New Book Details Free Willy's Tragic, Real-life Ending

New Book Details Free Willy's Tragic, Real-life Ending

ORLANDO, Fla., Aug. 12, 2014 /PRNewswire/ It's a scene etched in the minds of movie-goers: a captive killer whale vaults over a jetty to the open ocean, free at last to join his family in the wild.

In real life, however, Free Willy's fairy-tale ending never came true. Despite international attention and tens of millions donated to his release, Keiko the killer whale whose story inspired the Warner Brothers movie and its three sequels suffered an excruciating, lonely and completely avoidable death.

"The public has been misled about Keiko, and I'm not ok with that," said veteran animal behaviorist Mark Simmons, author of Killing Keiko, a new book available August 14. Simmons led the Animal Behavior Team charged with Keiko's release and spent years working in Iceland to prepare Keiko for his return to the wild. Ultimately, the team's success would prove to be undone by management's agenda to disregard behavioral science and elevate an urgent need for a timely and Hollywood ending.

"What's so shocking about this story is that animal-rights activists put their publicity driven agendas over the life of this whale," said Simmons, one of only a handful of people who've had nearly three decades of up-close interaction with killer whales.

Simmons continues, "Keiko endured a long, slow and physiologically punishing death caused by illness, starvation and dehydration. He did not successfully integrate with other whales. He did not learn to forage for food. He never stopped longing for human interaction something he'd been accustomed to for 20 years."

In straightforward, detailed prose, Simmons shines a light on the organizations and executives in charge of Keiko's release who were not only ill-prepared to manage such an undertaking, but were unrelentingly focused on a single outcome releasing Keiko to the wild despite overwhelming evidence that the whale could not survive there.

"It was animal abuse, plain and simple," Simmons said, "and it was orchestrated by the very people who claimed to save him. The most compassionate solution would have been relocating him to a high-quality zoological facility where he'd get the best possible care, or, at the very least, the basic standards of care, but that option wasn't even on the table. The mantra was 'release at all costs,' and tragically, Keiko paid the ultimate price."

Keiko (pronounced Keh-ee-koh) led a less-than-charmed life from the time he was captured off the coast of Iceland in 1978 and eventually located to a substandard marine park in Mexico. His life changed forever in 1993, when Free Willy was released and the animal rights organization Earth Island Institute began lobbying for a real-life release program. In 1994, Warner Brothers contributed an initial $4 million to the movement, and Earth Island Institute formed the Free Willy/Keiko Foundation and raised millions more mostly from individuals inspired by the big screen.