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Tuesday, December 16, 2003 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Corrected version

Keiko secretly buried in Norwegian pasture

The Associated Press

OSLO, Norway — Keiko, the killer whale star of the "Free Willy" movies, was buried yesterday in a snow-bound pasture overlooking the sea in a ceremony kept secret from the public.

"We wanted to let him be at peace," said Dane Richards, one of his caretakers. "He's free now and in the wild."

The 6-ton whale died Friday in a Norwegian bay where his team was trying to reintroduce him to the wild. His trainers said pneumonia was the likely cause of death.

Richards said the burial in a pasture just yards from where Keiko, about 26, died was done in secret to avoid a media circus.

The grave site, a lush and grassy field during the summer, was covered with snow and barely visible by daylight yesterday.

Normally, Norwegian fisheries authorities would order the remains of a large sea mammal towed to sea and sunk in deep water. However, they acted quickly during the weekend to give Keiko's backers, which included the Free Willy-Keiko Foundation and the Humane Society of the United States, permission to bury the celebrity on land.

Despite the whale's size, the burial went smoothly, Richards said. Machines dug a hole near the waterline, under cover of darkness, and then slid Keiko slowly a few yards across the snow into his grave, he said.

"It was beautiful. He went to the grave quietly, quickly and peacefully, just like he died," Richards said. Only seven people — including his team and the machine operator — were present.

Keiko, which mean's "Lucky One" in Japanese, became a darling of children through his role in "Free Willy," a film in which a boy befriends a captive killer whale and coaxes him to jump over a sea-park wall to freedom.

The fame prompted a $20 million program to free Keiko from a Mexico aquarium where he was languishing.

He was brought to the Oregon Coast Aquarium in 1996, then to Iceland, near where he was born in 1977 or 1978, for preparation for his return to the wild. Released in 2002, he swam 870 miles to the waters near the village of Halsa, on Norway's west coast.

He became an instant hit, with so many people swimming with him and even crawling on his back, that animal-protection authorities banned people from approaching him.

His team coaxed him to the more remote Taknes Bay, still in Halsa, where members tried to lure him into a life completely in the wild. He was free to leave the bay, and sometimes did, but appeared to prefer human company.

Information in this article, originally published December 16, was corrected December 17. A previous version of this article on the burial in Norway of the killer whale Keiko incorrectly said one of the groups supporting the whale was the Human Society of the United States. It's actually the Humane Society.

Copyright © 2003 The Seattle Times Company

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