Andy Kerr

Conservationist, Writer, Analyst, Operative, Agitator, Strategist, Tactitian, Schmoozer, Raconteur

Save the Primates and Free Willy

By Andy Kerr

Column #33 - Go to next column

Length: 750 words

Published: 23 October 1997, Wallowa County Chieftain

When my parents first took me to the Portland (now Washington Park) Zoo, I tarried most at the monkey and gorilla exhibits (really just cages without bars).

They could kind of walk like humans (though their knuckles tended to drag), and could grasp tools like humans. They seemed to be able to communicate with sounds and gestures. They appeared to be engaged in playful activities.

Books later told me that primates express a variety of same emotions human do, including surprise, happiness, sadness, grief, anger and depression.

Given our common evolutionary heritage, do humans have a special affinity for our fellow primates?

If so, do we also have a special obligation? Should we be especially concerned about the fate of our fellow primate species such macaques, baboons, guenons, capuchins, marmosets, tamarins, lemurs, lorises, and tarsiers, gorillas, chimpanzees and orangutans?

Primates are not only smarter than your average mammal, but share much in common with humans. 98% of the chimpanzee's DNA is the same as a human's DNA. That's our closest evolutionary relative and the chimp is among the most threatened of all primates.

233 species of primates have been classified so far (a species previously unknown to science was recently discovered in Brazil). According to John Tuxill of the Worldwatch Institute, about one-half of the primate species fact extinction, while another 20% are approaching this ultimate and final status.

The reasons are loss of the forest habitat in which they live, overhunting and illegal trade, says Tuxill.

Only one species of primate is increasing in number: humans.

Chimps, gibbons, gorillas and orangutans are "being trapped for the pet trade" notes Tuxill. Monkeys are taking an awful hit because the poachers must also kill mothers to get at the prized babies.

Hot spot of forest destruction affecting high concentrations of primates includes southeastern Brazil, Madagascar, equatorial Africa and Southeast Asia.

Efforts are being made to stop forest destruction, and to stop the poaching, but more must be done.

Some good (at least for some kinds of primates) news exists. While the Hutus and the Tutsis slaughter hundreds of thousands of each other in equatorial Africa, both sides deeply value the gorilla. During the recent troubles in Rwanda, only two gorilla deaths were due to warfare by the highest of the primates, and both were accidental.

We seem to have a special bond with the animal species with the most intelligence and they need not be primates. Consider Keiko, star of the Free Willy films and presently a resident of the Oregon Coast Aquarium in Newport. The whale was first captured in the North Atlantic Ocean.

It took much cooperation to rescue Keiko from the Mexico City aquarium in which he could hardly turn around and where the water was an unhealthy warm for the warm-blooded mammal.

Keiko's new home is much more spacious, the water is better along with the food. It has been good the whale who has gained weight, exercises more, and seems happier. It's still however a prison. Willy is not free.

The cooperation has ended. The Keiko Free Willy Foundation wants to return the whale to the wild. The Oregon Coast Aquarium does not. They are now engaged in a major urinating match on the front pages of The Oregonian. The foundation wants to move the captive cetacean to a new halfway house on the edge of the North Atlantic in anticipation of eventual release to the wild from whence Keiko came.

The aquarium demurs, saying Keiko isn't ready—and may never be—for re-release in the wild. Their objectivity is naturally suspect in that Keiko has been a tremendous cash cow for the aquarium, which probably owes its survival to the market value of the popular whale.

Keiko should have never been captured in the first place. Whales belong in oceans, not zoos. They shouldn't have to do hourly shows to crowds of pasty tourists sitting in bleachers gulping popcorn and soda while getting canned play-by-play commentary over the loudspeaker. People who want to see whale to travel to the wild to meet them where they naturally reside.

Keiko was captured as a youth and may have lost the ability to survive in the wild. But maybe he hasn't. For Keiko's sake, if not the aquarium, it's worth taking the next step. It's time to move the whale to a halfway house closer to the place of capture. Only by doing so, can it be determined if Willy can be freed.

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