Born to be wild?
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Keiko breaching.
©1998, Free Willy Keiko Foundation.


Learning to be wild

Free Willy

The lost language of cranes

Golden lion tamarins

you gonna eat that?

Photo by Steve Dickey, Oregon Coast Aquarium. ©1998, Free Willy Keiko Foundation.

everybody in the poolWild thing
POSTED 2 OCT 1998. On Sept. 10, Keiko, the killer whale star of the movie Free Willy, was flown to a bay in Iceland where he lived for two years before he was netted in 1979. It was the logical sequel to a movie that climaxed with the liberation of a doe-eyed killer whale.

Jessie, Willy's wise-cracking, street-urchin-turned-animal-trainer, would be proud to see his friend Keiko, a five-ton killer whale, getting a real chance at life in the boundless ocean. (OK, Keiko's really a dolphin, but for some reason everybody calls his species "killer whales" or orcas.)

But as Keiko awaits an eventual release from his new pen in the chilly North Atlantic, there are a lot of questions to be answered. Will Keiko survive and thrive in his new home? Will he integrate with the all-important family unit? More broadly, what must animals -- whether dolphins, whooping cranes or endangered primates -- know before they are moved from captivity to freedom?

All in the genes?
Not too long ago, animal behavior was seen as instinctual. Scientists thought most behaviors that animals needed for survival were hard-wired into the genes and nerve cells. Learning seemed mainly a human prerogative, and the idea of teaching a crane the identity of its mother, or a killer whale its friend, was laughable.

Then in the 1930s pioneering Austrian animal behaviorist Konrad Lorenz discovered that if geese spent their first few hours with him instead of their mother, they became "imprinted" on him and mistook him for mom (see "Here I Am -- Where Are You?" in the bibliography).

Liberated from their blinders, biologists then discovered that many animal behaviors were actually learned. Indeed, in some species, such key skills as migrating to breeding grounds, identifying prey and predators, and rearing the young are passed by older animals to younger ones.

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Golden Lion Tamarins are being reintroduced to Brazilian rainforests. Photo by Jessie Cohen. Courtesy of the National Zoo, Smithsonian Institution.

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it's hard to be humble when you're as cute as we areFamily values
For example, captive-raised cotton-top tamarins, an endangered primate native to Colombia's coastal forest, must learn parenting skills by observation, according to University of Wisconsin-Madison psychology professor Charles Snowdon. "They grow up in a family where they can watch infant care. They have to have hands-on experiences; without that they typically neglect the infants." Thus, unless mothers and fathers have helped raise other young, they don't know how to hold and comfort an infant. These and other limitations (such as learning to identify and avoid your enemies) helped convince Snowdon that a reintroduction of the endangered tamarin would fail. "We thought it was probably not a good idea, because there's so much that needs to be taught." (Stand by for information on reintroducing a related species, the golden lion tamarin.)

As Snowdon indicates, teaching essential survival skills to captive-raised animals -- and long-captive animals like Keiko -- is as important as raising healthy animals. No longer is releasing animals from captivity -- especially highly intelligent primates and killer whales -- just a matter of drop and drive. Instead, it's a matter of extensive education before the release, and even supportive after-care.

So bear with us, folks. It's time to talk survivalist education -- animal-style.

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