'Free Willy' Snared in a Legal Tangle

Groups battle to decide if Keiko, the whale that appeared in 1993 film, will truly be free

When the tale of Willy the killer whale was brought to a Hollywood close a few years back, the giant orca leapt over a sea wall to freedom as moviegoers sniffed back tears of joy. Lovable whale was reunited with family, abandoned boy found purpose and new parents, bad guys were outwitted.

But life, it seems, is much more complicated than art.

These days, Keiko the whale - the star of "Free Willy" - is still in captivity. And because of health concerns, as well as doubts about whether he can learn what it takes to live in the wild, he may never be set free. What's more, the key players in Keiko's future are not biologists, veterinarians, and trainers but lawyers and arbitrators trying to sort out what has become a fairly nasty custody battle.

After his 1993 film fame, Keiko (Japanese for "Lucky One") was taken back to the amusement park in Mexico City where he lived in a small tank performing whale tricks five times a day. When his plight became public, it was upsetting to animal lovers around the world - and embarrassing to the filmmakers and other commercial interests who'd made a bundle off Willy.

Kids chipped in their coins, a Seattle billionaire and the producers of "Free Willy" each kicked in a couple of million dollars, and soon a "Free Willy Keiko Foundation" was ready to find him a proper temporary home with the goal of really setting him loose to roam the North Atlantic - maybe even to reunite with the pod of whales from which he'd been snatched as a youngster in 1979.

That home was the Oregon Coast Aquarium in Newport, where $7.3 million was spent on a much larger pool and another $500,000 a year is now budgeted to cover Keiko's full-time staff of four, food, and other expenses.

A change of plan

Under the arrangement that brought him here 22 months ago, the foundation owns Keiko and leases the new facility while the aquarium was to provide care and rehabilitation. In July, however, the foundation took over Keiko's day-to-day care. Foundation officials said this was because they wanted staff members who were dedicated to his release and would also be able to eventually continue the work in the North Atlantic.

But aquarium officials soon began warning that Keiko had serious physical problems and asserted that the foundation was too insistent on releasing him into the wild - something that has never been done before with a captive killer whale.

"We're truly concerned about his health," says aquarium president Phyllis Bell, who notes a strong recommendation by the Oregon Veterinary Medical Association that an "independent team" of experts check Keiko.

The Free Willy Keiko Foundation responds that the aquarium is just afraid it might lose its cash cow. (The foundation receives a percentage of the take as well.) And it points to recent examinations by four veterinarians and US Department of Agriculture inspectors indicating a better picture.

It's true that Keiko has been a big boost for the local economy in a town that has seen its traditional sources of income - timber and commercial fishing - steadily decline as the region runs out of harvestable trees and salmon. Aquarium attendance more than doubled to 1.3 million visitors the year Keiko arrived. Overall, the aquarium - considered one of the best in the United States - means 3,290 jobs and more than $75 million a year to the region's economy.

But Ms. Bell says aquarium officials "always planned for him to be here just short-term." And adds, "We support the release if possible."

At the moment, aquarium and foundation are communicating by press release and Internet postings even though their offices are a short walk apart, and most of the foundation staff had previously worked for the aquarium.

"It's like a custody battle," laments Diane Hammond, who handles press relations for the foundation. Last week, professional arbitrators began working with the sides.

In person, Keiko seems oblivious to all the fuss. Despite the recent health concerns, there is no doubt that he is in much better shape than he was when United Parcel Service fetched him here to great fanfare.

Feeling better

On a diet of 185 pounds of restaurant-quality frozen fish a day, he's gained nearly a ton (to 9,620 pounds) and grown eight inches (to 21 feet). With more room to exercise, he can now hold his breath under water for more than 16 minutes, compared with just three when he arrived.

And there's no doubt that Keiko is highly intelligent, playful, humorous, and very affectionate with trainer Peter Noah.

But it takes more than that to live as a "free" whale. He will need to learn to catch and eat live fish, for example, something he has not done yet.

When Mr. Noah tried to feed him a live salmon the other day, he reacted the way a human baby might to a particularly offensive spoonful of strained peas - pushing it back out with his formidable tongue in a gesture that clearly said, "yuck!"

"He has a very clear idea of what we want," says Noah. "He just doesn't necessarily want to do it."

All he's known so far is hand-feeding and communication with humans. It will take at least a year or two of training and rehabilitation before he could be transported to his next halfway house - a pen in a fjord or bay where he could begin catching his own food and communicating with other killer whales.

And even though the feud between aquarium and foundation continues, it is evident that everyone here wants what's best for Keiko. Even if it means he'll never be truly free.

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