No the killer whale did not say "set me free"

Being a public broadcaster it would be hoped that the BBC would use a little bit more rigour when reporting issues particularly those that involve science. A case in point is an article in the Newsbeat strand written by reporter Talia Shadwell regarding research done on the mimicking behaviour of killer whales at an aquarium in France entitled: "Killer whale could be saying 'set me free'. 

The article is very disappointing due to the obvious lack of research and which appear to be based on views from the animal rights groups The Born Free Foundation and Whale and Dolphin Conversation - both known for their objection to animals maintained in captive care.  Further, there appears to be absolutely no effort to contact Marineland in France whose animals and facilities were used in the research cited or indeed any other zoos or aquarium that display whales or dolphins.

First, the breeding ban on whales and dolphins in France mentioned in the report has been lifted by the French courts after being successfully challenged as it was not based on science or in the best interest of animal welfare. This would have been made clear to the reporter if they had bothered to contact Marineland.

The picture of a killer whale in captivity in the Netherlands was also deceptive because it did not explain that this was Morgan a young killer whale that was rescued in a distressed state suffering from malnutrition on the Dutch coast in 2010. The picture is her in temporary accommodation while she underwent rehabilitation.  

Picture of a killer whale in the BBC article was, in fact, Morgan a rescued animals in temporary accommodation in the Netherlands while she was being rehabilitated.
She successfully returned to full health but unfortunately due to her young age and the inability to find her original social group, which was believed to be located possibly in Norwegian waters, she was relocated to a large facility for killer whales in the Canary Islands in November 2011. This was undertaken under the direction of the Dutch government. 

Morgan remains there today in the company of other captive bred killer whales. Since that time it has been discovered that she was either deaf or has a severe hearing impairment which is possibly one of the reasons she stranded and had to be rescued. This again would make any attempts to release her back the wild inappropriate. 

Second, the issue of the bent dorsal fin in some male killer whales in captivity is often cited by animal rights groups as a sign of compromised welfare. However, there is no scientific evidence to support this contention and in fact, bent dorsal fins can be seen in wild killer whales and this has been cited in published research.

"....The collapsing, collapsed and bent  dorsal fins found on the New Zealand killer whales do not appear to be uncommon in this population,  with 23%, of the adult males having some form of abnormal fin..." (Visser, 1993).
Further, as this seems to be a gender specific issue regarding some male killer whales (either in captive care or the wild) as a measurement of fitness and health it cannot be used as an accurate determination of such criteria as compared with more standardised physiological parameters such as blood analysis.

Third, the comments regarding releasing animals back to the wild cited the release of a former captive killer whale called Keiko. This project was claimed to be a success and this is incorrect. 

Keiko was released back to the wild but failed to integrate into wild groups of other whales.  He eventually found his way to Norway and ended his days being cared for by humans in a 
fjord before dying of suspected pneumonia some months later.

In the review of the release, published in the peer review journal Marine Mammal Science, the authors concluded.

The release of Keiko demonstrated that release of long-term captive animals is especially challenging and while we as humans might find it appealing to free along-term captive animal, the survival and well being of the animal may be severely impacted in doing so.  (Simon, Hanson, Murrey,Tougaard, and Ugarte. 2009)

As to the actual research which - demonstrated that mammals were capable of mimicking human speech - this is not actually that new.

Research of this nature was conducted back in the 1960s by the controversial dolphin researcher Dr John Lilly. Ironically, the BBC showed a documentary in 2014 entitled "The Girl Who Talked to Dolphins" which highlighted his research and had recorded footage of one of the dolphins mimic English words and phrases.

Further, it's not just dolphins that have been known to imitate human speech as it has also been seen in belugas such as an animal called Noc that was studied by Dr Sam Ridgeway under the US Navy marine mammal program (Ridgway, Carder, Jeffries and Todd, 2012). There was even in one instance of a seal called Hoover who lived at the Boston Aquarium in Massachusetts imitating human speech. 

Nevertheless, various scientific projects in the past (predominately the 1960s) where efforts were made to teach animals (such as dolphins or chimpanzees) human language, were abandoned as researchers could not produce any tangible evidence that the animals could be effectively taught to communicate with human beings in anything approaching a discernible human language structure. The net result was that funding from such organisations as NASA, who funded some of John Lilly's work, was withdrawn.  

Further, chimpanzee research also faulted when the psychologist Herb Terence maintained that much of his research was the result of the Clever Hans effect and not the animals actually having the ability to communicate with humans. 

Perhaps one of the fundamental problems is that animals are generally incapable of speaking a language in the same terms as human beings. As Dr Justin Gregg points out in his 2013 book "Are Dolphins Really Smart - The Myth Behind the Mammal" human beings (Homo sapiens) are the only animal species that have a native language; the reality is that humans have language and animals communication. The depth and sophistication of human language exceed anything that we know regarding animals in the wild and their ability to communicate with each other. 

In conclusion, the premise that the killer whales (if they could speak and communicate with humans) would be that they wanted to be set free could turn out to be the fact that they are quite happy where they are in the protective environment of a zoo and aquarium.

A section from the 1983 Nova documentary "Signs of Apes and Songs of the Whales" featuring cognition research featuring dolphins and sea lions. At the University of Hawaii, two dolphins are being taught to comprehend the rudiments of grammar. And in California, the controversial John Lilly is teaching dolphins to mimic--and perhaps one day reply to--the computerized human voice.