Fight brews over 'Free Willy' star's fate
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
Nearly two years later, Keiko the killer whale is a thousand
pounds heavier, but his health is now being bitterly
"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
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.
"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 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."