Produced by Joshua Fisher
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
DDT, Malaria, and the Book That Changed Environmental Debate
Author Rachel Carson's strike against the pesticide DDT turned her into both an environmental hero and a foil for those who believe regulation has gone too far. That fight is more relevant than ever.
The Snake That Ate the Everglades
Burmese pythons, often released into the wild by well-meaning pet owners, have infested the Florida Everglades and created a reptilian nightmare in the ecosystem.
The New York Garbage Barge That Revealed We Have a Trash Problem
The 1987 voyage of a barge loaded with New York garbage became a sensational fiasco, but it ended up fueling the modern recycling movement.
Violence in the Amazon: Why Protecting the Rainforest is Still a Fight
In 1988, the murder of Chico Mendes fueled a movement of activists, celebrities and indigenous peoples that helped to make the rainforest a household name. But what happens now?