BOOKS: Freeing Keiko: The Journey of a Killer Whale from Free Willy to the Wild

From ANIMAL PEOPLE, October 2006:

Freeing Keiko: The Journey of a Killer Whale from Free Willy to the Wild
by Kenneth Brower
Penguin Group (375 Hudson St., New York, NY 10014), 2006. 288
pages, hardcover. $26.00.

Freeing Keiko is a biography of the captive orca whale who
rose to stardom as “Willy” in the Hollywood movie Free Willy! and
sequels. Author Kenneth Brower, son of the late Earth Island
Institute founder David Brower, had uniquely privileged access to
effort to rehabilitate Keiko for release, from the 1993 beginning of
Earth Island Institute negotiations to obtain Keiko from the Mexico
City aquarium El Reino Aventura until the Humane Society of the U.S.
took over the project shortly before Keiko finally broke from human
feeding and supervision in September 2002 and swam to the coast of
Norway to spend the last 15 months of his life.
Captured off Iceland in 1979, Keiko spent two years at
Marineland of Niagara Falls, Ontario. Sold to El Reino Aventura in
Mexico City, he remained there until 1996, when the Free
Willy/Keiko Foundation formed by Earth Island Institute moved him to
a newly built super-sized tank at the Oregon Coast Aquarium. More
than 2.5 million visitors came to see him before he was airlifted to
a sea pen in the Westmann Islands of Iceland in September 1998, to
learn again how to be a wild whale.

Knowledgeable and painstaking, Brower summarizes as much as
can be known from accessible documents about Keiko’s capture and
early years.
A variety of individuals and organizations on either side of
the marine mammal captivity debate and of varied credibility besieged
El Reino Aventura with offers for Keiko after the success of the
first Free Willy! film. Brower keeps the focus of that part of the
story on the successful Earth Island Institute bid, backed by HSUS.
He acknowledges some of the others, but largely steers clear of the
many plots, counter-plots, and overt scams that complicated the
More than half of Freeing Keiko concerns the move to Iceland
and aftermath, including much original observation of the later
years of the project, when few reporters other than Brower ventured
to the scene.
By far the most credit for Keiko’s release must go to the
eccentric cell phone billionaire Craig McCaw, who put $20 million
into the project. Brower also has especially warm words for Earth
Island Institute executive director David Philips and negotiator
Katherine Hanly, who was instrumental in arranging for Keiko to go
to Iceland.
Brower’s description of the Earth Island Institute success
into turning public hostility toward Keiko into enthusiasm for his
arrival is poignant in view of the subsequent revival of the
Icelandic whaling industry and the September 2006 announcement of the
Icelandic government that it will resume exporting whale meat.
Renewed Icelandic political support for whaling, despite the
growth of the Icelandic whale-watching industry, may reflect the
disappointment Brower notes that Keiko’s presence did not bring much
lasting economic benefit to the impoverished Westmanns, if any.
Brower sums up, “Keiko’s saga had been a tale of enormous
absurdity. He was a whale who lived in a $ 7.5 million palace,
attended by dozens of retainers, masseurs, lawyers, public
relations people, security guards and personal physicians…. As a
model for repatriation of captive whales, he was hopeless. We do
not have enough whale loving billionaires….And yet as a symbol and
icon he was potent….But the climax of Keiko’s saga would come when
he swam out of his own story. Just beyond the range of movie
cameras, and television, and journalists and editorial writers and
billionaires, and environmentalists, he would swim clear of
absurdity. He would escape the magical thinking of his channelers,
the over-protectiveness of his trainers and the righteous indignation
of his advocates in the animal rights movement. He would course
onward into bracing cold subpolar waters where everything is true.
He would swim into anonymity.”
The ending was, as most of us know, not quite so poetically
As a biography of an orca, this book is superb. As a study
of the sociology of animal rescue, it is incomparable.
–Chris Mercer & Merritt Clifton

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