Benji: Sheltered Animals as Lovable Pets

For decades, Benji movies have helped make heroes out of shelter animals. But more important, they've helped make them cherished pets.
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The Return of Benji

When I learned there was a new Benji movie coming out, and that its creator, Joe Camp, is the same filmmaker who made the three original Benji movies back in the 1970s and 1980s, I just had to find him and thank him. I grew up adoring that scruffy, heroic pooch who helped solve crimes and always managed to ditch the secret agents and evil spies pursuing him. Like so many kid moviegoers, I regarded Benji as a personal friend. Even more, I loved knowing that in real life, the original Benji (who first appeared to audiences as the dog on the 1960s sitcom Petticoat Junction) was found in a shelter, just like Ralph, my own family mutt at the time. It was a kind of validation for me, for Ralph, and for all the dogs I would go on to own, all of them lovingly plucked from animal shelters. I'm hardly alone. According to the American Humane Association, those early Benji movies dramatically boosted pet adoptions from shelters across the country.

The new Benji, star of Benji Returns: Rags to Riches, is believed to be part Lhasa apso and part shih tzu, and about 3 years old. She was found on the streets of Pass Christian, Mississippi, where she was picked up by animal control and taken to the Humane Society. That's where Camp, 65, found her while holding a nationwide search for the star of his new movie. He had not made a film since the 1980s, when his wife and production partner, Carolyn, suffered severe health problems; she died in 1997. In 2001, newly remarried and determined to pick up where he left off, Camp decided that it was time to bring Benji back to the big screen.

I caught up with Camp at his home in Valley Center, California, where he lives with wife Kathleen, three stepchildren and a menagerie of pets, including five dogs, three cats, and a pair of goats. His two newest pooches are Benji, whom Camp adopted as his own, and Shaggy, an endearing mutt he found in a Chicago shelter. Shaggy was supposed to be Benji's understudy, but so charmed the filmmaker that he earned a supporting role in the movie as Benji's even scruffier sidekick.

Continued on page 2:  Q&A with Benji Creator


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