In the summer of 1993, “Free Willy” thrilled moviegoers with the tale of a 12-year-old boy who returns a captive, performing killer whale to the wild. But when activists and fans campaigned to free the real whale that played Willy, the story got complicated.
The real Willy was named Keiko, and though Hollywood made him a surprise celebrity, fame didn’t change his day job. Underweight and ailing, he continued to perform listless stunts for crowds at a Mexico City theme park.
But the movie focused attention on Keiko’s plight, and led activists to campaign for his release. School kids kicked in pennies, while a cell phone tycoon gave millions. Their efforts got Keiko out of Mexico – and into rehab tank on the Oregon coast, where trainers taught Keiko the ways of the wild.
Activists hoped to free Keiko – like Willy in the movie – into the ocean where he’d find his family, swim off happily into the sunset and set a precedent for freeing other captive whales. But unlike the Hollywood version, freeing Keiko would take a lot more than just a jump over the breakwater.
More Like This
Population Bomb: The Overpopulation Theory That Fell Flat
In the 1960s, fears of overpopulation sparked talk of population control. So what happened?
Lingering Peril From Lead Paint
About half a million children have dangerously high lead levels in their blood, mostly from exposure to peeling paint and contaminated dust. The fight over who should clean it up has lasted for decades.
Horses: Wild, But Not Free
There are now so many wild horses on public land – nearly 100,000 -- that they have become caught in a battle between the government, ranchers and environmentalists.
The Garbage Barge That Helped Fuel a Movement
In the 1980s, rising public awareness about waste was fueled by a bizarre news story about a meandering New York City garbage barge.