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Attack on Hollywood : Trainer Specializes in Staged Animal Assaults

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Pacing its cage on powerful legs, the Asian black leopard uttered a low, wild-sounding growl that seemed to speak of its frustration with captivity and a yearning for the dark heart of an untamed jungle.

“She’s in heat,” Randy Miller explained as he unlocked the cage door. “She’s just letting me know what’s on her mind.”

Once Miller is inside, the leopard does something odd for a wild beast, evidence of the hundreds of hours this exotic animal trainer has spent with his student: She rolls over on her back like the tamest of kittens, paws in the air, ready to play.

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On his six-acre wild animal compound in Acton, far from his former haunts as a soft-drink magnate, the 32-year-old Miller is acting out a passion that reaches back to his rural Texas boyhood, when he coddled young bobcats. His business is raising exotic felines--one dozen lions, tigers, leopards, cougars, plus a brown bear--and specializing in stunt action training.

Miller’s menagerie has appeared in movies such as “Back to the Future III” and the TV shows “Star Search” and “China Beach.” The animals have done Las Vegas-style magic shows, MTV commercials; they even graced the pages of Penthouse magazine as wild props for nude models.

Miller’s company, Predators in Action, is trying to claw a niche in the Hollywood entertainment industry. The business specializes in staged attacks, lion and tiger wrestling and big cats that can snarl and roar on cue.

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In one stunt, Shirkhan, a 700-pound Bengal tiger, pounces on Miller and wrestles him to the ground as the trainer repeatedly thrusts his arms, hands and head into the cat’s mouth as though fending off the attack. With its ears back and jaws bared, Miller said, the animal ambush only looks real.

“Nobody’s doing this,” said Miller as he nuzzles and strokes a 20-month-old African lion named Zaire. “Nobody’s wrestling with a full-grown lion or tiger and allowing the animals to put their teeth on him.”

For Miller, this apparent death wish is just another part of his risk-taking act, a lifelong schtick that has prompted him to ride rodeo broncos, train as a professional stuntman and race speedboats and sports cars at 200 mph.

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Miller has always loved a challenge. At age 18, the Beverly Hills High graduate skipped college to become the founder and president of Original New York Seltzer, a wildcat soft-drink venture that in the 1980s became the nation’s fastest-growing company, with sales soaring from $200,000 in 1986 to more than $100 million the next year.

The soft-drink enfant terrible soon became the talk of Hollywood. But it wasn’t for his business acumen. It was the wild-man way he marketed his product.

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Known to friends as a kooky trendsetter who once kept a cougar and bobcat as pets in his Hollywood condo, Miller soon began collecting all kinds of wild cats--buying some from breeders, adopting others abandoned by owners.

The cats became his passion. He would bring them to work and to parties. Eventually, Miller struck upon a marriage of his pastime and business: He began using the animals to sell soft drinks.

In nationally televised commercials, Miller stroked and kissed one of his Bengal tigers. He used the big cats at live promotions, at company-sponsored Academy Award and Emmy Award parties and at his Hollywood club, Randy’s Club Seltzer. The TV ads got wilder. One commercial featured Miller jumping from a 10-story Hollywood hotel holding a bottle of his seltzer water.

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But eventually sales of New York Seltzer went flat. In 1994, Miller walked away from the business. He won’t say much about the decision other than to say he has little money to show from his soda days.

“I wasn’t cut out to head a major corporation, running the lives of 100 people,” he said, standing inside the 12-foot-high fence of his big-cat training compound. “I’m really good at this. This is my calling.”

So the guy who once hung with the Hollywood brat pack, and was featured on the TV show “Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous,” is getting his thrills in the powerful embrace of wild animals. Miller, who wears his shoulder-length brown hair like a lion mane, struggles to explain the attraction.

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“There’s an instant gratification working with these cats,” he said. “I’m drawn to them and they’re drawn to me. It’s something powerful in my life. There was no loyalty in the business world. But these cats are loyal.”

Miller distinguishes himself from some other wild animal trainers, shunning the whip-and-stool approach to training. Instead, he uses a form of positive reinforcement he calls “love and reward” to encourage the animal’s natural playful behaviors. The cats run an obstacle course to keep in shape, and Miller spends hours each day roughhousing with the animals.

He hopes to raise enough money to establish an animal breeding and wildlife refuge where the cats can romp in wide-open compounds rather than spend their days in cages. “I got caught up in the fast life and spent all that money,” he said of his past. “If I had that cash now, I’m sure I could put it to better use.”

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To see his dream materialize, Miller is putting his animals to work, hustling gigs in motion pictures, TV, print advertising and magic acts.

Several weeks ago, he was hired to bring two felines to the opening of a Santa Clarita restaurant. He stood outside with two animals on a leash and entertained passersby.

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Some animal rights activists say such work is exploitative.

“As much as he says he loves those cats, he’s not allowing them to act like tigers,” said Madeline Bernstein, executive director of the Los Angeles Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals--Southern California Humane Society. “They’re not even allowed the dignity to act as pets. They’re trained performers.”

Miller insists that he isn’t exploiting his cats.

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“Sure, I’m promoting some product, but I’m also educating people to the trouble some of these animals are in,” he said. “People get extremely excited when they see these animals. I get their attention. Then I talk about the problems involved with their survival.”

Martine Colette, director of the Wildlife Waystation, a San Fernando Valley preserve for abused exotic felines, said she has no criticism of Miller’s work.

“This business will only support the true professional,” she said. “Any person who thinks they’d like to break into animal training has got to pay their dues by spending time working with animals. For an animal to work on the set and do well, the trainer must understand the species. And that takes years of hard work.”

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Touring a row of cages where some of his cats use bowling balls for play toys, Miller said a trainer who abuses his animals won’t survive long.

“If you abuse these guys, they’re gonna get you,” he said. “And they’re going to get you when you’re most vulnerable. So it’s important to establish a positive bond.”

He has learned to be watchful for an animal’s mood swings and to sense when a cat doesn’t feel like performing. In the cage, wrestling with one of his lions, Miller said he is treated like part of the pride.

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The showman in Miller--which launched his million-dollar soda business from the trunk of his Mustang--imagines a glitzy stage act for his animals.

“First, the tiger mauls me and kills me,” he explained. “Then they drag me out of the prop and levitate my body until it vanishes. Finally, I turn up in the middle of the audience which, by now, is going absolutely wild.

“Now, I think that would really be cool.”

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