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Experts denounce call to kill Keiko

Guardians say orca making progress on adapting

OSLO, Norway (CNN) -- The Humane Society of the United States has denounced as "absurd and shortsighted" a suggestion from a Norwegian whaling expert that Keiko, the killer whale that became famous as the star of the "Free Willy" movies, be put to death.

"All indications are that he is doing extremely well," said Nick Braden, spokesman for the Humane Society, one of the two groups taking care of the orca in the wild.

David Phillips, director of the Free Willy Keiko Foundation, concurred.

"We are very happy with how far he's come and his ability to be able to succeed as a wild whale," Phillips said.

Keiko turned up in a Norwegian fjord six weeks after he was returned to the wild from his pen in Iceland.

Keiko, the killer whale featured in the 'Free Willy' movies, delights children in Norway. (September 3)

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He is arguably the world's best-known orca, given his starring role in the three "Free Willy" films released in the 1990s, as well as a brief animated series shown on television.

"This is all madness," whaling expert Nils Řien of the Institute of Marine Research in Bergen, Norway, told VG Nett, the online edition of Norway's largest newspaper.

"First they spend millions on taming him and turning him into a movie star. Then they spend more millions on turning him back into a wild animal," he said. "They should have let him live and die in captivity. Now that they have decided not to keep him in captivity, they should put him down. Those who believe that they are helping Keiko by setting him free are really doing the opposite."

'Completely tame'

Volunteers spent years training Keiko for life in the wild. He was released from his pen in Iceland in July and swam nearly 1,400 kilometres (870 miles) to a western Norway fjord.

His guardians said there's evidence he has the ability to survive in the wild.

"He arrived in Norway having not lost a pound," Phillips said.

"All of our data showed that he was diving to depths which indicated a foraging behaviour, and that has now been confirmed through visual sightings," Braden said.

The orca surprised and delighted Norwegians who petted and swam with him and climbed on his back as he splashed in the Skaalvik Fjord, about 400 kilometres (250 miles) northwest of the capital, Oslo.

"He is completely tame and he clearly wants company," said Arild Birger Neshaug, 35.

Neshaug said he was in a small rowboat with his 12-year-old daughter, Hanne, and some friends when they spotted Keiko on Sunday.

"We were afraid," Neshaug said. "But then he followed us to our cabin dock. At first we were skeptical, and then we tried petting his back. Finally the children went swimming with him."

He said the orca stayed by their dock all night and into the day on Monday, happily eating fish tossed to him by the families.

Norway still has whaling industry

Newspapers had expressed tongue-in-cheek surprise over the whale coming to Norway, since the oil-rich Scandinavian nation of 4.5 million people is the only country that commercially hunts whales despite a global whaling ban.

"This is a huge, huge animal. He decides where he goes," said Braden. What's more, Norway's whalers only hunt minke whales.

"It's definitely him. We have tracked him from Iceland," Fernando Ugarte, part of the team monitoring the orca's progress, said by telephone Monday from a ship in the fjord.

Ugarte is monitoring the whale on behalf of the Ocean Futures Society and the Humane Society of the United States. He said Keiko was in excellent shape, but still seems to prefer humans to other whales.

But the groups are urging people to minimize contact with Keiko because it might damage his progress in adapting to the wild.

Keiko, which means "Lucky One" in Japanese, was captured near Iceland in 1979 when he was 2 years old, and spent most of his life in captivity in Canada and Mexico.

His appearance in the 1993 film "Free Willy" and sequels helped spark a campaign to free him.

He was rescued from a Mexico City amusement park in 1996 and rehabilitated at the Oregon Coast Aquarium in Newport, Oregon, before he was airlifted back to Iceland in 1998 and taught to catch fish.

Keiko's rehabilitation cost $20 million. Ugarte said his team will continue monitoring Keiko's progress and movements.




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