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Critics Say Whale Move Is Dangerous

August 28, 1998

NEWPORT, Ore. (AP) _ When ``Free Willy″ star Keiko is put into a sea pen in Iceland after two decades in concrete tanks, animal rights groups hope it will set an example that will lead to freedom for other captive whales.

But don’t bet on it.

Whale handlers at aquariums across the nation have criticized Keiko’s planned move, saying it puts the whale at risk and is only a feel-good exercise for the people involved.

``In movies you can always have a happy ending, but in real life you never know how it’s going to turn out,″ said Arthur Hertz, owner of the Miami Seaquarium, which has rejected demands that it release its killer whale, Lolita. ``I just hope this doesn’t turn into a tragedy for Keiko.″

Critics of the experiment say that Keiko, after being fed by hand for years, isn’t skilled at catching fish, and has no experience interacting with other orcas. The sea could also prove a shock to the whale’s system.

Keiko’s saga began several years ago, when schoolchildren inspired by the movie ``Free Willy″ helped raise money to bring the ailing whale from a cramped Mexico City amusement park to a spacious tank at the Oregon Coast Aquarium with the intent someday to set him free.

Keiko is to be moved Sept. 9 to a sea pen in Iceland for his eventual return to the open ocean. It’s the first time anyone has tried to reintroduce a captive killer whale to the wild.

``If Keiko succeeds in returning to the ocean, it gives us a new opportunity to promote our case,″ said Paul Spong, a whale researcher from Hanson Island, British Columbia. ``I think eventually more people will find it objectionable to watch these orcas perform tricks.″

Brad Andrews, vice president of zoological operations for Sea World, disputed the notion that the only happy orca is one that’s living in the wild. Twenty of the 23 captive orcas in the United States are at Sea World’s four parks.

``They are very cognizant animals, and quite frankly I think they do enjoy performing,″ Andrews said. ``If they didn’t, they wouldn’t do it.″

Jeff Jouett, spokesman for Marine World in Vallejo, Calif., made a similar observation about his park’s killer whale, Vigga.

``Her energy seems to pick up whenever people come into the stadium″ to watch her perform, Jouett said. ``She is healthy and happy and much loved.″

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