I recently saw the article about the findings of Keiko the killer whale's unsuccessful release in 1998.  This was a result of a public campaign to "Free Willy" and reintroduce him into the wild after 19 years of captivity.  The killer whale was captured at approximately 2 years of age, so had no experience living in the wild, and apparently there was no information regarding the original family from where he was taken.

An entry on facebook caught my attention though:

"His 5 years in the wild was a definite improvement in quality of life over his previous years in a tank, and many consider that alone as a success. Scientists hoped that Keiko would join a pod, but that never happened."


This made me wonder how such a claim could be made and if we are actually doing these animals any favors.  Consider a scenario where you had been abducted by some alien captors as a child and held in their environment (or captivity) until you were an adult.  Now suppose that some alien environmental group thinks that you should be freed, so they decide to return you to your natural habitat and locate you a short distance away from the Huaorani tribe in the Amazon Jungle (1).  In the meantime these aliens are keeping a base nearby to monitor your return and are subsequently disappointed that you don't seem to be gravitating to your own kind but prefer to be fed and cared for by the aliens.  I wonder how many people would think that their new circumstances was an improvement over the life they had become accustomed to.

I've chosen this particular extreme example because it illustrates how completely foreign such a return would be for us as humans and how completely human life could be misunderstood by an alien culture.  Something that I suspect is paralleled when we think we know how to reintroduce social animals into the wild into strange groups. I don't know why we assume that "wildness" is something that would appeal to an animal that has never experienced it.  Some seem to take to it fairly well, while others seem almost to overcompensate (feral dogs), while others are hopelessly lost.

No doubt there can be successes, but equally I'm sure that our lack of understanding may not be doing these animals any favors, any more than my example above would likely be considered a favor to the human involved.  If we really want to help, then perhaps we simply need to stop taking them from their natural homes and families.

(1) This may sound like a contrived example, but consider how little we know about the society of the orca pods that Keiko was being introduced to and you get my point.  What looks pretty common and uniform may well look that way to an alien examining human groups too.