILLY KEIKO FOUNDATION AND EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR  OF THE EARTH ISLAND INSTITUTE



WHEN DID YOU FIRST GET INVOLVED IN THIS STORY?

At the point in which I got involved, we were working with the producers to try to get involved with efforts to save the world's whales in the wild. Whales protected from commercial whaling, dolphin protection. Nobody was thinking about Keiko.

Keiko was just like a prop for a movie. When they looked down the list of all the things they needed for the movie, they said okay well, we need a whale. Where can we go film where we can film a whale? And they looked around and they looked at Sea World and they looked at these other places and they ended up in Mexico City where they had free rein to do whatever they want, make the modifications and there was a whale by himself and that's how Keiko got into the story.

WEREN'T THERE SOME MARINE PARKS WHO DIDN'T WANT TO COOPERATE?

I don't know the full truth of the story, but there's a story that when Warner Brothers was looking around to find a place to film a whale, that they actually consulted with Sea World and some other theme parks and actually got as far as sending the script to Sea World. And that Sea World reportedly stated that they'd be welcomed to film there for free; the only thing they had to do was change the ending of the movie. Instead of having the whale jump to freedom, he had to be moved from a bad theme park to a good theme park.

So Warner Brothers was obviously not interested in changing the script so they had to find a place where they could pretty much have freedom to do whatever they want and without any sort of interference. And then, someone said what about Mexico? There's a whale down in Mexico City. He's by himself, the facility is such they'll let us build whatever we need, so let's go there. And that's how they ended up in Mexico City.

And if they ever had known what they were getting themselves with, I'm sure they would have gone somewhere else because they could never have predicted the kind of public outpouring that would happen about the fact that the movie recapitulated what was happening in real life. That the story about a boy and a whale and the whale being in trouble and the whale being taken to freedom had a lot of similarities to what about Keiko down in this facility that was too small and the water was too warm and he was not in good health and he had been in captivity this long and he was by himself and what about him?

So once we started the 800 number at the end of the film and people

started finding out about the plight of Keiko, hundreds of thousands of people were calling saying: What are you going to do about this whale? Not the whales out in the ocean. They were doing that, too, but their concern was about the wild whales and their concern was about this whale because this whale had a name, this whale had a face, this whale had a story and people just grabbed onto that story.

WHAT WAS THE MAGNITUDE OF THE RESPONSE?

We got more than 400,000 phone calls, which was unbelievable, unprecedented. There had never really been an 800 number at the end of a movie, so nobody even knew how to judge what kind of numbers we were going to get. But the switchboards completely lit up. We had phone services operating 24 hours a day with kids calling in and parents calling in. Everybody wanted to get involved, what they could do for whales and what they could do for Keiko.

So at that point, we weren't really even prepared -- we were working on wild whales... on threats to their habitat and threats to the commercial whaling, all these sorts of things. We really weren't in the captivity issue. But Warner Brothers got very interested in trying to find a solution, what could be done for Keiko? Is there any way Keiko could be moved from Mexico? Is there any way that Keiko could be returned to the wild or these things, and they'd never been done before. So they turned to us and asked us: Would you guys get involved with the effort to try to free Keiko?

THERE YOU WERE, AN ACTIVE ENVIRONMENTALIST WHO'D BEEN ACTING ON BEHALF OF THE WILD WHALES. AND, ALL OF A SUDDEN, THIS CELEBRITY WHALE COMES ALONG. WHAT WAS THAT LIKE?

Well, that was very interesting because on one hand, it kind of went against our grain of thinking that issues about more than one whale. We're talking about all the whales. We're working on commercial whaling, threats to their habitat, things that involved the whole ocean and all the ecosystems of the ocean, in a much broader picture than just looking at one whale.

But on the other hand, we started seeing the power that got behind the public identification with a particular whale and started thinking about what ways that could be used to translate the public concern for one whale into concern for all the whales.

While we were working on the wild whale situation, Ken Balcomb jumped in and said he was going to try to go down to Mexico and free the whale. And so, he went down and tried to put together a plan, but that plan ended up being rejected by Mexico City and it was rejected by Warner Brothers and it was jumped on by the alliance of the marine mammal parks. It got very involved in trying to discredit that plan and, in fact, then the marine parks went down themselves. They all loaded on a plane, went down to Mexico City and said: Well, maybe we can bring Keiko to one of our facilities.

And then, however, they -- he had the papilloma, the skin condition, and they -- the theme park started getting worried that maybe if he was put in with their other whales and theirother whales, which are big investments, if they got the skin condition, it could really affect their businesses. So they kind of wanted to do something for Keiko, but they kind of didn't want to do something for Keiko and that's where it was with a whole lot of people. With Ken Balcomb getting involved and Michael Jackson and the alliance and the theme parks and Sea World all scrambling around trying to put together a plan for Keiko.

WHAT ABOUT MICHAEL JACKSON?

Well, Michael Jackson wanted the whale. He got involved -- he did the song that was on the video of Free Willy -- the end of the movie, and he got involved and he met Keiko and he wanted to do something and he has a big animal collection at his ranch in Santa Barbara; and so, he decided well, let's bring Keiko to Santa Barbara. And some of his people were quite involved with trying to negotiate that out, but it's a big undertaking to move a whale.

AND HOW MUCH MONEY WAS -- WERE THEY TALKING ABOUT WHEN IT WAS GOING TO GO TO JACKSON?

Well, it pretty much -- in order to do the project, it was going to be in the realm of eight to ten million dollars because you were going to have to build a facility for him, you're going to have to move him, take care of him, veterinary care, all the costs associated with it. So that was the kind of money that it was going to take.

AT NEVER NEVER LAND?

At Never Never Land Ranch, yeah. There was a flurry of activity and we were kind of watching from the bystanders -- from the stands because we were -- we would have been happy if anybody really had successfully done a plan for Keiko. If he had gone to the theme parks, he'd never would have been released, that we know. If he'd gone to Michael Jackson's, he never would have been released and we would like to have seen a plan in which he got released to the wild. But that was before we really sort of dug in. Only after all the plans crashed and burned and it looked like Keiko was going to stay there for the rest of his life and the Warner Brothers were just going to be tarred by this whole controversy with no end in sight, it was only after that we got the call. They said please, won't you guys get involved?

You know, you've helped us with the wild whale situation, you've been good with the dolphin situation, can you intervene? And we had to give it a lot of thought as to whether we really wanted to do that.

AND WHAT WAS THE CONFLICT?

Well, it was the one whale. It was just the money. I mean, it was all sorts of things. It was a complicated problem. Negotiating with Mexico -- by that point, Mexico was furious with Warner Brothers and felt they'd been taken advantage of. There was a lot of distrust. The amount of money necessary to be raised, the logistics, the health of the whale. Is all this effort for one whale, how can that be translated into something that will make a better fate for all the whales? Could that really be done? Was there a way that we could sort of translate that in the minds of kids about Keiko into something that was where he was a symbol and where he was sort of a representative of other whales to come. That was kind of in our minds as to whether we could accomplish that. If we couldn't accomplish that, it was going to be a lot of effort just for one whale.

AND HOW DID YOU MAKE THAT DECISION?

I think the way we made the decision was we just listened to all the power of what the kids wanted to do. There was just so many people in all aspects. Kids and teachers and scientists and businesses and environmental organizations that all got caught up in it and all wanted to do something for the whale. He had touched such a responsive cord in people, that it just seemed like the barriers could be broken down and it seemed like that there was -- it just became hard not to get involved. It just seemed like we had to try to get involved. We knew we had a shot at putting together all the pieces; and so, it just didn't die. The public's concern for Keiko kept growing and more and more questions were asked; and finally, we just said all right, let's give it a shot.

WHAT DID YOU NEED TO PULL ALL THIS TOGETHER?

We had to have the whale. We had to convince the Mexican theme park to donate the whale to us. And we had to have a place to bring him to. And we had to have the money to put it all together. And the most important of those was to get the whale. So we -- I began going down to Mexico City and working with the theme park, Reino Aventura, to try to convince them that we had a solid enough plan scientifically and logistically and financially to warrant them donating the whale to us. And I think over the course of five or six months, I was in Mexico City about twelve times working with them to try to convince them that we were the real deal.

AND ULTIMATELY, IT HAPPENED.

Ultimately, it happened. We reached a donation agreement with them in which they agreed to donate the whale to the Free Willy Keiko Foundation, which we established specifically for this purpose and we had already then located the Oregon Coast Aquarium as the place where we would build this state-of-the-art facility and got them to agree to make the donation.

SO WHEN YOU FORMED THE FREE WILLY KEIKO FOUNDATION, DID YOU FEEL LIKE YOU WERE TRADING HATS?

The Free Willy Keiko Foundation was a different hat, a different type of organization, a different mission than anything that I had done before in the whole idea of Earth Island Institute. And in fact, although Earth Island Institute has a policy of being opposed to having dolphins and whales in captivity, the Free Willy Keiko Foundation started with its mission being about concentrating on this whale, moving the whale, rescue, rehabilitation and release of the whale with the idea that this would serve...as an example of what -- of what could happen for other whales.

THE ISSUE OF CAPTIVITY --WHAT DID THE FREE WILLY FOUNDATION STAND FOR AT THE BEGINNING.

It's pretty clear that the people involved with the Keiko effort don't think that whales and dolphins ought to be in captivity. The more you look at whales, the more you get into this issue, the more you realize how inappropriate it is to take a 21-foot orca whale, a 9,000 pound whale and think that you could have him in a swimming pool and approximate in any way the conditions of the whales in the wild.

You can't have their social structure, you can't have healthy environment for them, you can't let them have their migration, their normal feeding, anything.

And so, the principal people involved with the effort, whether they were from Warner Brothers, whether they were from the foundation, when they first looked at the situation, they were of the view that Keiko should be taken back to his family if it was at all possible and, in general, were not in favor of the idea of whales and dolphins being kept in theme parks for people's enjoyment as opposed to back in the wild with their families in the wild situation.

SO THE ORIGINAL CHARTER OF THE FREE WILLY FOUNDATION HAD AN AGENDA THAT EXTENDED BEYOND KEIKO?

Right from the beginning, we wanted it to be about more than one whale. We wanted it to be about a different way of the public looking at marine mammals. Instead of looking at them as attractions, instead of looking at them as things where you go and sit in seats and get splashed by them and buy popcorn and watch people ride on their backs, the people could look at them as animals that are part of wild communities. That we have a role to try to put something back. That we have a role to try to help the whales that might be beached or stranded or surplus from the military or have been taken into captivity when they were young and be in facilities that we've realized are totally ill-suited to their needs and to be able to try to get those animals back to the wild. That's what the Free Willy Keiko Foundation was set up to do.

Keiko was going to be the first. Keiko was going to be something that if we just started to try to do this on our own, we never would have been able to do it. Where are we going to raise nine million dollars? If you don't have something, a focal point, if you don't have a story, if you don't have a celebrity whale, if you don't have people like Warner Brothers and people like the McCaw that got involved because they saw the story and they learned about it? If we just started as an idea "let's build a rescue rehab facility" with little ones and fives and ten dollars contributions, we'd be at it for twenty years. We'd never get it done.

So we had a little window of opportunity. Keiko was going to be the way because people felt so strongly about Keiko. Keiko was going to be the way that we would be able to demonstrate this new attitude towards whales. This attitude towards whales is already changing. It used to be that people went out and shot the whales, the orca whales. After that, it was fine to go out and capture them in U.S. waters. Entirely open for capture and many of them were captured off U.S. waters. Over time, public attitudes have changed. It became illegal to kill them. We got the Marine Mammal Protection Act passed. It became illegal to capture them in U.S. waters. They went to Iceland. It became -- the Icelandic government stopped them from capturing in Icelandic waters. All because people started having a different attitude towards marine mammals. And we want to take that attitude a next step and not only say that we shouldn't be capturing them from the wild and that we shouldn't be shooting them, but to be saying that we could take a role as rehab. We can take a role as helping animals that are in captivity be re-introduced back to the wild. We can show that it works scientifically, that it's good for the whales and, instead, we can have people learn that we can put something back.



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