In the history of celebrated animals, not one — neither Lassie nor Flipper nor the Lone Ranger's great horse Silver — has come...

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“Freeing Keiko: The Journey of a Killer Whale from Free Willy to the Wild”
by Kenneth Brower
Gotham, 314 pp., $26

In the history of celebrated animals, not one — neither Lassie nor Flipper nor the Lone Ranger’s great horse Silver — has come close to achieving the notoriety of a killer whale named Keiko. Certainly none has caused as much cash to change hands.

Kenneth Brower has written a splendid story of Keiko and of the humans who spent years trying vainly to teach this very human-centered orca to be oblivious of humans.

Children throughout the world came to love him intensely, and still do. Grown-ups spent millions “saving” Keiko, housing him, feeding him, moving him from aquarium tank to sea pen to open ocean, striving with passion and endurance to return him to the company of his wild cousins.

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“Freeing Keiko” is literary journalism, written with the flourish of good fiction. Brower hooks you into the poignancy of Keiko’s misery in a tiny, overheated, parasite-ridden tank in Mexico City. He holds you through the intrigues, rivalries, conspiracies and conflicts surrounding multimillion-dollar whale habitations in Newport, Ore., and Heimaey, Iceland. He was one of the few reporters who stayed with the Keiko story to Taknes Bay, on the coast of Norway, where the whale died of old age (26 years) or perhaps from some disease.

The author marvels how a mediocre Warner Bros. movie, “Free Willy,” and its dreadful film sequels triggered such phenomenal Willy-worship, translating into fanatic adoration of Keiko, the real “Willy” in the first of the films. (Willy was represented by robots in the sequels.) Brower couldn’t stand the movies, but his opinion counts for nothing. “Free Willy” and its film progeny brought in more than $100 million dollars in profits. Warner Bros. donated a tiny slice to help establish the Free Willy Keiko Foundation, which gained possession of Keiko with the aim of reconnecting him with his wild North Atlantic orca family.

Whether that worked seems to depend on whether you thought it was a good idea to begin with. Strong bonds of affection developed between early skeptics and the communicative, personable whale. But trainers and other whale experts traded sides on the worthiness of the project as it went along. Friendships were ended, antagonisms born.

There are Seattle connections. The deep pockets that made the re-wilding effort possible were those of cellphone billionaire Craig McCaw. As the McCaw fortune diminished, so did the lavishness of the untaming effort (such as the $370,000 midair refueling bill accrued while flying Keiko from Oregon to Iceland).

David Phillips, who headed the Free Willy Keiko Foundation, defends the 10-year, $20 million effort for the unprecedented, worldwide interest it aroused in the condition of whales and other animals.

“Well, it was Craig McCaw’s money,” Phillips observes. “If it hadn’t been spent, it would have been lost in the dot-com collapse along with the rest of his fortune. Gone!

“If you’d put that twenty million dollars into general education about the fate of the world’s oceans, if you’d bought a bunch of ads and made a bunch of school tours with that money, you wouldn’t have had a drop in the bucket of the impact we’ve had.”

Brower, son of legendary environmentalist David Brower, calls himself an abolitionist when it comes to zoos, emphatically those that imprison orcas. “Our descendants,” he says, “will find it unfathomable that we imprisoned these regal, intelligent, social, free-swimming creatures in small tanks in order to perform for us.”

And yet, he adds, “they will have oversimplified the thing. They will have failed to understand something wonderful, miraculous even, in the relationship between these enormous captives and their turnkeys.”