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PRI's Environmental News Magazine

Freeing WIlly

Air Date: Week of September 4, 1998

After 19 years in captivity, most of it performing in a Mexican marine park, Keiko the Orca whale, is headed for home. The star of the Hollywood film "Free Willy" has been undergoing rehabilitation in Oregon to prepare him for release back into the wild. This month he’s being moved to Iceland, the country where he was originally captured. A special open-ocean facility in Icelandic waters will allow Keiko’s handlers to assess his behavior in a more natural environment. From our Northwest Bureau, Living on Earth’s Terry FitzPatrick reports.

Transcript

CURWOOD: After 19 years in captivity, most of it performing in a Mexican marine park, Keiko the orca whale is headed for home. The star of the Hollywood film Free Willy has been undergoing rehabilitation in Oregon to prepare him for release back into the wild. This month he's being moved to Iceland, the country where he was originally captured. A special open ocean facility in Icelandic waters will allow Keiko's handlers to assess his behavior in a more natural environment. From our Northwest Bureau, Living on Earth's Terry FitzPatrick reports.

(Whistling whale; splashing water. A man says, "Good boy!")

FITZ PATRICK: Two and a half years of rehabilitation exercises in a tank at the Oregon Coast Aquarium in Newport have made Keiko stronger, bigger, and healthier.

(Clapping hands)

FITZ PATRICK: Now, Keiko's handlers say it's time to work on his behavior. Diane Hammond of the Free Willy Keiko Foundation says a natural setting is needed to see if Keiko can rekindle the instincts of a wild whale.

HAMMOND: His physical rehabilitation's essentially complete. We can't do better for him in this pool in Oregon than we've already done. What we're left with, though, is a very healthy animal who's socially deprived. For us to continue to keep Keiko mentally as well as socially engaged day after day when he's isolated in a pool here, frankly, is getting harder and harder for us to do well.

FITZ PATRICK: To provide more stimulating surroundings, Keiko is being flown by cargo plane to a bay in Iceland, where an open water pen will reacquaint him with the sights and sounds of the sea. The new facility is a giant floating corral. Plastic pontoons form an enclosure about the size of a football field, with underwater nets to keep Keiko inside. This halfway house will allow handlers to see if Keiko can hunt for food and communicate with wild orcas living nearby. Ms. Hammond is optimistic he can, but says there's no pressure or deadline.

HAMMOND: Now, if he does adapt well, we're hoping to be able at the least to essentially unzip the nets of the pen and let him out into the larger bay. But if we aren't absolutely sure, we're not going to release him at all.

(Whale calls and human clapping)

FITZ PATRICK: There's been worldwide media interest in Keiko's departure from here in Oregon. But among scientists, there is widespread skepticism about the Free Willy dream of actually releasing a captive killer whale. Because of his age, medical problems, and history of isolation, many marine biologists think there's no chance Keiko could survive in the wild. Keiko's handlers insist, though, that they won't let him go unless they receive independent scientific approval.

(Blowholes and splashing)

FITZ PATRICK: Keiko's new corral might expose him to a new kind of risk. Animal rights activists could some day cut the nets and release Keiko before he's ready. Security equipment is being installed to help prevent that from happening.

(A whistle blows)

FITZ PATRICK: For Living on Earth, I'm Terry FitzPatrick.

 

 

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