With the public finally opening its eyes to the plight of captive killer whales, thanks to the recent release of Blackfish, the collective attitude towards whales in captivity is growing reminiscent of the message portrayed in the early ’90s family film, Free Willy.

Although it’s been 20 years since Keiko the orca first entered our lives as the star of Warner Brother’s seemingly animal-friendly film franchise, his story has never been more relevant than it is today.

Following the film’s release, many fans and spectators began to wonder about the fate of the whale who portrayed Willy on-screen. Tragically, Keiko’s life story doesn’t even come close to the uplifting, glamorized tale of Free Willy.

Photo Credit: Getty Images/ Gerardo Mora
Keiko’s story has become increasingly important over the years, especially since the release of Blackfish. Photo Credit: Getty Images/ Gerardo Mora

It turns out the whale being paraded around as “Free Willy” really wasn’t so free after all, and after shooting ended on all three Free Willy films, Keiko returned to captivity.

The bitter truth struck the hearts of the public, and an effort was made to rehabilitate Keiko in 1998.

He spent the last five years of his life living in the wild until he eventually died from natural causes.

Keiko’s full story is chronicled in a recent online episode of The New York Times’ Retro Report. The 11-minute episode is packed with information, and we can learn a lot from its story, especially in light of the recent criticism against SeaWorld.

If you’re unfamiliar with the recent backlash against SeaWorld and missed Blackfish in theaters, you can watch it on CNN tonight, October 24, at 9 p.m. ET. The mind-blowing documentary doesn’t disappoint!

— Anthony Armentano, exclusive to Global Animal

More Stories on Killer Whales in Captivity:

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SeaWorld Boiling Mad Over “Blackfish” Documentary

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Judge Holds SeaWorld Responsible For Trainer’s Death