6 Animal Film Stars With Tragic Histories

Freedom didn't last for Willy.

Free Willy Keiko Whale Now
Warner Bros.

After their wings or tails get captured by the silver screen, animal stars often fail to receive the lion's share of rewards. Fame doesn't guarantee success or a comfortable lifestyle for the furry stars of notable films. Instead, unique difficulties confront them after the closing shot in the form of lawsuits, illnesses, and awful living conditions.

Moviegoers want to believe every cinema-related creature fares well after filming. While a decent amount of animal stars do reach their golden years and wind up in hospitable homes, several influential critters dealt with tragedies that cost them their lives or careers.

These actors with human handlers suffered misfortunes that made headline news. Animal activists rallied for their rights while the stars themselves recovered from terrifying on-set incidents. In reality, the featured orca in Free Willy fell to pieces after his character leaped over the sea park wall. Debates about animal welfare laws shroud the demise of both Zookeeper's giraffe and the orangutan used in Eastwood's films.

While the mournful histories of these stars may not erase the magic of Harry Potter or Free Willy, their pasts illustrate the darker nature of Tinseltown. Their memorable performances gave audiences picture-perfect visions of their fins or paws but their sad backstories should make viewers pause as well.

6. Keiko - Free Willy

Free Willy Keiko Whale Now
Warner Bros.

Despite his name, which means "lucky one" in Japanese, Keiko's twenty-seven year life contained plenty of hardships. As a result, researchers and fans were thrilled that he was given the opportunity to return to the ocean eventually - it's just that the end result was unforeseeably tragic.

First captured in 1979, Keiko appeared in aquariums in Iceland and Canada until he was transported to an unkempt amusement park in Mexico. He was cast in the family film eleven years later after battling a papilloma virus that left wart-like spots on his skin. While the campaign to remove him from his nightmarish home in Mexico was successful, rougher seas lay ahead.

Though audiences cheered the release of Willy in the film, the real orca struggled to acclimate to the wild and was rehabilitated in an Oregon aquarium. He was released in Iceland after learning survival skills but the other whales refused to accept him, leaving him to rely on human companionship there and during his final years in a Norway habitat he selected himself. Tourists flocked to Norway to photograph and ride on Keiko until his sudden death from pneumonia a year later.

One of the film's highlights was the warm friendship between Jesse and Willy but several scientists insist that the release was a failure due to Keiko's reliance on human interaction. Unfortunately, the good intentions surrounding poor Keiko led to a wave of turbulence for him.

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