Free Willy-For Real

By Jean-Michel Cousteau

Few superstars of stage or screen enjoy the popularity of Keiko, otherwise known as Willy, from the Warner Brothers movie, Free Willy.

People everywhere were swept up in this emotional story of an alienated boy who bonded with a captive Orca. In many ways, the Orcas situation seemed to symbolize the boys own imprisonment in an unhappy childhood. But in the climactic scene, the boy helps Willy leap over a barrier to freedom. This, too, was a potent symbol, for the boy had taken his own life in hand. He had ceased to be a victim at the mercy of others and had begun to make decisions and take responsibility for them.

As a parable, the film was tremendously effective. But it was less successful as a story about the real life of Keiko, the Killer Whale.

Many people, adults as well as children, believed the whale had really been freed. Such is the persuasive power of computer animation on a huge theater screen. After a time, they were shocked to learn this particular movie star was not doing the party circuit like other Hollywood celebrities but was still in the Mexican marine park where the film had been made.

Here, despite the best efforts of his caring staff, he was not doing well. Viral lesions covered large areas of his skin. He was underweight and his dorsal fin was completely bent over, atrophied from years in captivity.

But help was on the way. Once the world had been sensitized to the drama of Keikos life, a worldwide outpouring of concern flowed through the studios 800 number. Children sent money, letters, pictures, faxes, e-mails;all in a quixotic effort to free Willy, for real.

Something had to be done and that something could only be the rehabilitation and release of Keiko.

The story is now well known: Warner Brothers Studios, producer/directors Richard Donner and Lauren Shuler-Donner, Earth Island Institute, the Free Willy/Keiko Foundation, the Humane Society of the U.S. and La Reino Aventura marine park all had a hand in finding Keiko a new home. He was donated to the Free Willy/Keiko Foundation, which relocated him to the Oregon Coast Aquarium in Newport. A new, state of the art pen was built for him at a cost of more than $7 million. Here he would be nursed back to health in suitably cold water, observed by a team of scientists and prepared for release.

Once in Oregon, Keiko soon became the aquariums star attraction, drawing record numbers of visitors and record receipts. His life changed radically as scientists instituted a rigorous program of training and testing to prepare him for eventual release.

The task was daunting. To get Keiko in physical shape, scien-

tists and trainers devised a broad spectrum of aerobic exercises. Wild Orcas can swim up to 100 miles a day, an unlikely feat for Keiko when he arrived in Oregon. He could only hold his breath for three minutes. With room to move in his new tank, Keiko gradually responded to his new regime by doing what Orcas do best: swimming. He spent less and less time at the surface, engaging instead in exercises directed by scientists above, below and in the water, and in play with toys specifically designed for him. The slow and painstaking work paid off; he gained more than 1,900 pounds, his back muscles strengthened, his dorsal fin rose a full foot off his back and his lesions receded. The daily workouts, including speed swims, breaches, bows and other natural Orca frolics, have increased his strength and endurance, making him fit for life in the sea. He now routinely holds his breath for up to 13 minutes.

But that is only the physical part of the story. The psychological challenge has been equally demanding. Through an array of exercises, Keiko has learned to distinguish shapes and locate objects;crucial hunting skills. He has also begun to treat the Herring that share his tank not as companions but as food. Today, Keiko has extended his range of vocalizations and, most importantly, is expressing his preferences and desires.

The foundation is currently preparing for Keikos transfer to an enclosed bay and a bay pen in the North Atlantic. Here he will enjoy real ocean water and wild fish. And he will have space. Not just physical space but acoustical space. He will be in touch with the world as Orcas know it, the world of clicks, rattles, booms and echoes. The limitless world of cetacean sound. If he so desires, he can imitate art and choose freedom.

At this point, people may pause and ask what this titanic effort on behalf of a lone Killer Whale really means. It is a question we will be discussing for a long time. So far, this much is certain: Keiko is a unique animal. He is an ambassador between the human and cetacean worlds. And, as he transitions from our world into theirs, he gives us fresh insights into Killer Whales intelligence, behavior and society.

We are also learning about ourselves, about our own ability to evolve. Keiko has been in captivity for 18 of his 20 years. He was born free, but he may not want to swim free. Through our efforts on Keikos behalf, we will have placed him in a position to make the final decision for himself. That is the meaning of dignity, for him as well as for us.