`Turn Keiko into meatballs'

KEIKO THE killer whale, the captive star of the film Free Willy who is now being groomed for freedom himself, should be turned into meatballs, according to a pro-whaling Norwegian MP.

Spending millions of dollars on preparing Keiko for return to the ocean is "a lunatic waste of money", according to Steinar Bastesen, former head of the Norwegian whalers' association. Instead, the four-ton orca, who last week was flown from Oregon in the US to a huge sea-pen in the Vestmann Islands off Iceland, should be turned into food aid, Mr Bastesen reckons. Keiko's carcass, he thinks, would yield about 60,000 meatballs, which could be sent to the starving children of Sudan.

The 53-year-old independent MP, the only one in Norway's parliament, represents the Lofoten Islands, the country's whaling area. He has been whaling since he was eight and still hunts minke whales in the summer.

"There are more than enough killer whales around - we don't need to import them," he said. "Anyway, the only good killer whale is a dead one."

His views were not appreciated by the Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society, the British group that has been supporting the efforts of the Free Willy/Keiko Foundation to bring about the first successful return of a captive orca to the wild. "I don't think it's a particularly constructive comment," said its campaigns co-ordinator, Fran Clarke.

Keiko's return to the ocean from a Mexican aquarium has so far cost about $12.5m (pounds 7.5m). Last week he was flown to Iceland, where he was captured in 1979, from the site of his initial "convalescence" in a tank in Newport, Oregon.

The new home is another and bigger tank, 76 metres by 30 and open to the sea.

Already, Keiko has been seen vocalising with a pilot whale visitor, and chasing fish. However, it may be months before he is ready for full release, if at all.

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