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Fight brews over 'Free Willy' star's fate

Keiko October 26, 1997
Web posted at: 11:25 p.m. EST (0425 GMT)

From Correspondent Rusty Dornin

NEWPORT, Oregon (CNN) -- When he splashed down in the Oregon Coast Aquarium in 1996, the star of the movie "Free Willy," was in bad shape -- underweight and covered with skin growths.

Nearly two years later, Keiko the killer whale is a thousand pounds heavier, but his health is now being bitterly disputed.

"We know that Keiko was being treated for a fungal respiratory infection, and we know that he has tapeworms and roundworms and nematodes," said Phyllis Bell of the Oregon Coast Aquarium.

But Keiko's owners, the Free Willy Keiko Foundation, claim the whale has been given the once over by several experts, and they have given him a clean bill of health.

vxtreme Can Willy be freed?

"All of them have found him to be well," said Diane Hammond of the foundation. "There is no evidence of any current bacterial or fungal infection."

The finger-pointing on all sides has the U.S. Department of Agriculture calling for an independent medical evaluation. Meanwhile, Keiko's owners still want to eventually release him to the wild, although they too have questions.

"We need to know whether he can see well? Can he echo locate? Can he hear? Is he going to be fully capable of hunting successfully on his own?" Hammond said.

Indeed, the only thing Keiko hunts now is a handout -- about 200 pounds of frozen fish a day. When they put live fish in the tank, he didn't quite get it; he brought the fish back to the trainers. They plan to try again.

Keiko's vocalizations will be studied to see if he can "speak" killer whale. The foundation wants to take him to a wild ocean pen in the North Atlantic in the next two years to see if he will communicate with other whales.

Keiko

Keiko spends about 15 hours a day directly socializing with his keepers -- working, playing and feeding. The foundation hopes when he's taken to a pen in the wild, his need for human contact will decrease.

But critics are skeptical, saying that the whale is too used to humans after 18 years in captivity. They fear that gangs of juvenile killer whales might attack Keiko.

Keiko's owners say if he can't handle playing the real life role of Free Willy, they won't force him.

"It's quite possible that he won't be released," Hammond says. "We're not going to make that decision until we really know whether he can succeed or not."

 
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