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`Free Willy’ Whale To Get Own Happy Ending: Freedom

Keiko the killer whale, star of the 1993 hit movie “Free Willy,” appears to be headed for a happy ending of his own.

Sometime later this year, Keiko, a 16-year-old orca, or killer whale, will move to a brand-new, state-ofthe art tank in Oregon, where he will be treated for a lingering skin disease and prepared for a new life in the open sea.

He will leave behind the Mexico City amusement park where he has lived alone since 1985, inside a tank that experts say is too small and where the water often is too warm.

Two years ago, the 3-1/2-ton Keiko won the hearts of moviegoers as Willy, a killer whale who makes friends with a troubled boy. The film ended with the boy freeing Willy from an amusement park.

That fictional story line could now merge with reality.

On Monday, owners of Mexico City’s Reino Aventura theme park donated Keiko to the new Free Willy-Keiko Foundation.

As early as November, Keiko will be sent to a 2-million gallon, deepwater pool being built at the Oregon Coast Aquarium just outside Newport, Ore.

Keiko’s new quarters will be triple the size of his existing tank, and he’ll swim in sea water pumped into his pool from the Pacific Ocean, foundation members said. While there, he will undergo an extensive rehabilitation program to cure him of the severe skin lesions where his flippers connect to his body.

The public will be able to view Keiko, though he won’t do shows or perform, said David Phillips, director of the foundation, during a crowded news conference in Mexico City.

The killer whale also will be able choose from several female whales ready to snatch Keiko from his lonely life as a bachelor.

“I think this is the beginning of a happy ending for Keiko,” said Phillips, who added that this is one of the most ambitious efforts ever undertaken to save an endangered species.

Phillips said the foundation had raised $9 million from different sources, including $2 million from Warner Bros. and New Regency Productions, producers of “Free Willy,” to save Keiko.

He said the foundation will use some of the money to track down Keiko’s family - with the help of DNA studies.

At the end of four years, Phillips said, he hopes Keiko will be ushered to sea along with a mate, and possibly even a baby whale, in toll.

“In the new Warner Bros’ movie, `Free Willy II,’ Willy is reunited with his mate and the two are finally released to the wild sea,” Phillips said. “That is one of the goals that we will try to reach for Keiko.”

“Free Willy II” is expected to open in July, he said, noting that many of the scenes in the new film were shot during the filming of the first movie.



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