- The Washington Times - Tuesday, July 8, 2003

Culture critics lament the way Hollywood glamorizes smoking, sex and violence. Now pet enthusiasts worry that major motion pictures and TV commercials depict animals in ways that lead to unhealthy fads in pet ownership.

From talking Chihuahuas to cartoon fish, the entertainment world is influencing pet choices.

The latest craze is to own a “Nemo fish,” a striped tropical species made famous by the animated hit “Finding Nemo.”

The Pixar cartoon movie tells the tale of Nemo the clown fish, who is captured from the sea and put in a young girl’s fish tank. To escape, he and his fish friends must make it to the toilet. Then, with a quick flush, they’ll be back home in the wild.

The movie has some parents rushing to the pet store with children in tow. Store clerks say they meet customers demanding, “I want the Nemo fish.”

That’s when they learn that the purchase will put them back several hundred dollars — they’ll need a fish tank, salt, a protein skimmer, a filter and a hydrometer. Many opt for an old-fashioned goldfish instead, says Shawn Underwood, a spokesman for Petco, one of the nation’s leading pet retailers.

Petco staff are ready to make sure the would-be “Nemo” owners know what they are getting into. They explain the needed supplies and care — and are sure to tell customers that the toilet is not the gateway to their fish’s freedom, as the film suggests.

“Nemo” fever is just the latest animal fad influenced by prominent exposure on the big screen.

Dog enthusiasts still recall the frenzy over Dalmatians after a remake of Disney’s “101 Dalmatians” was released in 1996. Ownership of the high-strung dogs went up dramatically, said Bob Yarnell, president of the American Canine Association.

When impulse buyers discover their new Dalmatians are not as calm as the loveable spotted dogs depicted in the film, Mr. Yarnell said, they end up trying to get rid of their pets, often passing them off to shelters.

Daisy Okas, a spokeswoman for the American Kennel Club, said Dalmatian ownership has been in decline. She said the breed’s popularity has fallen from the top-20 list when the film was released in 1996, to 68th this year.

The kennel club is gearing up for renewed interest in Chihuahuas with the release of “Legally Blonde II” last week. The first “Legally Blonde” flick piqued interest in the breed, as the fashionable Reese Witherspoon toted her dressed-up companion, Bruiser, around with her everywhere in pricey purses.

The species was, of course, made famous by late-‘90s Taco Bell commercials featuring a Chihuahua with an insatiable appetite proclaiming, “Yo quiero Taco Bell.”

“Men in Black II” did the same for pugs, Miss Okas said. Frank the pug had some of the movie’s best lines, stealing scenes from Tommy Lee Jones and Will Smith.

While some parents worry witchcraft will be in vogue because of the “Harry Potter” phenomenon, pet advocates fear impulsive interest in owls, rats and toads — depicted as friendly companions of Harry and his classmates in J.K. Rowling’s popular tales. In the novels, Harry takes an owl to class each day.

The National Zoo experiences increased interest in species that are in the movies, said Pepper Long, a spokeswoman for the zoo. She said the “Harry Potter” films were responsible for added excitement over the snowy owl. The meerkat exhibit got more attention too, with Timone’s debut in Disney’s “The Lion King.”

“The kids definitely get fired up over species in the movies,” Ms. Long said.

While such fads are potentially hazardous to pets, there can also be dangers to owners. Children have been killed or injured by popular but dangerous pets such as pit-bull terriers and boa constrictors.

A recent Midwestern outbreak of monkeypox has been traced back to pet prairie dogs and Gambian rats. The disease, which can cause fevers, chills, coughs and sore throats, and is sometimes fatal, was previously unknown in the Western Hemisphere.

Mr. Yarnell said some animal-featuring films do portray pets realistically. “Beethoven,” a 1992 film, showed a family coming to terms with the difficulties of raising a rambunctious St. Bernard. And “Lassie,” he said, is an accurate portrayal of collies.

Tracy Blaeuer, manager of Annandale Super Pets, said she has had people ask to buy “Paulie,” the talking parrot and title character of the 1998 movie. Customers also want guinea pigs that look like the one in the “Dr. Doolittle” movies.

Customers have also wanted to purchase hedgehogs, made familiar by a wireless-phone commercial. The ad features a man on a date with his girlfriend when they pass a pet store. Seeing a cute hedgehog in the window, the man stops to pet it. But it races up his pants, sending him into a fit of dancing and screaming.

However, it is illegal to own hedgehogs in Virginia, Mrs. Blaeuer said.

Mrs. Blaeuer’s store sells about 30 clown fish in a regular week, a number she estimated has increased 50 percent with the “Nemo” hype.

She said she tries to make sure would-be owners are prepared to care for their new pets.

“We get in disagreements with customers because we are looking out for … the pets,” Mrs. Blaeuer said. “Hopefully parents won’t go out and appease their children with the latest fad.”

Phil Concepcion, owner of Exotic Aquatics in Baltimore, said he doesn’t understand the latest fad with “Nemo” fish. After all, he points out, the movie portrays the life of fish in an aquarium negatively. “The movie is about the fish trying to escape,” he said. “So why people would want to go out and get one because of the movie, I don’t know.”

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