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If you love Willy, you'll hate that hamburger.

For subversive films this year, few match "Free Willy," the Warner Bros. summer hit about an orca whale freed from a Pacific Northwest theme park. If the revolutionary message of this tale were taken to heart -- that humans have no moral right to exploit animals -- a massive social upheaval would be under way. Animal liberation would mean freedom not only for Willy the whale, but also Elsie the cow, Trigger, Shamu, Bonzo and all the other fish, fowl and mammals that Americans eat, hunt, wear, ride, dissect, cage, bet on, euthanize or own.

"Free Willy" has been a box-office smash because it indulges audiences in their feelings for preserving and protecting a creature surely deserving human affection. The film's producer said of the Mexico City amusement park whale that played Willy, "He was like our kid. He kind of had that mentality of a teenager."

This is selective emotionalism, which is fine to start with and if it lasted beyond the popcorn machine on the way out of the theater. But there's the captivity of the billions of factory farm animals and fowl -- 10,000 killed per minute -- that also deserve the emotions stirred by this film.

Whether Willy is like or unlike "our kid" is marginal to the ethical question of his having a life force that is sacred in itself. Because he does, his liberation -- all 7,000 pounds of him leaping from captivity into the open seas in the final reel -- should be a standard applied to all animals. Willy's inalienable right to be free of domination and exploitation by humans is shared but not experienced by feedlot cattle, lab animals, poultry industry flocks, racehorses and dogs, circus lions, aquarium fish and all animals that, like Willy, have the miserable lot of being moneymakers for their owners.

Citizens committed to freeing animals are rarely portrayed as favorably as the streetwise lad who liberated Willy. They are more likely to be scorned as "animal rights terrorists," the overblown phrase of former Health and Human Services Secretary Louis Sullivan. The boy in "Free willy" was not under investigation by federal prosecutors, as are several major animal rights groups, nor was he condemned by self-serving medical research organizations that stand to lose hundreds of millions of dollars should their captives be freed.

That so many moneyed lobbies see the animal liberation movement as criminal and irrational is testimony to Western philosophy and one of its major fallacies -- Aristotle's "scala natura." That is the hierarchical, linear view of life in which humans place themselves, conveniently, at the top of the natural scale and animals below. Mimicking the Greeks, Christian theologians concurred centuries later, declaring, as Thomas Aquinas did, that animals lack souls. Humans have souls, they theorized, and therefore are superior.

Those who disagreed were mostly people who never heard of Greek philosophers or Italian rationalizers and had no reason to miss them. These included tribes of the Great Plains. In "Perceptions of Animals in American Culture," Elizabeth Lawrence of Tufts University School of Veterinary Medicine writes: "The earth, for a Plains native, is shared with other animals as equals and brothers. The universe is conceptualized as a circle, with all forms of life on the same plane, each having a different but equally important role to play. ... Animals in Native American creation stories often possess both the wisdom and the power to help in making the earth and even in bringing mankind into existence."

"Free Willy" fulfills the buried desires of the moviegoing public to feel in harmony with the natural world, despite the enormous complicity of humans in the daily torture and killing of animals. The film itself is fiction. The real Willy is Keiko, captured in the North Atlantic in 1982, sold to a New York aquarium and resold to another enslaver in Mexico City. He's one more exploited animal, now exploited by Hollywood profiteers.

Colman McCarthy is a syndicated writer for The Washington Post.
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Title Annotation:'Free Willy' film and animal rights
Author:McCarthy, Colman
Publication:National Catholic Reporter
Article Type:Column
Date:Sep 17, 1993
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