Keiko’s Life in the Media from 1992 to 2009
1992: DISCOVERED BY HOLLYWOOD
July 11, 1993 New York Times
“After nearly a year searching for an orca whose living situation matched that of Willy in their story – alone in a tank, in a humble marine park – the film makers found the 15-year-old Keiko in El Nuevo Reino Aventura, an amusement park in Mexico City. ‘There was a lot of serendipity in our finding him,’ says Jennie Lew Tugend, one of the film’s producers. The park was scheduled to close for renovations, which made the location available as a stand-in for the Pacific Northwest and left Keiko with little to occupy his time….
“’He was a very quick study,” says Tim Desmond, one of the American marine mammal trainers who worked with Keiko and his Mexican trainers. ‘He was extremely curious – always interested in everything going on around him. He is the gentlest killer whale I’ve ever met. And I’ve never seen an animal that sensitive.”
September 23, 2002 New Yorker
“No one imagined what a success it would become, although [producer Lauren Shuler-Donner had an inkling when, after an early research screening, a man approached her, held out ten dollars, and said, Here, use this money to save the whales.’
“’Free Willy’ pulled in huge audiences right from the start—mostly kids, of course, who insisted on seeing the movie over and over and over, thus answering the movie’s tag-line question, ‘How far would you go for a friend?,’ with a worldwide gross of a hundred and fifty-four million dollars. What’s more, the producers had attached a message at the end of the movie directing anyone interested in saving the whales to call 1-800-4-WHALES, a number that belonged to Earth Island Institute, an environmental group. The resulting torrent of calls blew the minds of everyone involved—the executives at Warner Bros., the producers, the people at Earth Island Institute.
And not just the number of calls but the fact that many of the callers were asking something that hadn’t been anticipated: Sure, save the wild whales, but, more to the point, what about Willy? “’We had no clue that this would involve Keiko as an individual,’ David Phillips, of Earth Island Institute, says. ‘At that point, he was just a prop in the movie. Of course, everyone had fallen in love with him. The cast was in love with him. Everyone who gets near him gets Keiko virus.”
1993: BECOMING AN OVERNIGHT STAR
May 25, 1993 Los Angeles Times
“Aquatic theme parks take note: Once kids see ‘Free Willy,’’ they’ll want to do more than just save the whales. They’ll want to liberate them. If the movie becomes the sleeper of the summer, as Warner Bros. hopes, expect kids to pressure mom and dad to return the world’s largest mammals in captivity to their natural habitats…
“The script caused Australian director Simon Wincer to well up in tears when he first read it two years ago. And numerous Warner Bros. research screenings for school-age children across the country in recent weeks have met with similar reaction.”
July 11, 1993 New York Times
“Researchers are divided over the issue of reintroducing long-captive killer whales to their pods. The film makers are reluctant to take a stance. Mr. Wincer says that the movie is intended purely as ‘a piece of entertainment.’ He thinks that, after seeing it, ‘a lot of people will want to go to places like Sea World, which is certainly nothing like the park in our story, to look at these animals.’ The director says, however, that what he learned from making the film ‘is that they really belong in the sea.’”
July 19, 1993 Houston Chronicle
“The film just came out, but already the cry has begun: ‘Free Keiko!’”
August 4, 1993 Daily Breeze
“’Free Willy’ is more than the title of a celluloid fantasy – it’s become a rallying cry for the rights of captive beasts….’The movie is this wonderful fantasy on freedom, and yet Willy is still in captivity,’ said Mary Frampton, a Malibu resident and founder of Save Our Coast and Malibu Dolphin Watch. ‘Too bad life doesn’t imitate art.
Maybe we can see to it that it does.’ Frampton has been busy working the phone trying to gather support for Keiko‘s move from Mexico City and, eventually, back to the wild. She said marine parks in the United States do not want to cooperate ‘because they don’t want to set a precedent for releasing killer whales’…
“’We realized that the movie didn’t represent what we were doing or what Sea World is about,’ said Brad Andrews, zoological director of Sea World, which has 18 orcas among a total of 425 marine mammals at its various aquariums….In the film, the owner of the fictitious marine park is greedy and concerned only for the money Willy might pull in – a position that Sea World rejects. In addition, Sea World officials dismiss the notion of the animal leaping over a wall into the open sea to rejoin his family.
“’It’s not a good message,’ Andrews said. ‘They shouldn’t just be let go. There could be non-acceptance by other whales, it might not be able to forage for all the food it needs and it might not be prepared for the rigors and stresses of the wild.’
Ken Balcomb of the Center for Whale Research in Friday Harbor, Wash., said there have been several instances of killer whales surviving for years after being set free. ‘Two killer whales that were held in captivity for seven months before they were released in 1970 have both survived,’ Balcomb wrote last month, citing just one example. ‘The female had had three calves since their release.’”
September 17, 1993 Tampa Tribune
“With the help of teachers, the 8-year-old crusaders began spreading their ‘Free Keiko’ message throughout the school. On Thursday, the school faxed four pupil and teacher letters to Sea World in Orlando. Many more pupil’s letters are expected to follow, Assistant Principal Sandra Gout said. The pupils plan to raise money for the ailing whale and send him to the Orlando park, where they hope he’ll be treated and released, she said. Today, pupils type their pleas for help into a computer network that will carry their messages to school children around the state. They hope a sympathetic adult will help them tap into national or international networks, Gout said.
October 17, 1993 Associated Press
“The Humane Society of the United States and three other release-oriented groups have launched a multimillion dollar “Save Keiko” campaign. Scientists are trying to use state-of-the-art genetic tests to locate Keiko‘s family, or pod, in the chilly waters off the coast of Iceland….U.S. scientists admit it is possible that releasing Keiko into the open ocean could doom him. But they believe that the gamble may provide information that could help other captive killer whales – including 22 in the United States. Charles Mayo III, senior scientist of the Center for Coastal Studies in Provincetown, Mass., said it is impossible to predict how Keiko would fare because no killer whale has ever been put back into the sea.”
October 17, 1993 Dallas Morning News
“Pint-sized kids at a Tampa school are reaching out to children everywhere through crayons and computers, asking for $1 of their allowance for a whale-sized dream, to ‘Free Willy,’’ really. Their goal is to raise $1 million to help Keiko….They opened a bank account, raised $300, named a trustee for the fund and got a national wire number for contributions from other cities.”
1997: KEIKO GETS HEALTHY
January 8, 1997 New York Times
“The 7,700-pound killer whale that starred in the film ‘Free Willy’ was sprung today from a cramped, tepid pool in an amusement park in Mexico City, his home for the last decade, and airlifted to an enormous and deliciously chilly custom-built tank in an aquarium on the Oregon coast. American environmentalists who mobilized the $9 million effort to relocate the killer whale, or orca, say he is not ready to face the ocean depths off Iceland where he was born. But if he can recover his sagging health in his new home, they dream of replicating the triumphant climax of the movie by sending him back to rejoin his clan.”
2003: KEIKO PASSES AWAY
December 13, 2003 Seattle Times
“… [Dave] Phillips [of The Free Willy – Keiko Foundation] said the Keiko project shouldn’t be viewed as a failure. ‘Keiko was probably the hardest candidate of any captive orca in the world, because he was captured when he was only 2 years old, we didn’t know exactly where his family was, and he had been in captivity for 20 years,’ he said. ‘There are a lot of other captive orcas who haven’t been in captivity nearly as long, and for some of those, we know exactly where their families are.
December 16, 2003 Fort Pierce Tribune
“Knowing how comfortable the killer whale was with humans, [Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institution’s Greg] Bossart said he publicly opposed the push to free the 6,000-pound Keiko a decade ago. Now, he said, Keiko ‘s death from a quick onset of pneumonia off Norway on Friday proved that freedom is not always a happy ending for every wild animal. ‘This was a failed and flawed experiment from the beginning,’ he said in a telephone interview. ‘As far as I’m concerned, Keiko was never a release candidate. He was caught in the middle of a Hollywood movie.
“In the early 1990s, Bossart, who was a consultant with the University of Miami’s pathology department, got to know the killer whale while studying his lesions for nearly three years in Mexico City…. After the whale was transferred from the small pool in Mexico City to a more accommodating one in Oregon, Bossart was quick to speak out against school fundraisers and efforts by other scientists to release Keiko back into the wild after 25 years in captivity.
“’I was one of the few public scientists to say he was non-releasable,’ he said. ‘I think every little child in America hated me. But we as human beings need to understand what our actions mean for the animal,’ he said.”
New York Times, December 27, 2003 –
Guest editorial by Cllive D. L. Wynne, associate professor of psychology at the University of Florida and author of Do Animals Think?
“Although Paul Irwin, president of the Humane Society of the United States, committed his organization to providing Keiko ‘with the chance of freedom,’ there was never a shred of evidence to suggest that freedom was an aspiration that Keiko shared with the humans who cared for him. Indeed, what we know about Keiko ‘s response to his attempted liberation suggests quite the opposite.”
December 31, 2003 Ventura County Star
“Third-graders at Richard Bard Elementary School in Port Hueneme recently paid tribute to Keiko, the killer whale that starred in the ‘Free Willy’ movies…. Since 1992, students in the classes of Liz Cervantes, Renee Callahan and Ann Galloway had been following the events in the life of the whale, who fell ill after filming of the movies. He was rehabilitated at Oregon Coast Aquarium…
In 1999, after a yearlong unit of studies on whales, Keiko in particular, students in the three classes painted a mural at the school honoring the whale. The mural was destroyed when the computer lab on which it was hung was moved. Again, a new set of students created a mural and updated information. In the process, the teachers said, the children fell in love with Keiko all over again.
On Dec. 18, the third-grade classes were joined by about 150 other students and teachers to pay tribute to Keiko. At the memorial, teachers and students read heartfelt compositions to Keiko and flowers brought by the students were laid below the mural. David Vankeersbilck, Bard School’s resource teacher, led everyone in singing his original composition, “King of the Sea,” and the ceremony ended with a moment of silence.”
2009: Scientific Paper Calls Project A Failure
May 7, 2009 Faculty of Science Aarhus University
“The attempt to return Keiko the killer whale to the wild was doomed to failure. Keiko achieved fame in the Free Willy series of movies. He had been too long in captivity away from wild whales, and was too closely tied to humans. This is the conclusion of Danish biologist Malene Simon and the co-authors of a new scientific article published in Marine Mammal Science….The fact that the Keiko project failed does not necessarily mean that it is impossible to set a whale free after being in captivity. ‘If Keiko had been younger and used to being with other killer whales instead of being so attached to humans, giving him a new life in the wild would possibly have succeeded,’ says Malene Simon.
In her opinion, the most important conclusion in the report, however, is that for this type of project to be in the best interest of the animal, funds must be allocated to monitoring it once it has been set free, to enable intervention if any difficulties arise. ‘Without the data we received via Keiko’s monitoring equipment, we would not have known that he did not follow a normal pattern of behavior when diving for food,’ she says. ‘If it is impossible to allocate sufficient resources for monitoring, a better alternative can be to let the animals remain in captivity.’”
May 13, 2009 Seattle Times
“Though the hope of those behind the ‘Free Willy’ project was to release Keiko into the wild, it’s not fair to brand the effort a failure, said Naomi Rose, senior scientist at Humane Society International. ‘In terms of giving Keiko a better life, it was 100 percent successful,’ Rose said.