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"Free Willy' dies off Norway coast

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  • Pete
    The following article comes from today s San Francisco Chronicle: Film star whale dies off Norway Free Willy Keiko is overcome by pneumonia Jim Heron Zamora,
    Message 1 of 1 , Dec 13, 2003
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      The following article comes from today's San Francisco Chronicle:

      Film star whale dies off Norway
      'Free Willy' Keiko is overcome by pneumonia

      Jim Heron Zamora, Chronicle Staff Writer


      Keiko the killer whale, whose role as the celluloid hero in "Free Willy'' inspired a real-life campaign to return him to the wild, died Friday in Norway, where he had been living free but remained dependent on humans.

      "It's been a very long, very sad day,'' said David Phillips, founder and president of the Free Willy/Keiko Foundation in San Francisco. "It's very sad that he is gone, but when you step back and look at his life, it was quite an amazing journey."

      The 27-year-old whale died at 7 a.m. PST of apparent pneumonia in the remote Taknes fjord of Norway, where he had lived for the past few years, Phillips said.

      "He was fine and healthy on Wednesday; then he seemed lethargic (Thursday) and did not have much appetite,'' Phillips said. The whale died Friday "after suffering severe respiratory problems.''

      Keiko was one of only two male orcas to live into his 20s in captivity. In the wild, male orcas often live to be about 29. It is not unusual for whales in captivity at his age to die suddenly from infections or pneumonia, Phillips said.

      Nick Braden, a spokesman for the Humane Society of the United States, said it wasn't apparent to veterinarians just how sick Keiko had become.

      "They really do die quickly, and there was nothing we could do," Braden told the Associated Press. "It's a really sad moment for us, but we do believe we gave him a chance to be in the wild."

      Although Keiko learned to hunt for fish and spent more than a month swimming with wild orcas, he kept returning to his human keepers.

      "He was successful in the wild, but he kept coming back,'' said Phillips, whose group funded the whale's amazing journey from captivity in a large tank to semi-freedom that began in 1996.

      Keiko, or "Lucky One" in Japanese, was 2 years old when he was caught in the North Atlantic in 1979 and brought to Saedyrasfnid, an aquarium in Iceland. Marineland in Ontario, Canada, bought Keiko in 1982 and trained him to perform for the public. He was sold three years later to Reino Aventura, an amusement park in Mexico City, for $350,000.

      The whale was a natural performer and was cast in 1993 as the star of the first of three "Free Willy" films, in which a young boy coaxed him to freedom by having him jump over a seawall. The movie was a surprise hit with kids around the world, and Keiko went on to star in two sequels.

      But after media reports surfaced about the deplorable conditions of Keiko's home in Mexico City, the San Francisco-based Earth Island Institute spearheaded a $20 million effort to free the beloved whale.

      "It was a case of life imitating art,'' Phillips said. "That movie inspired a real-life effort to free Keiko, the real Willy. ... It was a lot more complicated in real life than it was in the movie. It had never been done before.''

      Phillips was part of the team that flew Keiko from Mexico to the Oregon Coast Aquarium in 1996, where he swam in the sea for the first time in 14 years and gained more than 1,000 pounds. In December 1998, Keiko traveled to Iceland in an Air Force C-17 Globemaster. in a special 35,000-gallon tank filled with chilled seawater. In Iceland, he was gradually taught to catch fish on his own and swim freely.

      Keiko was released from Iceland in July 2002. He swam straight for Norway on an 870-mile trek that seemed to be a search for human companionship. He first turned up near the village of Halsa in late August or early September of 2002. He allowed fans to pet and play with him and even crawl onto his back. He became such an attraction that animal protection authorities imposed a ban on approaching him.

      Keiko's keepers said the whale seemed to adapt to living in the wild despite so many years in captivity, learning to slap his tail and do jumps called side breaches that are typically done to stun fish in the wild.

      To keep Keiko in shape, his caretakers took him on "walks," leading him around the fjords from a small boat at least three times a week.

      In November, Keiko was coaxed to his new home at Taknes Bay, still in Halsa but -- handlers hoped -- farther from the crowds.

      "He died a free whale,'' said Mark Berman, associate director of the Free Willy/Keiko Foundation. "The program was a success. He had great taste of freedom for the past 5 1/2 years. It was almost a miracle, considering what he had been though.''

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