Animal advocates flock to 'Free Willy'

July 23, 1993

As children leave movie houses after watching a tear-jerker about a young boy's attempt to free a whale, they're being urged to join the cause of animal rights activists.

In 20 states across the nation, including California, Florida and Texas, animal advocates are handing out leaflets outside theaters showing the Warner Bros. film "Free Willy."

The pamphlets ask those moved by the film to work to free captive killer whales from marine theme parks.

It's a not a new effort. Earlier this year, the same groups organized a letter-writing campaign to "Free Shamu," one of Sea World's star attractions.

But the movie has provided a new impetus.

More than 100,000 leaflets have been handed out since the movie opened last weekend, said Elliot Katz of San Rafael, California-based group In Defense Of Animals. He said his organization can barely keep up with demand.

"For those who see this film, they will never look at captive animals the same way," said Katz. "They will always remember that the animals are sensitive creatures separated from their families. The response has been great."

Organizers have specifically targeted the Sea World parks, owned by the world's largest brewer, St. Louis-based Anheuser-Busch Cos. Inc.

Sea World officials have responded by saying animal rights activists are preying on youngsters' emotions by capturing their attention at a time when they are vulnerable to suggestion.

"I think that it's pretty apparent that there's an interest in using the film as a springboard for their individual, extremist agendas," said Sea World veterinarian Jim McBain.

McBain and others at the nation's four Sea World parks say the plot bears no relation to how animals are treated at the parks in San Diego; Orlando, Fla.; Aurora, Ohio; and San Antonio.

"That movie was a very different place from Sea World," McBain said. "It was a fictional story. . . . I think the vast majority of kids would recognize that it is a fictional story."

Sea World officials stress that their animals are treated well, given large areas in which to swim, have companionship with other killer whales, or orcas, and are given generous portions of food.

The film is about a troubled boy who befriends a recently captured, lovable orca named Willy who refuses to perform in park shows. Some characters in the film, including the theme park's owner, try to exploit the animal, then plot to kill him to reap insurance money.

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