Subject: Free Willy: Battle rages over future of "F (fwd)

Mike Williamson (
Fri, 17 Oct 1997 13:46:37 -0400 (EDT)

Date: Fri, 17 Oct 97 13:40:00 GMT 
Subject: Battle rages over future of "F

Battle rages over future of "Free Willy" whale

     By Martin Wolk
     SEATTLE, Oct 17 (Reuters) - Will the whale who starred in
"Free Willy" ever go free?
     That question is being asked by environmental groups around
the country, especially in the coastal Oregon town of Newport,
where a battle rages over the health and future of its most
famous resident, the killer whale Keiko who starred in the hit
1993 movie.
     Two of Keiko's caretakers have resigned in the last few
weeks, citing ethical concerns about the whale's owner, the Free
Willy Keiko Foundation, which in turn accused the Oregon Coast
Aquarium of "gross negligence" that led to the whale suffering
a respiratory infection over the summer.
     Foundation officials insist the five-tonne orca is on track
for a planned eventual release in the north Atlantic, where he
was captured off the coast of Iceland as a 2-year-old in 1979.
But aquarium executives complain they have been left in the dark
about Keiko's condition and haveexpressed concern about what
they say are recent signs of lethargy and stress, including
thrashing and banging his head into walls.
     "We have had some concerns about his health," said
aquarium President Phyllis Bell, who added that many visitors
have asked about changes in Keiko's behavior. "All we're asking
for is an independent evaluation of his health by an independent
group," she said.
     She denied accusations the aquarium is trying to sabotage
the foundation plan to take away its most popular attraction,
saying attendance already has fallen off by about 30 percent
this year as the novelty of the Keiko exhibit has worn off.
     Last year acquarium attendance doubled to 1.3 million, with
much of the additional proceeds going to the foundation to
defray Keiko's maintenance costs of about $50,000 a month.
     "All we're concerned about is Keiko and what's best for
him," Bell said.
     Foundation officials contend Keiko is fine despite the
bacterial infection, a more recent fungal infection and
tapeworms and other parasites said to be a natural result of the
introduction of live fish into the animal's diet.
     Nobody disputes that Keiko has come a long way since he was
found with chronic health problems living in a cramped tank in a
Mexican amusement park, much to the embarrassment of Warner
Bros., which pulled in more than $75 million from its
heartwarming movie about an orca freed from a similarly sad life
in captivity.
     The Hollywood studio and cellular-telephone billionaire
Craig McCaw each donated $2 million to help the foundation build
a $7.3 million state-of-the-art tank for Keiko at the aquarium
about three hours from Portland, Oregon.
     Hundreds of cheering townspeople lined the streets to greet
Keiko in January 1996 after he was flown in by cargo jet and
taken on a flatbed truck to his new home. Since then the
formerly underweight cetacean has gained 2,000 pounds (1,200
kg), increased his length to 21 feet (seven metres) and lost
unsightly skin lesions that afflicted him in his former home.
     "He has really progressed much farther and faster than we
thought he would," said Diane Hammond, a spokeswoman for the
foundation. "He has become much more like a killer whale."
     But she acknowledged that Keiko needs at least a year of
additional rehabilitiation before the foundation can consider a
move to a protected pen and ultimately the open ocean. For one
thing, after 18 years in captivity Keiko does not care much for
live fish and was just learning to hunt herring and black cod
when he was laid low by the respiratory infection, blamed on lax
maintenance of a filtration system in his tank.
     Keiko's handlers also face daunting obstacles in the
unprecedented effort to return the orca to his native pod,
including possible opposition by Icelandic authorities and
potential rejection by other whales who may no longer recognize
his "dialect."
     But conservationists and marine biologists believe Keiko can
clear those hurdles and potentially become a model case for
future releases. "From a conservation perspective this offers a
tremendous opportunity," said Toni Frohoff, a Seattle-area
wildlife biologist who has worked with captive orcas.
"Successful reintroductions occur with land mammals all over
the world. Facilities that maintain capitive marine mammals are
far behind."
     Jennifer O'Connor, a caseworker for animal-rights group
People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, was more blunt. "I
honestly think he would be better off dying a natural death in
the wild than living a life in captivity," she said.
     Indeed Keiko's owners may be racing the clock. Male killer
whales may live more than 50 years in the wild but rarely last
beyond their 20s in captivity. Just this month a 21-year-old
male orca died after years as a popular exhibit at the Vancouver
Aquarium, prompting an outcry by a local activist group against
the "marine mammal slave trade."