OSLO - Hundreds of children laid stones on the grave of „Free Willy" movie star Keiko the killer whale in Norway last Thursday in an emotional Viking-style ceremony denounced as absurd by a leading whale hunter. About 300 children placed stones in a pile where Keiko's carcass was hauled out of a western fjord and buried after Hollywood's top cetacean celebrity died of pneumonia last month, aged 27. Even the mayor of the local township of Halsa attended.
Keiko was released to the wild in 2002 after a life in captivity by the U.S.-based „Free Willy Foundation" at a cost of more than $20 million. But he failed to break fully free, apparently preferring human company and to be fed. „I know that many adults maybe think that this is daft," Lars Lilleboe, Halsa's „Keiko coordinator", told the children. „But this whale was world famous, and he was also a friend, a pet in a way, for many of us." Some children, aged 5-15 and driven in a fleet of five buses, wrote messages on their stones such as „to Keiko, a final farewell" in a pile about four square metres in area and about 50 cms high meant to recall Viking burial mounds. Lilleboe told Reuters some were moved to tears. Future visitors can now come to pay respects and lay stones.
„This is absurd," said Steinar Bastesen, the sole member of parliament for the independent Coastal Party and Norway's top advocate for whaling. „There is suffering and hunger around the world. There has just been a war in Iraq...there are terror attacks, but people don't get the sympathy that a dead whale gets," he told Reuters. Bastesen once suggested that Keiko should be harpooned and ground up into burgers.
But the Free Willy Foundation says that every dollar was well spent on Keiko, partly because the campaign focused attention on the abuses many creatures suffer in captivity. Keiko was caught off Iceland in 1979, aged about two, and lived in marine parks or aquariums in Canada, Mexico and the United States until release off Iceland in 2002. Six-tonne Keiko swam to Norway, one of the few nations to hunt whales after breaking with a global moratorium in 1993. Norway hunts minke whales, a distant cousin of killer whales. A documentary on Norway's NRK public television this week said Keiko's saga showed it was almost impossible for a captive whale to reintegrate with wild orcas. It said it was like expecting a pet poodle to be welcomed by a pack of wolves.