IT LOOKED LIKE A CLASSIC CASE of life imitating a feel-good children's movie. In the summer of 1993 audiences flocked to Free Willy, the story of a captive killer whale that regains his freedom in the wild. The same summer, reports that the film's actual whale—a 20-foot-long, black-and-white orca named Keiko—was languishing in a tiny tank in a Mexico City amusement park launched a furious rescue effort. Led by a gift of $2 million from animal-loving telecommunications mogul Craig McCaw that was matched by Free Willy distributors Warner Bros, New Regency Productions, the Free Willy-Keiko Foundation airlifted the 7,720-pound leviathan to the spacious Oregon Coast Aquarium in Newport nearly two years ago. At the time he was nearly 2,000 pounds underweight and had lesions the size of garbage-can lids. By this summer 20-year-old Keiko had grown 8 inches, added 1,900 pounds and regained his clear skin. The foundation's ultimate goal—to release Keiko for real—seemed well within reach. The story appeared destined for a Hollywood-style happy ending.

Cut! Keiko (pronounced KAY-ko) is caught in a whale of a battle between the foundation that owns him and the aquarium where he lives. Aquarium officials say he became sick again this summer, with a lung infection and worms, and should stay where he is. The foundation maintains that Keiko is in good health and almost ready to take the next step toward freedom: moving to a sectioned-off sea pen in the North Atlantic Ocean, where he was captured in 1979 at the age of 1 or 2. Last month the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Services stepped in to try to broker an independent examination of the mammoth movie star. The aquarium and the foundation are currently in arbitration.

The battle "has a certain nightmare quality to it," says Diane Hammond, spokeswoman for the foundation. "It's as though we left our baby with a babysitter, came back at the end of the evening—and the babysitter is suing for custody." Aquarium president Phyllis Bell insists her only concern is "what's best for Keiko. We'll be the first to jump up and down with joy if everything is okay."

Both sides agree that their partnership began swimmingly. Foundation officials handpicked the Oregon facility as an ideal halfway house for the whale. But this summer, to prepare for Keiko's eventual move to the sea pen, the foundation began to assume control of Keiko's day-to-day care, including his training and feeding. Around the same time, says Bell, the orca began banging his head against the windows of his tank and passing worm-like parasites in his waste. In September, aquarium veterinarian Steven Brown resigned, charging that foundation vets were doing blood tests on Keiko and withholding the information from the aquarium. "To continue," he says, "I felt like I would have been prostituting my license."

At PEOPLE'S request, in early November the foundation turned over for review nearly 80 pages of blood tests and other medical records to independent Florida veterinarian Dr. Robert Stevens, a marine mammal expert. Based on the records, Stevens says he believes Keiko "is healthy and getting healthier all the time. The animal could easily go to stage two"—moving to the sea pen. Beverlee Hughes, the foundation's president, believes the aquarium staff simply overreacted, much in the way some new parents call the pediatrician every time their baby coughs. "We have inexperienced people," she says, "trying to second-guess what is best for the whale."

What is indisputably best for Newport is Keiko. An impact analysis suggests that he has boosted tourism to the tune of $75 million so far. In the first year after his arrival, aquarium attendance more than doubled, to 1.3 million. "When the aquarium and the community looked at the problem of cash flow," says Ken Balcomb, executive director of the Center for Whale Research in Washington State, "they dragged up the old argument that he's not going to survive in the wild." With its percentage of revenues, the foundation has also benefited, drawing about $3 million in the first 18 months from ticket sales and souvenirs. On the other hand, the foundation has set aside more than $500,000 annually for Keiko's care—on top of the $7.3 million it spent to construct his home.

It's a home the pampered whale does not appear anxious to leave. When his trainers throw live salmon into his tank for him to catch and devour—as he will have to do in the wild—Keiko takes the fish carefully in his mouth and returns them, alive. Jason James Richter, the non-cetacean star of Free Willy (and its two sequels, in which Keiko did not appear), recalls the whale's docile nature. "He used to follow me around his tank," says Richter, now 17. "He hasn't been in the wild for a while, and he's probably forgotten what that is like."

Which, says foundation spokeswoman Hammond, is exactly why they plan to place him in an ocean pen first. "If he's not releasable on his own terms, that's fine," she says. "We'll abide by that. But if he's found not releasable because of some politics, that's not satisfactory." In the end, she adds, "he may be ready sooner than we are."

DAN JEWEL
ALEXANDRA HARDY in Newport

  • Contributors:
  • Alexandra Hardy.