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.
"Actually, we and the Earth Island Institute are probably far more in agreement about what needs to be done in the world [regarding marine species preservation] than we are in disagreement," says Mr. Jenkins at the National Aquarium In Baltimore.
He asserts that under the circumstances depicted in the film, "I would wager there's not a person in this aquarium who would not do the same thing" to save Willy the whale.
The point of divergence comes to this:
Aquarists contend the educational awareness provided by close contact with marine mammals creates powerful public support for preserving species in the wild, such as restricting whaling practices and combating the inadvertent snarling of dolphins in tuna nets.
Non-captivity advocates, such as Mr. Berman and Mr. Cockey, argue it is simply inhumane to keep such animals, saying they suffer stress, illness and a shortened life span in captivity. (The National Aquarium has experienced deaths of three dolphins and two beluga whales since its 1981 opening.)
But is the movie "Free Willy" unfair?
"It's not unfair. We live in a free country and people can voice their opinion," says Mr. Jenkins, adding, "We understand that people have concerns and rightly so, and we welcome the scrutiny."
Affection runs deep
In the debate over captive mammals, no one argues that handlers do not care for their animals. Indeed, a visit this week to an Aquarium training session showed a high level of affection and concern for the facility's star attractions.
Co-curator John Jarkowiec and Nedra Hecker and mammalogists Jackie Weiner and Beth Weber put the big animals -- some are about 20 feet long and weigh more than 600 pounds -- through a variety of exercises.
A 20-year-old male, Akai, posed for photographs by sliding onto a poolside scale, and 22-year-old Nalu, another male, rolled onto his back in a demonstration of how aquarists routinely make medical checks by taking blood samples from the base of the tail.
The aquarium also has all food intended for the dolphins -- fish and squid, principally -- analyzed by a local laboratory to check for tainted matter and to permit careful charting of each animal's caloric and other nutritional intake.
Mr. Jarkowiec says submission to a variety of health checks are the first behaviors taught to dolphins, including the use of stomach tubes and even ultra-sound exams for pregnant females. Two babies, Chesapeake and Cobie, were born at the Aquarium last year, and are beginning to imitate the older dolphins' tricks.
"Most people want to take the best care of the animals they can," the curator says, noting that a mother dolphin named Hailey had a difficult pregnancy last year before giving birth to a healthy baby.
In nature, both she and her calf likely would have died, he explains. "They have better major medical care here than they would in the wild."