Subject: Free Willy Could Go Back to (fwd)

Mike Williamson (
Wed, 28 Jan 1998 11:01:21 -0500 (EST)


---------- Forwarded message ----------
Date: Mon, 26 Jan 98 12:32:00 GMT 
Subject: `Free Willy' Could Go Back to

`Free Willy' Could Go Back to Sea

 Associated Press Writer
   NEWPORT, Ore. (AP) -- The stage is being set for Keiko, the whale
movie star of "Free Willy," to be released to the open sea.
   That romantic notion -- born of the big screen -- was the intent
all along when schoolchildren helped raise money to move the ailing
killer whale from a cramped Mexico City aquarium to a spacious pool
   Unlike the youngsters in the movie, however, the children of
this coastal resort town don't want to see him go.
   "He won't be able to survive out there," 10-year-old Ian
Hoffman said Thursday as Keiko swam gracefully past the underwater
viewing window at the Oregon Coast Aquarium. "This is where he
should stay."
   Two years ago, children and parents lined the streets from the
airport to the aquarium in the rain to give a joyous welcome to
Keiko. Since then, attendance at the aquarium has skyrocketed and
children here have come to think of Keiko as one of their own
rather than just a temporary neighbor.
   The Free Willy Keiko Foundation, the group that owns the whale
and raised $7 million to have him moved, has been locked in a
battle with the aquarium over whether Keiko is healthy enough to be
   Sources following Keiko's fate expect a panel of veterinarians
appointed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture to issue a
favorable report on the whale's health, clearing the way for him to
move into a ocean pen in the North Atlantic within a year. The next
step would be his release in the same area near Iceland where he
was captured.
   "He's healthy enough where we could put him in a bay pen
today," said Dr. Lanny Cornell, a San Diego veterinarian
representing the Free Willy Keiko Foundation. "I don't think
there's going to be something in the USDA report we haven't seen."
   "Keiko would be ecstatic to be placed back in the ocean where
he came from."
   Keiko, a 19-year-old whale who came to the aquarium underweight,
with a skin disease, respiratory problems and parasites, appeared
healthy Thursday, frolicking in his 2-million-gallon tank to the
delight of a group of touring fifth-graders.
   "I don't want him to go," said 10-year-old Rachel Downing.
"He doesn't know how to feed himself. They just throw him food."
   Aquarium handlers have been tossing him frozen fish and later
this month plan to begin testing his ability to catch live fish in
his tank.
   Veterinarians are split over whether Keiko, despite the
Hollywood imagery, can survive in the wild after spending nearly
all of his life in captivity. It would be the first time that such
a release of a killer whale has been attempted.
   Dr. Gregory Bossart, a University of Miami veterinarian who has
studied Keiko, shudders at the thought of the famous whale washing
up dead on a beach shortly after he's been set free.
   "We are experimenting with his life," Bossart said. "Often
times, because of Hollywood, we tend to forget the cruelty of
nature. It's very competitive, and only the strong survive."
   Cornell has said he thought the Oregon Coast Aquarium was
dragging its feet at the prospect of releasing Keiko because he's
been a "cash cow," generating an estimated $75 million for the
local economy since his arrival.
   Phyllis Bell, president of the aquarium, denied that's the case,
saying that attendance for those coming to see Keiko has leveled
off as people have gotten used to having a movie-star whale in
their midst.
   "If releasing Keiko is what's best for him, I'm all for it,"
Bell said.
   Still, the fifth-graders who craned their necks to get a good
look at the graceful black and white creature had doubts about the
wisdom of putting him back into sea.
   "He could die in the ocean," said 10-year-old Courtney
Richardson. "I don't think he will survive in the wild."