Whale's plight in movie renews captivity debate

July 16, 1993|By Steve McKerrow | Steve McKerrow,Staff writer

The National Aquarium in Baltimore does not display a killer whale, like the big, lovable star of the film "Free Willy." But the kids-oriented movie opening in area theaters today seems likely to renew debate over capturing and displaying all marine mammals, such as the seven dolphins currently occupying the Inner Harbor attraction.

"I would be concerned that viewers would come away with the message that all aquariums are like this [in the film]," says Robert Jenkins, executive officer for environmental affairs at the Baltimore facility. He saw a sneak preview of the movie last weekend.

"Quite honestly, I enjoyed it . . . it's a neat story, it's uplifting and it has nice messages," he says.

But, he contends, "it's a Hollywood film, and to make the story believable they have to take liberties." As a result, likening its depiction of marine display facilities to the National Aquarium "is not just comparing apples and oranges, but comparing apples and spoiled fruit."

The movie stars a killerwhale (or orca) named Keiko and a boy actor named Jason James Richter.

In the affecting story, both portray orphans who bond and, eventually, find the family relationships they need. But the venal owner of the fictional theme park (played by frequent film villain Michael Ironside) decides the moody, non-performing whale is worth more dead, through insurance payoffs.

The title alone tips the plot and the action, which includes what must be the first combined whale-and-car chase in the long history of film pursuits.

Mr. Jenkins says that in reality, a variety of regulations in force since 1972 in the United States and Canada would not permit a whale to be confined as the movie depicts. And he says the notion that a killer whale could be more valuable to a park dead than alive is not credible.

The film does not directly attack the root concept of aquatic display facilities, for the park involved (in reality located in Mexico City) is clearly depicted as substandard.

Willy is confined in a tank built for smaller dolphins, and humane handlers strongly object to the conditions.

But stirring questions about captive display of all marine mammals is at least a sub-text of the movie, say both its producers and a California-based environmental organization whose toll-free telephone number, 1-800-4WHALES, appears on screen at the close of "Free Willy."

The film's subject matter even arose Tuesday night during the third inning of the Major League All-Star Game at Oriole Park at Camden Yards. A Baltimore man, John Logan Cockey, 41, scaled an outfield sign advertising Budweiser to unfurl a banner reading "August Busch III/Free Willy? Corky! Shamu/Respect Gods Creatures."

Sea World parks in the United States, which do display killer whales (all named Shamu), are owned by the Busch brewery, and August Busch owns the St. Louis Cardinals.

Mr. Logan, a carpenter whose wife, Patti is mid-Atlantic director of The Dolphin Project, a Florida-based organization, said yesterday his goal was "to communicate to the public that what I like to call these dolphin abusement parks don't exist for the benefit of dolphins and whales. It has to do with bringing tourists to town."

He said that "Free Willy" actually mirrors the real-life story of an orca named Corky, who has been the "Shamu" at San Diego's Sea World for more than 20 years.

He also noted, as film figures have said, that efforts are under way to relocate the movie star whale from the cramped facility in Mexico and perhaps eventually release him back to the wild.

Mr. Cockey, who has led protests opposite the National Aquarium in Baltimore, was charged with disorderly conduct and faces an Aug. 16 court date.

"The time is now to phase out these concrete pavilions . . . We feel that this movie will send a real strong message overall," said Mark Berman, program associate for the Save the Dolphins Project of the Earth Island Institute in San Francisco, in an interview this week.

In a letter last year printed in The Sun, Mr. Berman called upon the National Aquarium in Baltimore "to phase out its dolphin programs and allow these animals their freedom."

Calling the phone number displayed at the close of "Free Willy" connects viewers with the Earth Island Institute. A taped message seeks a $5 donation for a packet of information about worldwide threats "to whales like Willy," and other intelligent marine species. Slaughters of whales in Norway and Japan are specifically cited, for the Institute has alleged some theme parks have sought to acquire animals saved from mass killing operations.

The movie's co-executive producers, Richard Donner and wife Lauren Shuler-Donner, also are quoted in Time magazine this week as saying that while "Free Willy" was not made to specifically condemn aquatic parks, both believe commercial facilities with captive marine mammals should not exist.

A spokesman for Sea World parks also contendeds in Time that the movie contains many inaccuracies about captive conditions.

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