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Should ‘Free Willy’ Whale Go Free?

May 27, 1996

PORTLAND, Ore. (AP) _ Twice a week, 11-year-old Sarra White peers through a thick glass window at Keiko the whale, swimming alone in his 2-million-gallon pool.

She loves the orca, but she hopes someday he will be gone.

``I’ll know that he’ll have a better life out in the wild,″ said Sarra, who with classmates has raised more than $5,000 for the star of ``Free Willy″ to return to his home in Icelandic waters.

The release of the 16-year-old killer whale would make a true story of 1993′s ``Free Willy,″ the tale of an unhappy, ailing whale who returned home. The film focused attention on Keiko’s poor living conditions at a Mexico City amusement park, where he lost hundreds of pounds and wore out his teeth chewing on the sides of his small pool.

But whether Keiko will get his movie ending _ and whether he can survive on his own _ still is intensely debate in the marine industry and animal welfare circles.

The marine park industry long has disparaged the release plan, predicting the whale would die.

``He’s a sick animal, he’s been in a public display facility and he has worn teeth. Now what do you think his chances are?″ said Alliance of Marine Mammal Parks director Marilee Menard. Captive animals should be released only to repopulate a threatened species, she said.

Animal welfare advocates say Keiko’s natural instincts should allow him to flourish at sea.

For now, the 8,000-pound whale is the top tourist attraction at the Oregon Coast Aquarium in Newport, where attendance has risen by 150 percent since he arrived on Jan. 7.

Keiko moved to his new, larger home with the help of $7 million in donations from whale-lovers worldwide who had learned of his poor health.

After 10 years performing for his food in a small tank at a Mexico City amusement park, Keiko was about 2,000 pounds underweight, had a wartlike skin virus, a weakened immune system, digestive problems and bad teeth.

Since January, he has gained between 500 and 1,000 pounds. His skin is 80 percent healed.

Researchers are making plans to search for the pod of whales from which he was captured at age 2, and want to teach him how to catch live fish.

The decision whether to try to release the whale rests with the board of directors of the Free Willy-Keiko Foundation.

Dave Phillips, the president, says the orca has a ``good shot″ at freedom.

``To those who think we’re not going to succeed, give us time. A lot of those same people said we wouldn’t get this far,″ Phillips said.

The biggest hurdle to Keiko’s freedom could be the Icelandic government, which firmly rejected an exploratory request in 1994. The officials think Keiko could infect infect other whales with unknown viruses and bacteria and question the humaneness of releasing a captive whale. Killer whales are also plentiful in Icelandic waters.

Phillips hopes those who believe in Keiko’s freedom could change the country’s mind.

``There will be those that will insist we will never release Keiko until he’s swimming off, until he’s gone,″ Phillips said.

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