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.)



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PREPARING KEIKO FOR A LIFE IN THE WILD--IS IT WORKING?

Seems to be, yeah. He's doing very, very well. And he's very motivated. He's an animal that likes to please and right now he's starting to mouth the fish that we have in the pool and the next step is having him acquire a taste for them and then hopefully he'll be able to start eating them on his own.

DOES HE KNOW THAT THEY'RE FOOD?

I think so. It's hard to say. He's used to a different consistency of fish. It's a fish that's been descaled and deslimed and frozen and the fish that we're giving him are obviously fresh and have the scales on them and have a totally different taste. What we're trying to do is, he initially has been on frozen fish for a number of years and for him to acquire a taste of the fresh fish it's a totally different sensation. And so what we need him to do is get used to eating fresh, dead fish and then gradually hopefully he will start eating the live fish.

OF COURSE HE HAS TO EAT THE LIVE FISH BEFORE RELEASE....

Right. We're planning on supplementing his intake and right currently he's eating about 180 pounds of fish a day and we'd like to get him to pursue the live fish and for him to eat 180 pounds of fresh fish a day it's going to be difficult to supply that many fish, so we'll supplement whatever he doesn't take.

IS THAT A BENCHMARK IN TERMS OF HIS BEING ABLE TO BE RECOVERED?

Yeah, it's one of the pieces to the puzzle. There's a lot to this puzzle and it's just one of the first hurdles. So we're going in the right direction, he's doing very, very well.

CAN YOU TALK ABOUT THAT BROADER PUZZLE?

There's so many pieces to this puzzle and everything from the research to the training, the husbandry, the eating of the live fish, there's a lot of different pieces and once we get him to a baypen, then, there's a whole nother set of problems that we have to face. And everything from having him in a bay - there can be rough weather or it can be miserable conditions and he'll be used to different sounds.

When he gets to a bay pen, he's been in a managed situation for a number of years now and now the open ocean,there's a lot of noises, a lot of sounds.

WHAT IS THE SORT OF TYPICAL DAY FOR KEIKO?

Well, you know there's really no typical day for Keiko and that's part of our plan, is to just break up his routine. So there's no set schedule. We come in in the middle of the night to feed him and do dive sessions with him and there's something new all the time. There's novel stimuluses added to the pool all the time, whether it's noise or different play sessions or training techniques or live fish and we just want to make his day as stimulating as possible.

AND WHAT ABOUT HUMAN CONTACT?

Well, right now we're encouraging it. It's part of his exercise program, is to get in and spend some time in the water with him - rub him down, he really enjoys that. He's a social animal so he loves that contact. Plus, he likes to play around and when he plays around that gives him the exercise and builds up the muscle tone which is going to be important when we do go to move him into a baypen.

DO YOU THINK HE'LL MISS PEOPLE?

I don't know. It's hard to say. I think that his focus will change. It'll change from hopefully to other killer whales.

WHAT DO YOU THINK HIS OVERALL PROGNOSIS IS?

Well, I'm very optimistic. I think this is a really worthwhile project. We're learning not only about Keiko but the species in general and I think that we have an opportunity here that hasn't come along before and we need to learn as much as we possibly can and I'm very excited about his longterm prognosis.

SO IF YOU HAD TO WAGER?

To make a bet? Well, as I say, there's a lot of pieces to this puzzle and we just have to make sure that all those pieces fit. I don't know. He's an animal that likes to please and I think that if we continue to do the research and continue to train him and work him - try to teach him to becomea wild whale again, I think he has a pretty good chance. I think the key is integrating him into another social group and once we can accomplish that, then I think he's going to have a pretty good chance.

TEACHING HIM TO BE A WILD WHALE AGAIN. CAN YOU TALK MORE ABOUT THAT?

Well, he's relied on human contact for a lot of years and he hasn't been around killer whales for a number of years and really his only social interaction has been with bottlenose dolphins and then the human contact. And even now that he's moved to the Oregon coast, his contact now is pretty much with the fish in his pool and humans.

Now what we need to do, is we just need to change his focus a little bit, which I think he'll be very curious - he's a very curious animal and if we can get him into a baypen and there's other animals in the area and they can physically (or acoustically) communicate, I think he'll really enjoy it. And I think he'd like to learn.

AND THE BAY PEN IS IN ICELAND?

Well, right now we haven't determined the site, but that is our optimal choice, would be Iceland. We're looking at the North Atlantic. Keiko came from the North Atlantic stock. He was collected off of Iceland but I think that population moves around quite a bit and so pretty much anywhere. North Atlantic we're doing some genetic work up there, and some acoustical work, and trying to see if we can locate his pod. It's a very big ocean and I think it's going to be very difficult. But again, I think the key is to be able to find another group that we might be able to have him exposed to and then hopefully integrate him into that group.

WHAT ARE THE INTERIM POSSIBILITIES FOR KEIKO?

WOULD HE SPEND THE REST OF HIS LIFE IN THE SEA PEN, PERHAPS ?

Well, we're going to take it one step at a time and hopefully we'll be able to take it all the way to a release. But if it works that he's only going to make it to a bay pen or an open bay pen, which is a little bit further, then that's as far as we'll go. But it's going to be a gradual process and it's going to be a learning experience for both of us and we're just going to see how far we can take him.

DESCRIBE THE OPEN BAY PEN.

Initially we'll start off with a smaller bay pen which is going to be kind of a netted enclosure that he'll get used to. And that'll be kind of his security blanket where we'll be able to get him on my fish, get him used to the acoustical sounds out in the wild ocean. And then from there, then we'll open him up into a kind of an open bay pen, or a fjord pen, which will have a lot of room to move and manoeuvre and hopefully he will build up those muscle tones that are necessary to be able to survive in the wild and build those hunting skills and capabilities.

WE HAVE SOME FOOTAGE OF HIM DOING THESE BREECHES WITH STEVE. CAN YOU TELL US, WHAT WAS GOING ON AT THAT TIME?

These guys do that in the wild. And what we try to do is we try to stimulate him in as many different ways as we can, so we can develop the exercise and the muscle tone and when we do breeches and bows and that kind of thing, every time he does one, it's like jogging another half a mile and builds up those muscles and that's going to be a really important factor in determining if we can release him or not.




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