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Keiko

keiko

With one giant leap Willy was free. But that was in the movie. Life has been more complicated for the star of Free Willy.

Keiko the 5-ton killer whale became famous in 1993. He was chosen by Warners to play the part of the whale in the hit film Free Willy. In the film, he was badly treated in captivity. Then he made friends with a 12 year old boy, who helped him escape.

Keiko's real life story starts like Willy's. He was kept for 15 years in a cramped aquarium in a Mexico City amusement park. Then he was chosen for the film. But instead of being freed, he was used in more Willy films and kept in the aquarium. The water temperature there was 20 degrees higher than it should have been. He began to lose weight and had massive wounds on his skin. He forgot how to catch fish and could only hold his breath for three minutes.

Eventually a charity, the Free Willy-Keiko Foundation, bought him. He was moved to a new aquarium in Oregon, USA, where the water temperature was better. It cost of $7.5 million. He gained weight in his new home, and his skin improved. He learnt to catch and eat live fish and to hold his breath for 20 minutes like other whales.

Now, after years of campaigning and fundraising - often by children - Keiko is being returned to the Icelandic ocean, where he was born. He will be given a big welcome by a crowd of adoring children, as well as the Icelandic prime minister and a military escort.

But some people are against moving him. They fear it may lead to his death. His trainer, Mark Trim, resigned last year because of the Foundation's plans for Keiko. "This orca should stay where he is," says Trim. "The muscles on Keiko's back are wasted from spending 19 of his 20 years in captivity. I doubt he would ever recover the power and fitness he needs to compete in the wild."

Neil Anderson, a health officer at the Oregon aquarium, has also resigned. He was stopped from examining Keiko by two men from the foundation. He is worried Keiko will die because he won't be used to the germs in the ocean. "The foundation has a mission to free Keiko, but in their eagerness they are exploiting him. Release is a complete unknown and it's just not worth risking his life."

The operation to move him is again costing millions of dollars. A $1 million sea pen, 250ft long and 100ft wide, has been built in Iceland. Hiring a US Air Force cargo plane to get him there cost $370,000. And 10 experts are being paid to look after him by the charity.

Brad Andrews, of Sea World in San Diego, thinks it would be foolish even to consider the risk of giving Keiko his freedom. "Attempts to free dolphins in captivity have been disastrous, and we know more about them. They have died or been found begging for food from boats. Freeing Keiko is a guessing game."

But Jeff Foster, who is directing the operation, replies that the Foundation will not be releasing Keiko immediately, and may never do so. They will firstly carry out experiments as he adapts to his new surroundings. They will place a camera on Keiko's back to check his condition.

"Absolutely no risks will be taken with his health," says Foster. "We would never do anything that would harm Keiko."

Keiko would eventually have to leave his pen and join a pod of other orca whales. He couldn't survive on his own. The other whales could be hostile. But the camera on his back will show if this happens, and Keiko is being trained to return 'home' at a signal. The Icelandic ocean will be a "halfway house where he will have to prove himself."

There are differences of opinion about humans protecting such animals. Some marine experts doubt the wisdom of setting him free. But animal rights supporters believe his release cannot come soon enough. If Free Willy does die early, there will be cries around the world.

Keiko dies