Sun, Dec 14, 2003 - Page 1 News List

Killer whale movie star Keiko catches pneumonia, dies


Keiko, the killer whale star of the Free Willy movies, has died, his caretakers said early yesterday.

The 10.6m-long, 6-tonne whale died after the sudden onset of pneumonia in the Taknes fjord in Norway, Friday afternoon.

His handler, Dane Richards, said the 27-year-old whale fell ill suddenly.

"He exhibited some signs of lethargy and lack of appetite," Richards reporterss early yesterday morning.

Richards said veterinarians had monitored Keiko's progress, but the whale died quickly.

"We checked his respiration rate and it was a little irregular ... he wasn't doing too well," Richards said. "Early in the evening, he passed away."

In the wild, orcas can live an average of 35 years.

Keiko, which means "Lucky One" in Japanese, was rehabilitated at the Oregon Coast Aquarium, then airlifted to Iceland in 1998. His handlers there prepared him for the wild, teaching him to catch live fish in an operation that cost about US$500,000 a month. That amount paid for a year of care, according to the Free Willy Foundation in San Francisco, California.

Keiko was released from Iceland in July 2002. He swam straight for Norway on a 1,400km trek that seemed to be a search for human companionship.

Keiko first turned up near the village of Halsa in late August or early September of 2002. He allowed fans to pet and play with him, even crawl on his back, becoming such an attraction that animal protection authorities imposed a ban on approaching him.

Nick Braden, a spokesman of the Humane Society of the United States, said veterinarians gave Keiko antibiotics after he showed signs of lethargy, but it wasn't apparent how sick he was.

"They really do die quickly and there was nothing we could do," said he said.

Braden said "it's a really sad moment for us, but we do believe we gave him a chance to be in the wild."

Added Richards: "It's not a good thing to walk out and see, but it's something we kind of prepared ourselves for, he was the oldest killer whale in activiity."

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