Growing up with Free Willy


As a kid I had certain movie/media obsessions; Beauty and the Beast, Pocahontas, Recess, but above all…Free Willy. It was the mix of a down and out kid, the couple trying to save him, the beautiful, prayful Native American legends, and that same street savvy kid’s indescribable transcendent love for a captive orca that spoke to something in me.

Since that obsession (and the repeating performances of Michael Jackson’s song in the end credits that surely drove my parents batty) I grew up. I became a writer. For six years I advocated in the judicial system for foster kids. I saw and read things that the girl who watched Free Willy so frequently could never have imagined. This isn’t a somber post, at least I don’t want it to be, but there is a lot of injustice in the world.

I just recently discovered this movie again because my own daughters found it on Netflix. My youngest calls it the “goldfish” movie, which never fails to crack me up. Their little faces are always filled with such determination, such deeply felt offense when Willy’s tank is welded to give his owner his insurance claim. I know that they don’t understand the finer details, the very adult concepts of greed and apathy at life,  but it’s easy to see they understand that Willy is in trouble, that his death would be a terrible loss. Their triumph when he makes it over that wall fills me with pride and nostalgia.

Unfortunately, the other day after watching the movie again (for the umpteenth time) I turned to my husband when the babies were out of earshot and said, “Sad that Blackfish is almost literally the sequel to this.” He gave me one of his long suffering looks, the kind that let me know I killed a good vibe. But seriously. Blackfish.

This all caused me to look into what really happened to Keiko the whale, “Willy” as I knew him, after filming. It wasn’t great. Keiko’s story was eerily similar to Willy’s. He was living for a long time in a southern amusement park’s too shallow, ill quipped tank which was making him sick. He performed often for the benefit of paying customers but had little true stimulation. Universal Studios, the studio who produced the Free Willy film, began a crusade to rescue and rehab their star. Soon after, Keiko was moved to a seapen.

It’s at this point where the story gets murky and people take divergent stances. What is fact is that Keiko’s health improved greatly, he quickly learned to hunt live prey again, and he returned to waters close to his birthplace. However, he died a year after his seapen was opened, back in the hands of his human caretakers, of pneumonia. This ending makes several marine life experts come to the conclusion that rescue and rehab (as seen in Finding Dory) aren’t good end games for captive whales and other dolphins. On the other hand animal advocates state that Keiko died, yes, but the important part, the part that should resonate, is that first he lived. He lived free to come and go, to hunt and travel, as he was meant to. He lived to interact again with his wild brethren and to be free of the stresses of constant human interference. These same advocates would point to the frequent deaths of captive whales, the most recent being SeaWorld’s three month old final captive bred calf, that depict that whales in captivity fare no better than did Keiko at his end.

The upside to all of this is that the organization born from Universal’s and the public’s demands for Keiko’s freedom is still going strong. You can visit them at They’ve released a documentary about Keiko and his rehab called Keiko: The Untold Story. I bet you can guess what’s next on my to be watched list.

This isn’t a post about animal rights or taking a stand, not really. It’s a post about watching Free Willy with my daughters and being able to tell them that he really did end up going free. Jesse knew what was right and good all along. If you believe in and fight for something, even the youngest of us can bring about great change.


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