Recent story claims that the “Free Willy” star died alone after a year of freedom while facts show he survived for five years following his release BERKELEY, CA…February 2, 2015 –

A recent story on the PBS News Hour program about the proposed release of Lolita “the loneliest orca in the world” back into the wild reported by Hari Sreenivasan incorrectly asserted that Keiko, the famed orca who inspired the film “Free Willy,” died alone in 2003 a mere year after being released.

This inaccuracy has greatly upset the Keiko team of trainers, doctors and supporters from the Free Willy Keiko Foundation and other orca welfare organizations, as it implies that the successful relocation of Keiko was a failure and that a similar fate will await any orca who is returned to the wild seas. Keiko’s story was made into a successful documentary “Keiko the Untold Story of the Star of Free Willy” by director Theresa Demarest in 2013.

Mark Berman. Associate Director, Free Willy Keiko Foundation, International Marine Mammal Project and Director, Dolphin Safe Tuna Monitoring Program of the Earth Island Institute says that they have approached PBS for a retraction or on-air correction but to date, they have not admitted to the discrepancy in the facts.

Says Berman, “There is documentation showing that Keiko lived free over a five year period from 1998 to 2003. PBS has so far refused to retract the statement made in the news segment.”

“There was a team of scientists, doctors and others who closely monitored Keiko over a four year period during which he had free rein to come and go as he pleased. He eventually succumbed to pneumonia due to a physical weakness that was not unusual in a whale of his age. Keiko was 27 years old when he died, making him one of the oldest male orcas in captivity at that time.

It hurts everyone in the aquatic mammal rescue/rehabilitation movement, as well as fans of Keiko and Lolita, when it is implied that all efforts to relocate them happily are fruitless. Yes, Keiko died, but all animals die and they deserve a quality of life just as humans do. So we struggle constantly to educate the public about the actions we take on behalf of orcas everywhere. For PBS to ignore the misinformation by one of their reporters once it is pointed out is very mystifying.”

Paul Spong, Co-director of OrcaLab, normally a fan of PBS, takes the network to task: “The slant you took was failure. Keiko was a great success. He swam across the Atlantic Ocean and fed himself, arriving in Norway in perfect condition. Remarkable! The unfortunate thing that happened when he arrived in Norway was that people immediately recognized him as the orca star of “Free Willy” and because Keiko loved people as much as they loved him, he was unable escape their attention. Ultimately, Keiko’s death was caused by a common infection unrelated to his journey to freedom. It was a sad ending, but at the same time I celebrate the fact that he died free, rather than sinking to the bottom of a concrete tank, as would certainly have been his fate if he had remained in captivity.”

Adds filmmaker Demarest, “We would be delighted to have Gwen Iffel and Judy Woodruff not only watch the film Keiko The Untold Story of the Star of Free Willy in order to get their facts straight; but to also state a brief correction on an upcoming newscast about the dates surrounding Keiko’s last five years of life. We hope that they will take steps to make it happen very soon.”

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For more information, please contact:

Deborah Gilels
LA Media Consultants
[email protected] 818-758-6509

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Nowhere in recent history has a captive mammal garnered so much attention as Keiko, the orca star of the 1993 hit film, “Free Willy.” The film’s success, partnered with growing public interest in animals held in captivity, launched a children’s crusade that called for Keiko’s release into the wild. The result: a multimillion-dollar project that spanned four countries, weathered endless controversy and lasted nearly a decade. Through first-hand accounts by the marine mammal experts charged with his care, “Keiko The Untold Story” follows Keiko, his life, his legacy of hope, and the untold story of his extraordinary years in Iceland and Norway.