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'Nemo' fans net fish warning

Animal welfare groups cite concerns in latest film pet craze

Disney says
Disney says "Finding Nemo" is not an endorsement of purchasing fish as pets.

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(CNN) -- The hit Disney movie "Finding Nemo" is bringing smiles and sales to pet stores, where clownfish, blue tangs and aquarium accessories are flying off the shelves.

But the retailers' glee contrasts with a sense of frustration among animal welfare activists.

"Probably every shelter in the world cringes when a pet gets hot in the movies, on TV or in a commercial," said Kathy Bauch of the Humane Society of the United States.

"We know that demand for that animal will skyrocket," she said.

Whether it's Eddie the Jack Russell terrier from "Frasier" or Spuds McKenzie the bull terrier from Budweiser commercials, popularity in pop culture sometimes leads to pet purchases that people later regret. Add to the list Nemo, the clown fish.

"Everyone who comes in says they want Nemo," Michael Diaz, manager at Jewels of the Sea in West Palm Beach, told the Associated Press. Clown fish sales have more than doubled at his store.

Disney has responded to the frenzy of buying in the wake of "Nemo's" success.

"Owning a pet fish is a major responsibility that requires daily care and constant attention," a Disney statement said. "The film 'Finding Nemo' does not endorse purchasing fish as pets. Those who decide to have a home aquarium should be prepared for the responsibility that comes with it."

A Disney spokeswoman said the company also is encouraging parents and children to learn more about ocean life through a link on the movie's Web site to Jean-Michel Cousteau's Ocean Futures Society.

The Humane Society of the United States and People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals have praised "Finding Nemo" for its message of freedom and respect for animals.

The animated comedy shows how a young clownfish escapes an aquarium in a dentist's office and reunites with his father in the ocean.

PETA said the movie even features a slogan the group has used for years, "Fish are friends, not food."

But "Finding Nemo" has led to another unexpected consequence. Some kids are taking the liberation message to heart and attempting to free their pet fish by flushing them down the toilet. At one point in the movie, Nemo and his fish friends plot such an escape route.

Water treatment plants and plumbing companies across the United States said they have gotten frantic calls from parents wanting to know if there's any way to rescue flushed fish.

One water plant operator in California said the chances of a flushed fish making it to the ocean are "essentially zero to none."

Animal welfare groups said this development is yet another reason parents should sit down with children after the movie to talk about fantasy and reality.

Activists say they see improvements in Hollywood

The huge popularity of Disney's "101 Dalmatians" (1996) and "102 Dalmatians" (2000) led to a lot of abandoned animals, according to the Humane Society's Bauch.

"Unfortunately it's not like cranking out a few more toasters. You can't just crank out a few more dogs," she said.

Shelters and responsible breeders don't make that happen, Bauch said, but puppy mills and unscrupulous pet shops do.

A few months after the rush on dalmatians, shelters and rescue groups were flooded with unwanted animals, said PETA's Lisa Lange.

"Dalmatians are energetic, and they don't always get along with kids," Lange said. "They're like little ponies. They need a lot of exercise."

Animal rights groups said that in some ways Hollywood is starting to be more understanding about animal issues.

Lange points to the new movie "Legally Blonde 2," which takes on the subject of animal testing; "The Perfect Storm" (2000), which used computer-animated fish in its tale of a fishing crew caught up a terrible disaster; and "Babe" (1995), which put a face on farm animals not usually portrayed in movies.

The use of computer-generated animals is one way to provide a win-win situation for Hollywood, Lange said.

Computer animation is often cheaper than using live animals and trainers, producers can get the animals to do exactly what they want, and real animals are not stressed or abused, she added.

-- From CNN Sci-Tech Producer Marsha Walton

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