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SUNDAY BRUNCH

Killer Toys

January 25, 1998|BEVERLY BEYETTE

When they say "Play ball!" at the Oregon Coast Aquarium in Newport, it's the cue for Keiko the killer whale--all 10,000 pounds of him--to beat up on his toys.

The orca, who starred in "Free Willy" and as a result was rescued from too-tight digs in a Mexican marine park and landed in a custom $7-million pool at the Oregon aquarium, is an official toy tester.

Boomer Ball of Grayslake, Ill., which makes toys for zoo animals, sends Keiko giant plastic cubes, cones and balls with which to frolic. If he doesn't break them, the company figures, a mere rhinoceros or gorilla won't.

Keiko benefits too, says Diane Hammond, spokeswoman for the Free Willy Keiko Foundation.

"While it's cute to think of Keiko with his toys, he's getting a very good physical therapy benefit" and is kept mentally stimulated.

Keiko made short work of one Boomer Ball, a plastic number about 3 feet in diameter, crushing it against the side of his pool.

"He may have thought it was a strange whale," reasons Boomer Ball owner Joan Schultz. "It was dark blue and speckled."

One of Keiko's favorites is a big white cube that, Hammond says, "makes a sort of boom when he thumps it with his head. It may be the noise, or because he can sort of bite the edges."

In excellent health, Keiko has reached 21 feet in length on a daily diet of 130 pounds of fish. The ultimate hope of the foundation, which raises $600,000 a year to support Keiko, is to release him to the North Atlantic, where he was captured as a 2-year-old in 1979. If that's not feasible, though, "we've committed to caring for him for the rest of his life," Hammond says.

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