It's like Kramer vs. Kramer. Except with whales.

The battle for the soul of Keiko, the killer whale star of Free Willy, has pitted the giant mammal's owners versus its keepers at an Oregon aquarium. At issue: Keiko's health. Aquarium officials say the whale is sickly; its owners say it's fine--and that the tank people are just afraid of losing their meal ticket once Keiko is released back into the ocean, as planned, within a year or two.

The bickering has gotten the attention of state officials in Oregon, where a probe regarding Keiko's welfare has now been opened.

The mudslinging started last month when a veterinarian quit the Oregon Coast Aquarium, the whale's home since January 1996, in a fit of concern over the aquine Hollywood celebrity. ("I would not sign a life-insurance physical on that animal today," vet Steve Brown said.)

The timing of the protest was pointed--it came just one month after the foundation that owns Keiko (the aptly named Free Willy-Keiko Foundation) supplanted the aquarium folks and assumed control of the whale's care. (The whale still lives at the aquarium.)

By last week, seemingly cheesed-off Oregon Coast officials were at a press conference, charging that the robust whale children remember from Free Willy was in no better shape than your average doddy old uncle--listless and suffering from respiratory ailments.

On Monday, the foundation fired back: Keiko is fine (gained 1,900 pounds since it docked in Oregon, it claims); it's the aquarium folks who are illin'--dining on sour grapes. "If I had a cash cow, and I saw it about to disappear, I would become upset about it," the foundation's Dr. Lanny Cornell said.

The foundation has charged that if Keiko has ever been under the weather, it's because the aquarium keepers let its prized mass of blubber swim around in dirty water last summer, making the little fella sick. Aquarium officials deny that accusation.

The Keiko squabble marks another turbulent chapter in the 9,600-pound starlet's life. When Free Willy was released in 1993, audiences cheered the sentimental tale of a lonely boy and the big fish that befriends him. Said audiences were subsequently shocked to learn that, in real life, Free Willy wasn't so free, after all, but rather toiling away in captivity in Mexico City where he was ailing from a virus.

Keiko is relatively healthier today, although its movie days appear done. He was replaced in the film's two sequels, including last summer's Free Willy 3: The Rescue, by animatronics.

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