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The story below was taken from the Times Globe, Thursday, June 18/98


Kieko plays with co-stars Jason James Richter, left, and August Schellenberg in Willey 3.

OFF TO ICELAND
A cage partly designed by New Brunswick companies leaves today to house the world-famous whale.

By AMY CAMERON
Telegraph Journal staff writer

    FREDERICTON - Today sets in motion years of planning and preparation to free the world's most famous whale - Keiko of Free Willy fame.
    A plane carrying Keiko's halfway home, a sea pen that will be used to reintroduce the orca whale to his native waters, leaves Seattle today. It will touch down in Keiko's native Iceland, bringing the fight to free the captive whale one step closer to its end.
    The Icelandic government agreed to accept Keiko last week and on Tuesday, after looking at a number of options, the Free Willy/Keiko Foundation decided upon a small, sheltered bay called Klettsvik.
    The large hour-glass shaped pen will be transported to Vestmannaeyjar, a group of islands southeast of Iceland's capital, Reykjavik. Once assembled, the cage will be placed in Klettsvik Bay, near the small town of Heimay on the island of the same name.
    The pen is expected to take about eight weeks to assemble and test. And experts, including the three New Brunswick companies involved in making the netting, tension system and mooring system for the floating pen, will visit the Icelandic bay to watch over the process.
    "It helps us tremendously to know where we are going," laughs Diane Hammond, spokeswoman for the Free Willy/Keiko Foundation.
    "He is really ready. We're not."
    Keiko is learning to hunt, kill and eat live fish, work that will continue after the whale arrives in Iceland in September. "We don't really know if he had ever learned how to do this in the first place before he was captured," Ms. Hammond said.
    Captured off the coast in Iceland in 1979 at about two years of age, Keiko has lived in captivity ever since. He was originally bought by Marineland in Ontario but was sold to Reino Adventure, a Mexican amusement park, in 1985.
    In 1992, Keiko was chosen for the role of Willy.
    The plot of the movie, Free Willy, was quite simple. After two hours of angst and action, Willy the whale was freed from the clutches of evil aquarium owners out to kill him for an insurance scam.
    In reality, Keiko the killer whale performed trained tricks and repeated the maneuvers time and time again for a variety of camera angles. Feeding on dead fish and spending his off-time in a small concrete pool, Keiko lost weight, became lethargic and suffered from muscle atrophy due to the size of his pool.
    The 21-year-old whale was bought by the foundation and was moved to his current home at the Oregon Coast Aquarium in Newport, Oregon, in 1996.
    Two years later, after worldwide efforts and an 1-800 number that appeared at the end of the film, Keiko is once again ready to be free. Really free, not just on-a-Hollywood-reel free.
    However, as the players in this real story are preparing the first-ever release of a captive orca whale, the ethics behind displaying animals in zoos and aquariums and reintroducing them to the wild are being questioned.
    "What's that saying? 'Truth is stranger than fiction,' "Ms. Hammond says. "It's been a strange ride. We're a very peculiar mammal in that we're apolitical. We are not taking a stand on captivity nor whether it is right or wrong. And nor are we an animal rights group."
    However the foundation, which is a private non-profit organization funded primarily by the American telecommunication pioneer Craig McCaw, has been hearing from just about everyone on the release of Keiko.
    Animal rights groups believe that the foundation is taking too long, says Ms. Hammond, and the captive care community is concerned that this will set a dangerous precedent.
    "We're writing the book on this one," she continues. "No one has ever done this before but we do feel pretty strongly that life for Keiko will be far richer in a natural marine environment."

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