Governor Proclaims Benji State's Pet Of The Year

Benji sat with perfect poise Wednesday as Gov. Haley Barbour declared the floppy-eared pooch to be Mississippi's pet of the year.

"This puppy - we need to send it over to the Legislature,'' Barbour joked as Benji sat calmly for photographers in the governor's Capitol office.

"Have you ever seen anybody better behaved?'' Barbour said.

The world premiere of the first Benji movie in 16 years, "Benji Returns: Rags to Riches,'' will be held Thursday in Jackson as a benefit for a children's hospital and an animal shelter.

The film's general release begins June 11 in Texas and the Southeast. It opens nationwide by July 30.

The movie is set in Mississippi and is the fourth film based on a character created in 1974 by University of Mississippi graduate Joe Camp.

The latest Benji - a 3½-year-old female - is the fourth dog to play the character. The new Benji was adopted in the fall of 2001 from the Humane Society of South Mississippi after a nationwide search of animal shelters.

Barbour said the first Benji movie prompted more than 1 million pet adoptions from animal shelters across the country and he hopes the new movie has the same effect.

Nate Bynum, who taught acting at Mississippi State University from 1990-99, co-stars in the new Benji movie as a sheriff investigating animal abuse. As for the old saw about actors not wanting to be upstaged by children or animals?

"I bask in Benji's glory,'' Bynum said with a laugh.

Benji made plenty of friends in the governor's office Wednesday as legislative staff members and Highway Patrol officers lined up to get pictures made with her.

Betty Adams, a math teacher at Holmes Community College in Ridgeland, visited the Capitol with students and was excited to see the fluffy star.

"I had a dog who looked just like Benji,'' she said. "It kind of tugs at your heartstrings.''

(Copyright 2004 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)