Amid the furor over freeing "Willy" has come a deal to cure Keiko.
Under an agreement announced yesterday, a group of marine mammal facilities will help a Mexico City amusement park provide better medical care and living conditions for Keiko, the 14-year-old killer whale who starred in this summer's movie hit "Free Willy."
The park, Reino Aventura, also has agreed to find "an interim home" for its marine mammal star and has said that it remains open to the possibility of freeing Keiko -- an idea being pushed by animal rights organizations and advocates.
But freedom for Keiko appears to be a distant prospect because of an apparently infectious skin disorder, according to Robert L. Jenkins, executive officer for environmental affairs at Baltimore's National Aquarium. He negotiated the agreement with Reino Aventura in his role as president of the Alliance of Marine Mammal Parks and Aquariums.
Mr. Jenkins said yesterday that Reino Aventura had worked with animal care specialists and tried to find a new home for Keiko for more than two years -- efforts predating the making of the movie that turned the whale into a cause celebre.
In the fairy tale movie, Willy, as portrayed by Keiko, makes friends with a troubled boy who eventually helps free the whale from an amusement park for a better life in the open sea.
But the real-world problem of a new home -- or freedom -- for Keiko is complicated by the skin condition, which apparently resulted from a papilloma virus, Mr. Jenkins said. Until the ailment is cured, he said, marine mammal specialists would not risk moving Keiko anywhere where he might infect other animals -- in captivity or in the wild.
When he was captured off Iceland's coast, Keiko was young killer whale, or orca, which has a life expectancy of 20 to 30 years. He lived in a Canadian amusement park before being acquired by Reino Aventura more than a decade ago.
The animal was about the size of a full-grown dolphin then, easily fitting into the park's approximately 500,000-gallon pool. But since then, Mr. Jenkins said, Keiko, has more than doubled in size to a length of 22 feet. His kidney-shaped pool is 90 feet long, 43 feet wide and "just over 15 feet deep," with a tropical 80-degree water temperature that also complicates any move.
Mr. Jenkins said the agreement includes several steps "aimed at Keiko's rehabilitation", beginning with intensified study of his skin condition and other health problems by Reino Aventura and veterinarians from alliance members, using the medical technology of the University of Miami and the University of Mexico.
Filtration and water-chilling equipment then will be installed to better control the whale's environment, while efforts are made to nutritionally "bulk up" the animal -- adding to the blubber that will insulate Keiko in cooler temperatures.
"Third, working with member parks, associated killer whale veterinarians and the governments involved, an interim home for the animal will be recommended in about a year where further recovery steps will be taken," Mr. Jenkins said.
Seven of the 31 parks and aquariums in the marine alliance are taking part: the four Sea World parks, Miami Seaquarium, Marine World Africa USA and the Vancouver Public Aquarium in Canada. They are sharing with Reino Aventura the approximate $500,000 cost of equipment and are donating their expertise.
Reino Aventura said it was "open" to the idea of freeing Keiko, but the "guarantees" sought by the Mexican park will not be easy to meet. They include finding Keiko's family in the open sea (which scientists say is theoretically possible), establishing communication between Keiko and his kin and teaching him to hunt.
That would make quite a movie.