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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Freeing Willy

Air Date: Week of

Keiko, the killer whale which starred in the movie Free Willy, may have his Hollywood dream come true. Friends of Keiko have raised millions of dollars to move him to a special aquarium where his handlers are preparing him to return to the wild. But as Terry FitzPatrick reports, the effort is raising some serious scientific and ethical questions.


CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. And --

(Keiko sings as water splashes)

CURWOOD: That is Keiko, star of Hollywood's Free Willy movies, which chronicle the fictional adventures of a killer whale who escapes captivity. These days, Keiko is making history as the world's first Orca whale to be removed from a theme park for possible release into the wild. His celebrity status has attracted millions in donations for a special rehabilitation aquarium where his health has improved dramatically. Keiko's handlers are striving to make the Free Willy dream come true. But his potential release is raising some serious scientific and ethical questions. Living on Earth's Terry FitzPatrick explains.

(A man claps. "Right here big guy!" Keiko blows. Man: "Good morning. Hi.")

FITZPATRICK: It's 10:30 AM and zookeeper Nolan Harvey is preparing Keiko for the first of 5 physical workouts of the day. With hand signals and a dog whistle, Mr. Harvey tells Keiko to nudge his 9,000 pound body to the edge of the pool.

HARVEY: Hold it! Hold it!

(Keiko blows)

HARVEY: Good boy!


HARVEY: I've just asked him to roll over on his back, and then once he gets into position I'm going to ask him to do a fast lap around the pool underwater.

(Whistle blows)


(Water splashes)

FITZPATRICK: As the command comes, Keiko races away. When his lap is complete, he shoots into the air.

(Huge splash)

FITZPATRICK: The maneuvers look like a typical marine park show, but with an important difference. There's no set routine. Sometimes Keiko must perform frustrating or challenging tasks. Other times Mr. Harvey asks Keiko to surprise him by doing any trick he likes.

HARVEY: That's solving the problem. That's creativity. And that's what killer whales need to survive in the wild. That's what makes them such an efficient predator, and the top of the food chain.

(Harvey and Keiko talk to each other with whistles and other nonverbal sounds)

FITZ PATRICK: Keiko's conditioning here at the Oregon Coast Aquarium in Newport seems to be working. When he first arrived a year ago, Keiko could barely hold his breath underwater for 3 minutes. Now it's 13 minutes, about right for a healthy killer whale. Keiko has also gained a 1,000 pounds and strengthened his muscles.

(Keiko blows)

FITZ PATRICK: Keiko's health is improving, but there's a growing debate over the wisdom of actually releasing him. It's a debate about his chances of surviving in the wild, and the power of Hollywood movies to create unrealistic expectations.

(Movie music and water splashing)

FITZ PATRICK: Keiko became famous by starring in the 1993 film Free Willy, the story of a captive whale who refuses to perform. Willy is about to be killed by his owners when a young boy helps him escape.

(Music swells. Boy: "Come on, Willy, I know you can do it boy! I know you can jump this wall! Come on, I believe in you Willy! You can do it! You can be free!" Willy blows. "Come on, you can jump it!" Music swells further.)

FITZ PATRICK: Ironically, after the movie's release an expose uncovered that Keiko himself was suffering under poor conditions at a Mexico theme park. The embarrassing revelations prompted the movie's producers, along with several corporations and animal welfare groups, to take action. They raised more than $7 million to build Keiko a better home in the US and see if the Hollywood fantasy of releasing a captive whale could eventually come true. The fundraising expanded with a Free Willy sequel in 1995, and will continue with a third Willy film this summer. The movies vastly oversimplify the challenge of releasing a captive marine mammal. They don't mention that many attempts to release dolphins have ended in disaster, and that no one has ever tried to release a killer whale. Still, the head of the Keiko Project, Beverly Hughes, says people are willing to donate because the effort touches deep emotions.

HUGHES: I really think this project is a lot about hope. We hope that we really learn how to return a captive animal to the wild. We really need to pay attention to what we take from the world and what we put back, and we have an opportunity to put something back here and I think it's worth the effort to find out if we can do that successfully.

FITZ PATRICK: Many marine biologists, however, feel the plan is hopeless. Wild whales survive by living in groups known as pods, and scientists say Keiko would face an impossible challenge of trying to fit into this complex social network because he spent more than a decade alone in captivity. Some biologists also suspect the Keiko Project is motivated more by marketing than by science. Tundi Agardy is with the World Wildlife Fund.

AGARDY: Certainly, the interests of the movie producers are to make more money. And so they will continue to publicize the plight of this animal and get people to give money and to, you know, create all kinds of concern for this animal, in part because that's a great marketing strategy. It raises a lot of interest in the sequels. (Laughs)

FITZPATRICK: Killer whales are not an endangered species, and Dr. Agardy feels the millions raised for Keiko could be better spent helping other animals that are on the brink of extinction.

(Whistle. Harvey: "Okay! Good!")

FITZPATRICK: Keiko's handlers deny their work is motivated by Hollywood, and insist he'll never be released unless scientists are convinced he has a good chance of survival. The project has begun to enlist the help of researchers from some of the nation's top oceanographic institutions. They'll study if Keiko can use his underwater sonar skills to find fish, and if he's fit enough to swim 100 miles a day in search of food. Zookeeper Nolan Harvey says it's tests like these that will decide Keiko's future.

HARVEY: We're trying to do what's best for him. Not what makes us feel good as human beings. If that's the reason that we're rehabilitating him, and if we turn him loose because it makes us feel good, that's the wrong reason. We shouldn't even be doing this.

FITZPATRICK: Mr. Harvey says there's no pressure to release Keiko. He'll always have a home at the Oregon Coast Aquarium, where he's become a major attraction and generates enough revenue to pay for his upkeep.

HARVEY: Come on!

(Keiko squeals)

HARVEY: You're getting tired. I see that.

FITZ PATRICK: During his poolside sessions, Mr. Harvey has learned Keiko is a long way from becoming a viable wild whale. For years he's been fed by hand and it's uncertain if he'll ever learn to hunt. For example, Keiko was terrified when keepers added squid to his diet, and didn't know what to do when confronted by live baby salmon in his tank.

(Water splashes, brushing sounds)

FITZ PATRICK: Keiko is also battling serious medical problems including bad teeth and gums, which must be brushed 4 times a week. And he's infected with a herpes-like virus.

(Keiko squeals. Harvey: "Oh stop it.")

FITZ PATRICK: Even if Keiko overcomes these problems, his fate may ultimately hinge on the harsh realities of commercial fishing in the North Atlantic, where Keiko was born and his handlers hope to release him. International fishing fleets are known to kill nuisance whales that interfere with their nets. This could affect Keiko's chances of ever returning home, because the last thing anyone wants, either his handlers or the governments that must approve his relocation, is a movie star whale winding up at the end of a harpoon.

(Keiko blows. Movie music swells)

FITZ PATRICK: For Living on Earth, this is Terry FitzPatrick reporting.



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