WILD-ANIMAL TRAINER Hubert Wells is fuming. He is sitting at the kitchen table of the training ranch he owns in Thousand Oaks, reading the latest attack on his work in a 1986 film called “Project X,” a film on which he was the head trainer. To Wells, the animal work in the film--which was about a heroic chimpanzee who saves himself and other chimps from an evil Air Force experiment--represents a major achievement: “It’s the biggest and best chimp movie ever!” To others, the film is a central example of all that is scandalous in our relationships with animals. It is even, for some, a travesty, a film that championed animal rights but depended on abuse of the chimp actors during training and production.
“That is nonsense,” Wells expostulates, frustrated. “Abuse creates fear, and fear is a lousy motivator. A fearful animal, like a fearful person, cannot think! Torture doesn’t work on animals any more than it works on people. You can use torture and the threat of torture to get people to do some things, but not many, and not when there is an avenue of escape.”
It is a point echoed by trainer after trainer: The proof of conscientious handling is in the pudding. If the animals work well, then the trainer is doing something right, because animals will not work in response to cruelty.
The number of animals trained for entertainment is small, but there can hardly be a symbolically more serious question than the one posed by the controversy over “Project X.” If the charges of abuse are right, then the very love of animals that has moviegoers plunking down their $6 for admission to “Benji the Hunted” is being used to cause them to unwittingly subsidize systematic cruelty. But if the charges are wrong, that love of animals is being pressed into service to sustain another kind of cruelty: branding training and its practitioners as inhumane.
At the kitchen table with Wells is a cast member from “Project X,” a chimpanzee named Masikio--Swahili for “ears"--because Mouse, as he is nicknamed, has large, round and fetching ears. He also has excellent table manners and, pound for pound, about seven times the strength of an adult human male. Mouse is having grapes for breakfast; the humans have coffee and Danish. At one point, Wells reaches over and takes the grapes out of Masikio’s mouth as the chimp chews. Mouse regards Wells benignly instead of responding as if to a challenge. “You can’t do that with just any chimp,” Wells says.
Wells’ relationship with Masikio and the 13 other chimps on “Project X” was formally called into question in November, 1987, when Robert Rush, general manager of the Los Angeles Department of Animal Regulation, asked the district attorney to pursue 18 misdemeanor counts of cruelty to animals against six of the eight trainers on the film. Rush thought there was evidence that the trainers had taken excessive action in disciplining the chimps. But the district attorney’s office, in part because the statute of limitations was coming up and in part because it did not find the evidence compelling, did not pursue the action. By April, 1988, it had also dropped a move to bring civil charges. “In no way,” says John Lynch of the district attorney’s office, “was there overwhelming evidence of abuse.”
It was a decision that doubly exonerated Wells and the other trainers. The American Humane Assn., since 1940 the on-the-set watchdog of animal welfare in Hollywood, had approved “Project X,” certifying that no animal was hurt or killed in the making of the movie and that no animal action in it was achieved inhumanely.
But the controversy continued. Ads had appeared in Daily Variety, including one that offered $5,000 for testimony against the trainers. Another featured a letter on city stationery, signed by Rush, attacking the AHA; yet another was placed by game-show host Bob Barker, paid for by the Coalition for Animal Rights. Claims were made that a “code of silence” enforced by crew members’ fear of unemployment, plus the AHA’s lack of scrupulousness, kept the “Project X” abuses from becoming public knowledge. Various animal-welfare groups (there are thousands that operate at local, state, national and international levels with varying degrees of clout) ran stories in their publications that kept the charges alive, and the mainstream media reported the stir as a struggle over how animals in entertainment should be regulated, and who should do it.The controversy also fit into a larger discussion of animal rights, one that focuses attention on the use of animals in experiments, on alleged animal mishandling at circuses and zoos (such as the recent case of Dunda the elephant at the San Diego Wild Animal Park) and that extends to the use of animals in service to the handicapped or in police dog work. Dr. Michael Fox of the Humane Society of the United States and Ingrid Newkirk, national director of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, for example, have objected to all animal training as abusive or at best exploitative. Newkirk is even willing to say that the keeping of pets is exploitative.
Experienced trainers in Hollywood--such as Wells, with more than 70 film credits to his name; Bill Koehler, veteran of the Disney animal classics; Frank Inn of Benji fame, and Corky Randall, trainer of the Black Stallion--do not deny that there is a potential for abuse in the handling of animals in the film industry, and in other situations. They welcome the presence of an agency such as the American Humane Assn. on the set. In training, as in any profession, they say, there are incompetent or unscrupulous individuals. Karl Miller, a trainer with 28 years of experience, says, “Of course there are people who are willing to just go ahead and shoot a dog if the script calls for it.” But Miller cannot bring himself to include the abusers among his colleagues: “They are suppliers,” he says. “They aren’t trainers .”
All eight trainers who worked on “Project X” deny that there was any abuse in the training and performance of the chimps. And wholesale abuse charges against animal training in general are absurd, say Wells, Miller and the others. To show how absurd, Wells claims that Barker was invited indirectly to visit his compound, Animal Actors, to check the care and the training methods. He reports rather bitterly that the invitation was refused. Barker says he heard about an invitation but thought that such a visit would be useless: “If I came up to his compound, (would he) beat the animals? He wouldn’t.”
“Most people,” Wells says with general reproach, “just don’t want to take the time and trouble to find out what we do.” Sitting in the kitchen at Thousand Oaks, he considers the escalating rhetoric against his profession. “It is terrifying, truly terrifying,” he says slowly, emphatically. “The ignorance about what we do is truly terrifying.”
The Method IF IT ISN’T sadism, how do animal trainers do what they do? How did Wells get a horse in “Big Top Pee Wee” to flip flapjacks? How did Inn get Benji the dog to carry cougar cubs up a mountain trail?
After five weeks of following trainers around at Wells’ compound and watching head trainer Karl Miller during the production of a film called “K-9,” one easy answer arose: hard work. The top Hollywood trainers seem to be at it 25 hours a day, eight days a week.
To be mentally as well as physically prepared for movie work, an animal needs more than just the basics. Even a tiger, a loner in the wild, needs friendship, a daily walk and occasionally to be taught something new during slack periods. Movie animals, like human actors, need to be able to hit their marks--to move on cue to a given spot on the set, stage or location. An outstanding trainer will, just to keep himself and the animal tuned, spend time teaching Tigger the Tiger to, say, detour on his way to his mark, or to hit his mark and then make eye contact with an assistant off to his left or to learn to sit by a campfire calmly. During production, such maintenance work is added to the demands of filming.
The oldest book in the Western World on animal training, Xenophon’s “Art of Horsemanship,” stresses the importance of details such as dismounting and leading the horse back to the stable, carrying the saddle yourself, because “horses greatly appreciate such courtesies.” Amateur horse owners don’t always have the time for such courtesies; the top trainers seem always to make the time.
Cheryl Shawver is Wells’ neighbor in Thousand Oaks and also his husbandry manager. She was a chimp trainer on “Project X.” She has a wolf and a leopard, but her primary interest is elephants. She began, as many trainers do, as a teen-ager who successfully talked her way into mucking out barns, in her case, at Jungleland, one of the first studios specializing in animals. She learned training before Moorpark College’s prestigious exotic-animal-handling program was established and is now on the advisory board there. After two decades of work, study and thrift, she has finally managed to have three elephants of her own. These are Malaika, a female African elephant whose name means “angel” in Swahili; Vasha, another female named after a town in Kenya, and Beau, a male Indian elephant.
Shawver starts her day at 6:30 or 7 a.m. She leads Beau out of the barn onto a cement grooming mound, where she checks him over, brushes him and, when necessary, trims his feet. She then gives him his first hay and water of the day. Later they take a walk, possibly mounting the stone steps cut into the hillside instead of going up the dirt path . Beau is praised for the tiny new accomplishment. On their return, they might practice a more familiar exercise, such as the command “Come!” She praises and rewards him before leading him to the paddock for the rest of his breakfast. She attends similarly to Malaika and Vasha.
In about two hours, she has walked and chatted up all three, and it is time to feed again. To keep elephants healthy in captivity, trainers feed them every two hours, because elephants eat constantly. Also, if they’re fed the lazy way--given a lot of hay at once--the hay will be dirty and trampled.
Today Malaika rehearses a sequence in which she takes a seat at a restaurant table and rings for champagne. Malaika has already learned simply to swing a long stick, and today she is asked to swing a huge, long-handled bell. Each time she rings, a “waiter” appears and pours juice into a bucket on the table. Elephants are motivated to master techniques for summoning a waiter in the same way people are.
Shawver’s day ends at 10 or 11 p.m. with a last feeding and the bedding down of her three charges. She lives in a camper on the compound and thinks that it would be nice one day to to have a house to live in, but the house doesn’t have a lot of priority. Her elephants do.
As Shawver walks her elephants, Mark Harden and his new pupil cross their path. Harden, who also has his own training business in addition to working with Wells on various projects, trained the star of “Project X,” a chimp named Willie who played Virgil, the hero of the film. Now, Harden is just beginning work with a baby chimp named Landrover Smith. Landrover Smith--he’s called Rover--is from Florida and is domestically bred. Taking chimps from the wild is illegal; they have been on the endangered species list since 1976.
Like Shawver, Harden will spend a large part of the day on simple care. In this case, that means attending to all of Rover’s personal needs, from diapering to feeding to playing This Little Piggy. Harden doesn’t think chimps are as cognitively close to human beings as some ape-language researchers do, but he is duly impressed with each of Rover’s small achievements. At first, these are largely achievements in courage, because Rover is new to the big, wide world of the compound. There is a great deal that worries and puzzles him, so Harden walks all about, the baby clinging to him, stopping to point at and name each thing the chimp notices--flowers, butterflies, an airplane overhead. When yet another trainer walks by with a wolf, and Rover starts and screams anxiously, Harden laughs gently, stopping and turning so that the chimp can watch the work, saying, “That’s just one of those silly wolves.”
Today, Rover gets a careful introduction to taking a car ride. On another day, he will meet a zebra, just in case he ever needs to learn to ride. And on another he will be taken to a shopping center or some other public place. Harden says a lot of this work teaches key notions, such as the concept of the neutral stranger--someone who is neither an enemy nor a member of Rover’s social group.
Rover is also learning simple commands such as “Feet down.” This means for him to sit still on a box or a chair or a cage. Harden holds the chimp’s feet down gently while giving the command. Just as learning to sit in a highchair is the beginning of civilized self-control for human babies, this is a position from which other things can be learned. Rover absorbs the lessons well: At the end of November, he finished his first professional job--a diet Pepsi commercial.
Wells’ august male African lion, Sudan, operates at a much loftier level. Sudan is a veteran performer whose best-known credit is “Out of Africa.” He also recently had the title role in “White Lion,” a Japanese film. For the part, Sudan had to be sprayed white , and Wells consulted a veterinarian and a makeup chemist, who concocted a safe makeup that would not interfere with the physiological functions of the lion’s skin and hair.
Now, the film company has called saying that a few shots need to be redone, so Sudan will once more be sprayed white. A lion’s submission to the ministrations of the makeup department is something that, to some extent, has to be renegotiated each time. So today Wells will “train” for the spraying almost from scratch. He is assisted by Harden, Shawver and Julian Sylvester. Sylvester’s passion is for insects and reptiles, but a trainer has to be flexible.
There is one person--Harden--using the sprayer, which has only comfortably warm water in it at this stage. Another--Shawver--holds a leash, and Wells himself feeds Sudan a tidbit of meat each time the lion tolerates the sprayer quietly, thus reinforcing for Sudan the feeling that being sprayed is entirely a matter of extra treats, delicacies and homage. Sylvester stands by. There are four trainers present because even though Sudan is well-behaved and quite noble, care is dictated in lion handling.
Lions do not crave human affection the way dogs do. Nonetheless, admiration plays a major role in lion work, so with each success, Wells says, “Yes, yes, Sudan. What a lion!”
EVER SINCE First Boy answered First Mom’s complaining about First Dog’s behavior around the cave by becoming First Trainer, handling animals has been a matter of what is called “reward and punishment.” But, trainers say, that phrase is misleading. For one thing, they depend much more heavily on acknowledgment and correction than they do on reward and punishment. They give a human example of the distinction they want to make: When a student gets an arithmetic paper back, and the teacher has put a check by each right answer, that is acknowledgment. The eye-catching A at the top of the paper, however, is a reward and can be a distraction from the work at hand. Similarly, when the wrong answers are crossed out, that is simple correction--like acknowledgment, it is just information. The D at the top, however, is a punishment. And is also a distraction.
But even the term correction is too broad. Many corrections are subtle matters of withholding response, just as with people. The wolf presents a trainer with a range of behaviors--using extra head and paw gestures, flapping his tongue around like an idiot, grinning, pointing his muzzle at a cloud, chewing on his own whiskers or licking his paw. Somewhere in this, he also makes eye contact. The trainer corrects the unwanted behaviors by not responding to them with so much as half a grin or a blink, and acknowledges the eye contact, if that is the desired behavior, with a nod, vocal enthusiasm and a treat.
Corrections are where trainers come under fire, because corrections are often physical, and raise the question of whether it is ever justified to strike an animal. Trainers say that many corrections are physical simply because animals are physical. They express themselves through cuddling, purring, rubbing, jumping, prancing and licking, or by shoving, kicking or biting. “Lectures on ethical theory and protestations of love don’t do you any good with a chimp that’s about to bite your finger or your kneecap or an elephant who is about to pick you up off the ground and smash you with his trunk,” Wells says. “I think that all trainers are attracted by the animals in part because of the sheer wonder of the beauty and power of their physicality, but that means dealing also with the fact that animals, unlike people, cannot be repressed or inhibited with words alone. You can’t embarrass a lion into changing his behavior.”
There is another side to the misunderstanding of corrections, trainers say. Dick Koehler, Bill Koehler’s son and a trainer himself, says: “I spend a lot of time showing people that it is kinder to give a dog an emphatic but non-injurious correction for aggression than it is to keep the dog continuously confined or have him killed. But the rest of the time I spend trying to get people to realize that corrections alone will not train their animals. The forces that train the animal are the acknowledgments and rewards that prompt him to make his own decisions, over and over again--to do X rather than Y, not merely because Y is unpleasant, but also because X is pleasant, exciting, rewarding, fun.”
At a less theoretical level, Karl Miller explains why he is more successful with his dogs than the average pet owner. “Say you want Fido to stay in the yard. You use some sort of correction--a leash correction, or a broom handle that falls on him when he tries to jump the fence, or one of the new electronic fences. Time after time, people find that their dogs will blast their way through the discomfort to get outside anyway. I use corrections, too, but when my dog has the broom handle fall on his head, I am out there under a nice shady tree and I say, ‘Come on over here, dog, and spend some time with me while I read this magazine.’ Or, ‘Let’s play ball for a while.’ The dog stays with me in the yard, or on a set, because it is pleasant, because he has reasons to stay. My dogs don’t go out to work, they go out to play.”
All of Wells’ trainers agree that displays of power and force for their own sake do not work, because the animals know the difference between that and fairness. Hence, for these trainers, both competence and humane handling are evidenced in the fact of the animal’s willingness to work entirely at liberty.
There is certainly no shouting or chest-beating in Cheryl Shawver’s handling of her elephants. She has Vasha out at one point in the afternoon, teaching her to hold up one foot. She gives the cue while an assistant taps gently on the foot, an action that causes Vasha to lift it--this is not unlike teaching a dog to shake hands. As soon as the foot comes up, Shawver’s posture changes subtly, from that of expectancy to acceptance. She doesn’t say anything, but it’s clear that she is signaling, “Yes, that’s it!”
The foot stays in the air for some seconds. Vasha settles into position, finding secure balance. At first, she just happened to have lifted her foot, but then the meaning of the gesture seems to shift. Now she seems to command the position, and the elephant looks enhanced, magnified by the emphatic stature of self-expression. The transformation is reminiscent of what happens in a dance class--the teacher corrects a youngster’s hand and arm, so, but they just hang there until the student gets the position, feels it as a dance articulation. Vasha and Shawver move into closer relation, each of them poised across the arc of acknowledgment that balances them in terms of each other, as in a pas de deux.
Not everyone sees it this way; some critics feel that the routines taught to elephants are a violation of their dignity. But trainers respond that elephants don’t worry about their dignity in the same way people do. Diana Cooper, who is researching a book on circus history to be called “Circus: The Very Idea,” says: “People say that because they don’t understand about God. The circus gives you the absurd, such as camels swaying to football cheers, or bears on bicycles, right next to the divine, such as a single elephant on his hind legs, isolated by a spotlight the better to show his full magnificence. Animals are the absurd and the divine in one, the grotesque and the ethereally beautiful in a single natural form, as are people. Anyone who has a dog has seen it--one minute the dog is splendidly alert and noble, hearing something beyond our ken in the night, and the next minute he’s clownishly scratching a flea. But we don’t think about that much. Animal trainers do. The grotesque and the divine side by side--that is the mystery that animal performances celebrate.”
Vasha is young. The work is soon over, the symmetry of woman and elephant acting in the strength of accord gone. Can an elephant use the postures she learns to express herself? Or do we confuse the pleasure of having control with a true reading of what things are like for Vasha?
The Rin Tin Tin Theory of Animal Consciousness
WHETHER YOU think Shawver’s relationship with Vasha is exploitation or a mutually satisfying exchange will have more to do with what you think animals are fundamentally like than with what evidence there may be about abuse.
Judgments about what is humane also depend on prior, not always articulated, judgments about what kinds of things are worthwhile, more important than comfort. A lot of suffering or at least sacrifice goes into mastering Latin, French, math, physics, history and literature. But we do not often think of a first-rate education as cruelty because we believe that people benefit from the results of the suffering we call education.
There have been a few historically acceptable ways to think about what animals are like. A radical but influential view was developed by the 17th-Century philosopher Rene Descartes. He held that animals are unconscious mechanisms that only appear to feel and think, a view then supported by the Catholic Church. On that view, even nailing a dog to a board and cutting his chest open without anesthesia is not cruel, no matter how the dog screams, because the dog has no consciousness and isn’t really screaming except in the way tires scream when a car skids.
A more usual view is one that says animals can feel but cannot think. If you are playing ball with your dog, he can feel the grass beneath his feet, pleasure in running and pleasure in your cries of delight, but he can’t think, “Oh, good, now it’s time to play ball” or “It’s under those leaves. If I dig, I’ll find it.”
This is the view of animals as wholly innocent, incapable of knowing the implications or consequences of their actions. Tradition has it that human beings are the only creatures endowed with reason and thus the only creatures who can know the difference between right and wrong. Animals cannot understand the things we have them do, so training amounts to forcing animals to do something that can have no meaning for them.
On this view, both the way trainers talk--they are always referring to an animal’s knowledge, or plans, or decisions--and the entertainments they help create give us a wholly fantastic version of the animal mind: Rin Tin Tin carrying messages he understands; Lassie barking at her master to bring his gun along because she knows a cougar is in the corral; Trigger celebrating his and Roy Rogers’ triumphs; Virgil the chimpanzee in “Project X” feeling smugly proud as he pilots an airplane, a circus dog enjoying applause--this is all sentimental, exploitative and dangerous rubbish. Besides, no one believes it, right?
Right and wrong. Mark Harden, for example, does not believe that Willie is likely to steal an observation aircraft. Rudd Weatherwax, trainer of all the Lassies, did not believe that his collies could read.
But trainers do believe that it makes sense to use morally significant terms such as dutiful , responsible , irresponsible , sneaky , stalwart , courtly , mean , kind or honest to describe their animals, which means that they have a theory of animal consciousness that includes the idea that when you correct an animal for not paying attention, he responds in part because he has a concept of the value of attending to his work, the concept of responsibility. The trainers also believe that animals are capable of caring about the proverbial baby on the blanket instead of staying protectively near out of mindless instinct, of caring about sustaining working friendships, of caring about the welfare of their community and, especially, of caring about a job well done, of taking pride in a good performance. On this view, animal actors enjoy their work not only because of the treats and praise and the relationships with their handlers but also because they enjoy the work itself, just as human actors do.
Bill Koehler, head trainer for Walt Disney in the heyday of the Disney animal classics, expounds a view that dogs are not only capable of understanding but also have a right to exercise that understanding.
Call this the Rin Tin Tin theory of animal consciousness, in honor of the heroic movie dog. Rinty was trainer Lee Duncan’s companion during World War I and a champion competitor in police-dog trials before he was a movie star. The first Rin Tin Tin pictures were attempts to tell stories about what Duncan and others who knew Rinty believed were his real abilities.
This theory, as worked out in the movies, has given us any number of animal heroes, and it is about to give us another: the German shepherd Jerry Lee. Jerry Lee is the co-starring character in a film called “K-9,” scheduled for release in April. Like the Rin Tin Tin stories, “K-9" was inspired by real-life dogs. The writing began when a restaurant owner who served K-9 officers became fascinated with their police dogs.
James Belushi plays an unorthodox cop named Dooley, and Jerry Lee is his partner. Dooley doesn’t go by the book, and neither does Jerry Lee. Where Rin Tin Tin would no doubt puritanically refuse to go along with some of Dooley’s more extreme capers, Jerry Lee dives right into the fun, making Rin Tin Tin look a little prissy.
In one scene, for example, the bad guys have Dooley down on a bar. There’s a knife on Dooley, and one Very Bad Guy has just broken a pool cue in half, with a view to using the heavy end as a club. It seems to be all over for Dooley until Jerry Lee appears in the doorway, sits, and wags his tail gently. The pool player picks up a pool ball and throws it at Jerry Lee’s head, at 90-plus miles an hour--
--And Jerry Lee catches the ball, of course. He mouths it a bit, spits it out in small pieces, dives into the action and has the bad guys rounded up quicker than Dooley can think to say, “I thought I told you to stay in the car!”
Karl Miller’s daughter, Teresa Miller, assists him with the training on “K-9.” The main actor, or “character dog,” in the film is Rando, a German shepherd. Rando and his three stand-ins were cast because they were working dogs who had shown their ability to do a full range of police-type duties.
It was Miller’s talking about Rando’s abilities that led me to think of the trainers’ view of animal minds as the Rin Tin Tin theory. “Jerry Lee is just a scruffy old dog in some shots, a highly trained police dog in others and in others yet he is a noble, regal German shepherd,” Miller said. “Now, I can cue the scruffy, just-a-dog routines, and I can cue highly trained police-dog action. But I can’t cue aregality. That has to be real, that’s the part Rando has to do by himself.” The trainers, who seem to do it all with mirrors, who know every trick in the book for simulating animal action and intelligence--are the ones who believe in Rin Tin Tin.
I, too, have come to believe in Rin Tin Tin. At least, I have come to believe in Rando. Consider this moment in filming: The bad guy runs out onto the roof of an abandoned building. Jerry Lee is tracking him, and when the track disappears at the edge of the roof, Jerry Lee simply leaps from one building to the other and keeps on tracking.
Dooley, lumbering along behind Jerry Lee, gets to the edge of the roof and then chickens out. Jerry Lee, disgusted, stands up on the lip of the other roof barking and nagging at Dooley, as if to say, “Come on, wimp!” Jerry Lee is not noticeably a sympathetic, concerned kind of dog.
Dooley, urged on by his dog, turns back to get a running start, leaps and . . . misses. Now he hangs from the edge of the building by his fingertips, and Jerry Lee is still barking and nagging without mercy.
At one point during shooting, stunt man Gil Coombs took a slightly bad fall. Rando instantly went out of his Jerry Lee character and checked Coombs over tenderly. When Coombs stood up, unhurt, Rando went back into character, becoming Jerry Lee, once again nagging and barking.
One crew member, moved by this, said, “That’s the kind of guy Rando is.”
No one claims that Rando has the concept of movies. If he did, he wouldn’t have gone back into character, because he would have known what it meant when the director yelled, “Cut!” What Miller claims is that Rando is able, consciously and deliberately, to go into character--that is to say, to imitate an action--and desire that his work be well done.
There is some scientific backing for the Rin Tin Tin theory, or at least for some of the foundations for it. Donald Griffin, professor emeritus of zoology at Rockefeller University in New York, became famous some time ago for his work with bats. It was he who discovered echo-location. In the past decade, he has been making waves in the scientific world with his books on animal consciousness. In one, “Animal Thinking,” he speculates this way:
Animals with relatively small brains may thus have greater need for simple conscious thinking than those endowed with a kilogram or more of gray matter. Perhaps only we and the whales can afford the luxury of storing detailed behavioral instructions, while animals with only a milligram or so of central nervous system must think consciously about their most pressing problems, if only for reasons of economy and efficiency.
“In short,” cried Dick Koehler happily when he read this passage, “they are too dumb to learn by rote!”
Hearing his theory put thus, Griffin didn’t deny it, although he did say cautiously that his remarks are, of course, highly speculative.
But if Griffin is right about the greater extent to which animals depend on conscious thought, then a major task for trainers is to learn to be as acutely aware as the animal is. Griffin’s work is a remarkably faithful theoretical expression of the kind of talk one hears constantly from trainers. Some people might be willing to grant some restrained version of the Rin Tin Tin theory in the case of domestic animals--by noting that dogs are loyal, for example--but not wild animals. However, listening to Mark Harden talk about Willie, who played the lead in “Project X,” it’s clear that he assumes that Willie cared about his work in a way that is at least related to traditional ideas of the heroism of competence, and that he cared about his relationships with Harden and with other chimpanzees.
Willie was 3 1/2 when Harden began with him, and had before that known only a laboratory cage, so there were social skills and concepts that he had not developed. In particular, Harden says, he tended to read anyone new as part of his group. He thought he had to challenge everyone to determine their place in the hierarchy he was part of, instead of realizing that some people were just passing through.
But the real training problem had to do not with Willie’s incompletely developed social skills but with his dedication to work. Willie was a very meticulous, finicky sort of chimp, a guy who wanted everything done just right. “If he were a person, he would be the sort who would notice when he came in in the morning that the note pad wasn’t at exactly a 90-degree angle to the telephone, and worry until it was straightened out. A teacher would love having him in a classroom, but he was not all that much fun to hang out with.
“I’m not like that,” Harden says. “I’m more like Arthur (another chimp actor on the film). Arthur couldn’t just go from point A to point B without throwing in a couple of somersaults and a card trick. Arthur was Mr. Invention.”
This temperamental difference led to some tension between the two chimps during training. Arthur’s antics would throw Willie off, causing him to miss his mark, and Willie would scream at Arthur. Sort of like “The Odd Couple.”
It also meant that Harden had to be sensitive to a nature different from his own. “It rewards me to play with the chimps after a session of work,” Harden says. “Arthur is like that, too--he likes to horse around when we’re done, celebrating because he got it right, or else celebrating because he thought of so many ways to get it wrong.
“But Willie would just look at me glumly as if to say, ‘Oh, I guess I have to play with Mark now.’ I learned that what rewarded Willie was just sitting quietly for a while, so I had to make myself relax and sit still with him.”
During filming, the depth of Willie’s meticulousness was revealed. He played the part of a signing chimp, and one of his signs, meaning “Out,” was made by putting one finger of his right hand into the fist of the left and then pulling the right hand out and up, pointing away from the body. Willie got the part because his finicky nature led him to make the signs carefully and exactly the same way each time. There was no “mumbling”; Willie built the sign, studiously, out of distinct movements.
“Then in one scene,” Harden says, “the director wanted to shoot from a different angle, and suddenly Willie wasn’t doing it right. I couldn’t figure out what in the world was going on at first, and then I realized that when he made the sign, he ensured that it would be done right by first choosing a spot to work to--a clock on the wall, a piece of scenery, whatever. When the director changed the angle slightly, the spot he chose was in the wrong place for what I was asking for. Once I realized that, I was able to suggest a different spot and he did fine, felt comfortable, able to do it his way.
“They all have their own standards, That’s what you can’t change in an animal, no matter what you do.”
The idea of an animal having standards, a sense of right and wrong that includes an idea of excellence, of accomplishment, sounds even more radical in most academic discussions of animals than Descartes’ bizarre concept of animals as machines. But variations on this theme are common in trainers’ discussions of their work, even when the trainer in question also uses standard intellectual models, such as the idea of conditioning or of stimulus-response, both names for aspects of the reward and punishment training method, borrowed from conventional scientific doctrine. But scientific doctrine of all sorts takes a back seat to Harden’s account of Willie not only creating his own vision of his work, but also changing the nature of his interactions with Harden by changing the after-work sessions from rowdy ones to quiet ones.
That an animal actor’s work should illuminate the meaning of human-animal relationships is gratifying. Some observers say that revealing the often-hidden truth of our relationships with animals is the glorious accomplishment of the classic Hollywood animal films and other animal entertainments. “Animal movies and circuses--these are the art forms that are about our relationships with animals,” Diana Cooper says. “That is why jokes in animal acts are so often about the animals’ refusals to obey us, mocking our self-importance.”
Karl Miller might not speak so effusively, but he seems to see animal movies in the same way. “Almost everything Jerry Lee does in ‘K-9' is fantastic,” Miller says. “But the stunts are all the ways of showing the intelligence, the courage and, of course, the sense of humor of real dogs. Throughout ‘K-9,’ Jerry Lee never once obeys a direct command from Dooley. We call these gags ‘clever disobedience.’ We laugh because the disobedience reminds us of what we often forget, that the dog is not the same as our ideas about the dog.”
“The joke is on us,” Cooper says, “on our fantasies of having power over animals when in reality they work for us because they’ve agreed to go along with us for a while, and not because they are bundles of emotion, helpless against our Machiavellian techniques.” Wells agrees. “I am still astonished by the privileges animals confer on us,” he says. “The noble-lion movies only begin to show how deep the heart of a lion is. For example, a lion is incapable of drudgery. You can kill a lion, or dope him up, but you can’t make him perform drudgery. And that such an animal wants to work with human beings . . . . “
Ah. To oppose good animal training is to disenfranchise animals, actually to deprive them of their rights? “Yes!” Bill Koehler says. “Some animals are just plain born to be working fools. You take a really sparky little golden retriever who goes sizzling out over the jumps, so hot to work it’s scary. You think it’s kind to prevent her from learning to retrieve and jump? That’s her God-given birthright!”
God keeps getting into it. I told Dick Koehler about Willie imposing his fastidious visions on his trainer. “That’s the sort of thing that keeps you humble,” he said. “That’s the uncanny part. That’s why we have ‘In God We Trust’ on our money, isn’t it?”
One day I saw Danner, one of the German shepherds on “K-9,” nearly knock Teresa Miller off her feet when she was too slow for him, and then literally drag her up onto the roof. “You might as well talk about rescuing Wilt Chamberlain from basketball as talk about rescuing Danner from his work,” Miller said breathlessly as Danner pulled her up the stairs. She couldn’t stop to discuss it--Danner had work to do.