Most people know what happened to the dog at the end of Old Yeller, but what happened to the most beloved animal actors once the cameras stopped rolling? Characters in animal movies have special ways of touching audiences' hearts, sometimes more powerfully than human characters. Due to their unique body of work, film and television creatures like Mister Ed, Air Bud, and Lassie remain beloved years after their first appearance. Unfortunately, while animal characters have the ability to live forever on film, animal actors are mortal.
Whether they became sick, lost their will to live, or passed in the line of duty, some animal actors experienced tragedy at the end of their lives. Luckily, what they gave the world through their movie and television performances won't soon be forgotten.
- Photo: Universal Pictures
Hollywood unofficially dubbed 1989 as the year of dogs teaming up with men to solve crimes. In addition to Turner & Hooch, there was K-9, the story of a police dog named Jerry Lee who teams up with a cop to capture dealers. Although several dogs played Jerry Lee, a German Shepherd named Koton earned the most screen time. Koton was not an actor but an actual police dog employed by the Kansas City, MO, police department.
Instead of beginning an illustrious career in Hollywood after filming completed, Koton returned to police work and helped officers in the city's narcotics unit. In 1991, Koton's team located a suspect in the slaying of a police officer. Koton chased the suspect, who fired a fatal shot at the dog. Although K-9 ironically featured a similar scene, the real life ending wasn't as happy.
- Photo: Warner Bros.
Keiko, who played the eponymous orca in Free Willy, won his role in 1991 when filmmakers scouted him at a run-down aquatic park in Mexico. Originally born into a pod of wild orca and captured at age three in 1979, Keiko was in poor health when found at the park. In the 1993 film, Keiko's character helps teach a young boy about friendship, responsibility, and love before being freed from confinement at an aquatic park. At the same time, the movie's crew tried to help the real orca.
Filmmakers included a phone number before the film's credits and urged people to call or write letters to help set Keiko free, just like the happy ending his character receives in the film. Enough people spoke out and donated money that the park released Keiko back into the wild and trainers took him to an Oregon aquarium before relocating him to Iceland in 2000. Unfortunately, Keiko had spent so much time around humans, he was unable to adjust to life outside of an enclosure, away from human contact. Preferring the company of people, he refused to socialize with other whales or feed himself. He eventually died of pneumonia in 2003 around the age of 26.
- Photo: NBC
In 1964, dolphins were everywhere; San Diego's Sea World opened for business and Flipper began airing on television. The show ran for three years and told the story of a dolphin who works with a ranger to rescue people in the ocean while helping to keep the ranger's two sons out of danger at the same time. Five different dolphins played Flipper during the show's run, and Richard O'Barry captured and trained them all. After a dolphin named Kathy became one of the most famous of all the Flippers, filmmakers sent her to live out her retirement at the Miami Seaquarium when the show ended.
Staff placed her in a small tank by herself, and O'Barry noticed she seemed depressed and agitated when he visited in 1970. "She was living a miserable life and she was tired of being miserable," he remembered. According to O'Barry, Kathy swum into his arms during one of his visits, looked him in the eye, and voluntarily chose to stop breathing, an ability dolphins possess that humans do not. Kathy's apparent suicide so devastated O'Barry that he dedicated his life to dolphin activism and helped create the 2009 dolphin awareness documentary The Cove.
- Photo: Universal Pictures
Although his most memorable role may have included being embarrassed by a freshly shorn behind in The Great Outdoors, Bart the bear had a long career in Hollywood. Born in 1977 in the Baltimore Zoo, the Alaskan grizzly entered the movies at a young age after being adopted by trainers and eventually grew to stand nine and a half feet tall and weigh 1,500 pounds. Bart made memorable appearances in The Bear, Legends of the Fall, and The Edge, and became such a beloved member of the Hollywood community that the Academy Awards invited him to take the stage at the 1988 Oscars.
Doctors diagnosed Bart with cancer in 1989, and he underwent two surgeries during which surgeons removed tumors from his paw. The disease didn't slow down Bart's career, however, and he continued appearing in movies until the cancer returned. When he began refusing his pain medication in 2000, trainers made the difficult decision to euthanize the 23 year-old grizzly.