'Free Keiko' Movement Was Misguided, Says Former Veterinarian

By Marc Morano | July 7, 2008 | 8:04 PM EDT

(CNSNews.com) -The effort to release Keiko the killer whale and star of the children's movie Free Willy may be losing steam as money to fund the project continues to dwindle and at least one organization has scaled back its involvement in the project.

While environmentalists and animal rights activists latched onto the Free Keiko movement and persuaded millions of children to get involved in the feel-good project that began 10 years ago, a veterinarian who once cared for Keiko now believes the attempt to free the whale was misguided.

In May, the Ocean Futures Society, longtime caretaker of Keiko, pulled back its activities regarding the whale.

Charles Vinick, executive vice president of the Ocean Futures Society, told CNSNews.com: "As of last May, we turned over day-to-day operations to [Dave] Phillips." Phillips heads the California-based Free Willy-Keiko Foundation, which was founded in 1994. Jean-Michel Cousteau, son of famed oceanographer Jacques Cousteau, founded the Ocean Futures Society.

The Keiko project's goal remains to reintroduce the orca into a pod of wild killer whales, but financial support has been greatly reduced in recent years as Keiko has failed to achieve independence in the open ocean.

Between 1998 and 2002, the whale was kept in a sea pen in Iceland. At the peak of that phase of the project, it reportedly cost about $500,000 a month and was heavily financed by Seattle billionaire Craig McCaw. But with McCaw no longer footing the bill and fundraising decreasing, the total annual budget for the project now is only $500,000, according to the Oregonian newspaper.

More than $20 million has been spent on efforts to free Keiko since the project began in 1993, the newspaper reported.

Critics and longtime observers of the Keiko project see the decision by the Ocean Futures Society and the dwindling of funds as an indication that the effort to free the whale into the open ocean is failing. Keiko currently lives in a Norwegian fjord and is fed by human handlers.

"This is not science; Keiko is a good example of how our actions make ourselves feel good. This is a sad state of affairs," said Dr. Gregory Bossart, a veterinarian, who first had contact with the whale during its stay in a dilapidated aquarium in Mexico City.

"This whale should never have been released...this is not a release candidate, never was a release candidate," Bossart explained. Bossart is the current director of the division of Marine Mammal Research and Conservation at the Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institution in Ft. Pierce, Fla.

Bossart's message to the children across the world, who participated in the Free Keiko movement modeled after the fictional whale's life in the Free Willy movie, is simple.

"It's not to believe Hollywood. Hollywood is not what happens in the wild. What happens in the wild is pretty rough and can have ugly consequences," Bossart said.

The Keiko effort inspired millions of school children to save up money in "penny drives" to help the real-life whale mimic the fictional whale's adventures from the 1993 movie that culminated in Willy gaining his freedom from an amusement park.

But a decade after the efforts to release him began, Keiko still has not learned how to catch fish on his own and instead relies on a daily diet of about 100 pounds of frozen herring fed to him by human handlers.

Dr. Steve Brown, one of Keiko's veterinarians during his stay at the Oregon Coast Aquarium between 1996 and 1998, said the fact that Keiko has thus far been unable to survive on his own in the ocean is not unexpected.

"That's not a big surprise to me," Brown told CNSNews.com.

"He has chosen the easy life. Given that he had been habituated to being hand-fed for years and years, it is not a surprise to me that he has chosen to continue that way," Brown said.

Supporters of the effort to release Keiko discount the criticism and maintain that it's still possible to release the 26-year-old whale into the open ocean.

"We have not lost hope," said Dave Phillips in an interview with CNSNews.com. "I think it's still an open question. He's very strong, he's in very good health," Phillips said.

Phillips pointed to Keiko's 1,000-mile swim from Iceland to Norway last fall as proof of the whale's fitness.

"It still has not been determined whether ultimately he will choose whales or people, but we are continuing to give him the chance to make that choice," he added.

See Earlier Story:
American Investigator Examines 'Free Willy'
(April 30, 1999)

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