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Keiko Nears a Whale of a Deal

Keiko, the 3.5-ton killer whale featured in “Free Willy,” may finally taste some liberation himself.

Although the orca Keiko portrays in the 1993 film is liberated from a theme park at the movie’s end, Keiko himself, underweight and suffering from a skin virus called papilloma, remains in an undersized tank at Mexico City’s Reino Aventura marine park, where he performs three shows daily on weekends.

Now, after a year of wrangling over Keiko’s fate among an unlikely amalgam of animal activists, marine park owners and even Michael Jackson, who sang the movie’s theme, Keiko may finally be headed to better conditions at a facility yet to be constructed at the Oregon Coast Aquarium in Newport, Ore.

Though not finalized, plans call for Keiko, who turns 16 in February, to be flown from Mexico City to a new 2-million gallon tank at the aquarium, where the whale would be allowed to convalesce and, if feasible, ultimately be relocated to waters off Iceland, where he was captured when he was 2.

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The $7-million cost of the undertaking will be paid by the Free Willy/Keiko Foundation. Warner Bros. and Regency Pictures, which produced “Free Willy,” have jointly donated $2 million to the fund, and an unnamed Seattle donor has pledged to match it. The balance of the money would come from individual and corporate donors.

Reino Aventura’s Oscar Porter, who bought Keiko from a Niagara Falls park for $350,000, would donate the whale to the Oregon facility. “We were looking for the best place to send Keiko,” Porter says. “After analyzing a lot of options, (the Oregon) option looks like the more serious one.”

Those options have included a plan by animal activists to gradually reintroduce Keiko to the ocean using a “sea pen” and a marine park trade association’s campaign to move Keiko to another park with better facilities. Meanwhile, Porter says that he also has an offer from Michael Jackson to move Keiko to a tank at the singer’s Neverland Ranch.

“There’s been a fair amount of nail biting and hair pulling all the way around,” says David Phillips, executive director of the Earth Island Institute, the nonprofit environmental organization that brokered the plan to send Keiko to Oregon. It is his “fervent hope” that, if the agreement goes forward, construction on the Oregon facility would begin this month, with Keiko arriving in November.

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Although Earth Island’s supporters include Richard Donner and Lauren Shuler-Donner, producers of “Free Willy,” Phillips says the organization initially steered clear of the battle over Keiko’s fate because “there were so many groups involved and it became such a controversial and contentious issue. But after a year of this and about five proposals crashing and burning, Dick Donner asked whether we might intervene to try to find a place where Keiko could go.”

Phyllis Bell, executive director of the Oregon Coast Aquarium, says that while Keiko would be on display there, the environment of his holding tank would be kept as natural as possible and he would not perform. Despite Keiko’s potent drawing power, Bell says the nonprofit aquarium will not “put up billboards saying, ‘COME SEE WILLY.’ What we want to do is get him feeling better.”

Warner Bros. will donate the proceeds from charity showings of the sequel, “Free Willy 2: The Adventure Home,” to be released this summer. But don’t look for Keiko in it. This time the filmmakers used animatronic whales and wild-whale footage exclusively.


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