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Keiko the Whale Health Report

Air Date: Week of

Keiko, the star of the "Free Willy" movies, has cleared a major hurdle towards his possible release back into the wild. A panel of experts, assembled by the U.S. government, has given the Orca whale a clean bill of health. The study followed a public feud between the foundation which bought Keiko from a Mexican marine park, and the aquarium where he now lives. Oregon Public Broadcasting's Ley Garnett provides this update.


CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. Keiko, the star of the Free Willy movies, has cleared a major hurdle toward his possible release back into the wild. A panel of experts assembled by the US Government, has given the orca whale a clean bill of health. The study followed a public feud between the foundation which bought Keiko from a Mexican marine park and the aquarium where he now lives. From Oregon Public Broadcasting, Ley Garnett reports.

(Streams of water, voices, a blowhole)

GARNETT: At the Oregon Coast Aquarium in Newport, Keiko's handler encourages him to swim backwards around the pool. Like a human barbell the trainer stands on the whale's pectoral fins to simulate weight training. The dispute over Keiko's health began last fall, when aquarium officials claimed he was ill and not getting medical attention from the Keiko Free Willy Foundation. The conflict broke out just as the organizations were renegotiating their financial contract. Keiko has generated about $4 million in extra revenue, and some foundation employees have suggested the aquarium would like to keep him as long as possible. If the whale were sick, it could delay his release. Finally the 2 sides agreed to have 6 independent experts study Keiko's condition. One of them was Al Smith, the Professor of Veterinary Medicine at Oregon State University.

SMITH: The panel found nothing to be alarmed at in regards to his health status. Nothing at this point in time that would indicate he had any serious ongoing disease.

GARNETT: But Dr. Smith says Keiko was indeed ill last summer, with a form of hepatitis. And the report also cited several low-grade health problems. Aquarium president Phyliss Bell says her organization has no interest in keeping Keiko longer than necessary, but she says the study shows that the concerns about his health had been justified.

BELL: I think that he is probably a lot better than he was during the summer time and early fall. And with the information we'll receive, we ought to be able to make some intelligent decisions on where we go from here.

GARNETT: For its part, the Keiko Free Willy Foundation sees the study as a green light for its release plan. Diane Hammond is the foundation's spokeswoman.

HAMMOND: Keiko is at this point physically ready to be in a bay pen. It will be an enclosure within a North Atlantic bay or fjord. It really won't be a great deal different from here, except that he'll be linked acoustically to the marine world around him. Fish will be swimming in and out of this enclosure, and he'll be back in a natural marine environment.

GARNETT: But Keiko still faces an uncertain future. One of his former trainers at the aquarium says Keiko is one of the worst candidates for release because he's been in captivity so long. And the foundation has yet to find a country to host the net pen. Even more important, Keiko must learn to hunt prey, something he's rarely done at the aquarium. Meanwhile, the veterinary panel has recommended that Keiko get more exercise and a pool mate. Perhaps more than any physical ailment, the panel warned that Keiko suffers from loneliness.

(A whale whistle, blowhole)

GARNETT: For Living on Earth, I'm Ley Garnett in Portland, Oregon.



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