A little more than a year after being moved from Mexico City to Newport, Oregon, Keiko - the ailing killer whale star of Free Willy - has regained much of his health and discovered a newfound vigor.
"It's encouraging to see how far this animal has come in a relatively short time," said veterinarian Lanny Cornell, upon completing Keiko's latest checkup. "We still have some distance to go before he has reached his full potential, but the changes so far are remarkable." Cornell is one of the country's foremost experts and pioneers in orca whale and marin mammal medicine.
When he arrived in Oregon in January of 1996, Keiko suffered from extensive skin lesions caused by a papillomavirus, poor cardiovascular conditioning and stamina, and low body weight. He also showed relatively little inclination to play or exert energy on his own behalf. After spending the last twelve years in a small, warm pool at a Mexico City amusement park, Keiko now lives in a pool four times larger, filled with cold, natural sea water.
The Oregon Coast Aquaim staff who manages Keiko's day-to-day care immediately began working with the whale on aerobic conditioning, mental stimulation and husbandry procedures including regular blood sampling to monitor his health. It quickly paid off. "Within six months, we began to see a profound change in Keiko's energy level, and in his character in general - it was as though he rediscovered his own personality once he began to feel well," says Beverlee Hughes, president of the Free Willy-Keiko Foudtion, which owns Keiko and raised the money for his relocation to Newport. "He is beginning to act like a killer whale."
Much of Keiko's days are now filled with a remedial, ever-changing regimen of high-energy workouts punctuated by high-calorie, high-nutrition meals. Daily training sessions include four primary behaviors:
Cardiovascular Exercise - aerobic work, high-energy, high-speed behaviors including fast swims underwater, breaches, bows, barrel rolls and other former sho ehaviors.
Animal Husbandry Training - training for blood sampling, and training to enter and exit the medical pool upon request.
Mental Exercise and Stimulation - from underwater viewing windows, Keiko has begun shape and object discrimination exercises which are likely precursors to training in hunting skills and techniques. His enthusiasm for these toys and newly acquired skills is evidenced by his continued work with the objects even after reinforcements are removed and the saf is absent.
Social Interaction - the staff is in the water almost daily for social interaction with Keiko, making themselves available for rubdowns, swimming companionship and aerobic work.
In the coming months Keiko will log many more hours of high-energy exercise as well as mental stimulation through shape and object discrimination activities and other innovative work. His physical and mental fitness is critical, since wild orcas may swim as many as 100 miles a day in pursuito fish, and as top predators, must be able to solve complex problems.
"We have not seen anything so far that knocks Keiko out of the running for release back to the wild," says Hughes. "Anyone who saw him in January of last year would recognize the difference immediately. The thousands of people who helped make his relocation possible should take real pride in that."
Children and adults around the world made donations to the Free Willy-Keiko Foundation to help the killer whale whos light became widely known in late 1993 after the movie Free Willy was released. The whale had been performing in daily shows at Reino Aventura in Mexico City since his arrival in 1985. The Mexican park, along with the Free Willy-Keiko Foundation, took an aggressive role in finding Keiko a better home. The animal was well-loved in Mexico, and was donated to the Foundation free of charge.
The Free Willy-Keiko Foundation is a non-profit organization created specifically to relocate,rhabilitate, and if possible, release Keiko back to the wild. It spent a total of $7.3 million building the two-million-gallon, state-of-the-art pool at the Oregon Coast Aquarium. Major contributors to the project include the McCaw Foundation, Warner Bros., New Regency Productions, the Humane Society of the United States, Mattel, Inc. and United Parcel Service.
The Free Willy-Keiko Foundation continues to seek donations for Keiko's ongoing care. Donations can be made to the Free Wly-Keiko Foundation, care of the Oregon Coast Aquarium, 2820 S.E. Ferry Slip Road, Newport, OR 97365. More information is available by calling (800) 4-WHALES or (503) 867-3474.
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