Often, I am asked how I got into training movie animals, and it's a classic case of being in the right place at the right time. Years ago, I worked for a cutting horse trainer in Washington State and flew to a friend's wedding in Lake Arrowhead, CA, where I sat next to a guy who ran the dog department for a large animal company in Los Angeles. At the time, he was working a dog on a TV show that my Dad watched, and that's how I got my foot in the door.
The timing couldn't have been better. Within a few months, I packed up my Jeep and moved to Southern California. I started shadowing the trainers on set, learning everything I could. They taught me how to work with finished dogs and helped me train new ones. Before I knew it, I was given my first independent assignment, working with Abbey, a shaggy rescue dog, on an AT&T commercial shot on the back lot at Universal Studios. It felt surreal, with tourists passing by on trams to my left and Jaws coming out of the water to my right. I was instantly hooked on the work.
You may be surprised that trainers work behind the scenes nearly every time you see an animal on TV, from snakes to butterflies to lions. However, it's not always a glamorous job. Sometimes we get to spend a few fabulous months in Paris, while other times, we end up in the Bronx near the railroad tracks. Over the years, I've had some odd experiences, like being paced by a rhinoceros while driving my old Yukon or being serenaded along with a cameraman by Jeff Goldbloom on the set of Independence Day 2. I've also found myself in interesting situations, like when I was handling a kangaroo for a Noah's Arc type scene, and a zebra behind us developed an aggressive dislike for kangaroos. Thankfully, no one was hurt, but we had to change the order of animals.
I've had some unforgettable moments, too, like visiting with Harry Gesner (the brilliant architect) at his home on the edge of the Pacific Ocean during a Vogue photoshoot and riding an ostrich (more on that here). One time, while filming in the Pasadena hills, I was asked to walk down a path to find the crew. For a long minute, the only thing I saw was Big Foot, standing by himself in the trees, but it was actually a very tall actor in Harry and the Hendersons wardrobe with contacts in his eyes. It was so cool! One time we took wolves on a last-minute job to shoot a music video at a Hollywood Hills home. It was a super small crew so lunch was set up in the kitchen, and to my surprise, I looked in the living room to see Robert Downey Jr sitting on the sofa. As it turned out, his son was part of the band.
It's incredible how one chance encounter can completely transform the trajectory of your life. Looking back, I'm so grateful for that moment at a friend's wedding. Without it, I might never have discovered animal training in the entertainment industry.