Performing animals bring home the bacon, but not without some controversy
He was just what the producers were looking for — right body type, great temperament, exotic looks.
That is how Aragon the cat nailed the job of Lord Tubbington on the highly rated TV show “Glee,” a role he performed diligently until the musical series, which focused on a high school glee club, was canceled in March.
He is just one of many animals — from cats and horses to doves, reptiles and rats — that earn or have earned a living from basically being themselves.
Aragon, 10, had a good, five-year run playing the overweight pet of the character Brittany on the Fox show.
The good part about hiring animals for a show is that they aren’t likely to harp about residuals. On the other hand, they are not always keen on following directions, though a treat here and there may help to keep them on their marks.
“He blew the producers away,” said Aragon’s owner, CeCe Card, an Anaheim resident who previously lived for many years in Laguna Beach. “He is extremely large at 24 pounds, which is ginormous for a cat. Normally, they are like 8 to 10 pounds. He is a Bengal, an exotic breed indigenous to Borneo, Korea, Asia.”
Card also described her acting pet as charismatic and gregarious.
“He comes out of a crate like a dog, like hear me roar,” she said.
Boldness is a winning characteristic in a future four-legged star, says Joel Norton, head studio trainer for Hollywood Paws, a pet talent agency in Los Angeles.
“When we meet an animal, the biggest [thing we look for] is confidence and food drive,” said Norton. “If you lean over to pet a dog and it shies away, it’s not a dog we want to take on. If it’s already nervous, it’s a no go.”
“Food drive” is simply the animal’s desire to eat — and, hence, its willingness to literally work for food.
“Anything we ask a dog to do on set is all voluntary,” Norton explained. “If a dog is in the middle of a scene and we are asking it to go over and pick up the car keys and take them here, the dog does not have to. Because of this voluntary nature of studio work, we have to have something that the dog can work for.”
Treats, offered generously.
Animals may be stars of the big and small screens, but they have many other jobs in entertainment.
Mitch Todd, owner of Newport Coast White Dove Release, keeps busy releasing his charges at weddings and funerals. He has also been part of a large number of movies.
“My father started me with birds in the 1970s ... and his thing with the birds started in the ‘50s,” said Todd. “He had primarily racing birds. I got into all-white birds in the ‘80s. I can only compare it to maybe a smoker or alcoholic. It’s very addictive. It is something you kind of get as a child. It’s kind of a relaxation when the birds fly around.”
Sam Makki also specializes, with his Reptile Rescue Orange County, based in Newport Beach.
And Kari and Gary Johnson, who run Have Trunk Will Travel, based in the Inland Empire, have five elephants that appear in movies and commercials, on TV, and at corporate events, educational shows, parties, parades, Indian weddings and other kinds of special events.
“We love elephants and are conservationists,” said Kari. “We know the importance of getting factual information out about elephants, and we consider our elephants ambassadors for their species, the endangered Asian elephant. The more people understand about them, the more likely they are to see through the propaganda the animal-rights extremists use for their fundraising activities.”
And there is the rub.
Animal-rights groups’ scrutiny
For many people who work with animals, the scrutiny of animal-rights groups borders on harassment. But the groups say they have evidence of abuse or at the very least can’t abide wild animals not being in the wild where they belong.
“An animal like an elephant or tiger, you can never tame that animal,” said Lisa Lange, PETA’s senior vice president for the national organization, from her office in Los Angeles. “You can never take away their instincts to act like a tiger or lion, so they are often beaten into submission. They don’t naturally want to balance on balls or live in chains ....
“The basic question people should ask is what would these animals be doing normally without human intervention. Birds fly. They don’t want to live in cages. The worst thing you can do is keep birds in a cage. Elephants are herd animals. They need to be with their herd.”
But the Johnsons maintain, according to their website, that “if drastic measures aren’t taken to protect [the Asian elephants], they are in danger of becoming extinct.... We at Have Trunk Will Travel strongly believe that elephants under human care will be the key to the survival of their species. Through the sharing of ideas and information, we are helping to establish the high standard of care and humane treatment that elephants deserve.”
Have Trunk Will Travel has come under the scrutiny of Los Angeles-based Animal Defenders International, which alleges the business has abused its elephants. In 2011, the group said, it recorded about 10 hours of video that they said shows trainers from the company using stun guns and bull hooks on elephants.
Kari Johnson says video can be manipulated, and she stands by the company’s mission of protection and preservation, adding that the treatment and care of elephants is highly regulated on the state and national levels.
“They say elephants can’t be trained without abuse and show a video edited for shock value that they purport are standard training methods,” she said. “Not true.”
She adds that her husband is a founding member of the board of the International Elephant Foundation, and “we donate our money and time to help elephants internationally.”
Debbie Pearl, who lives in Huntington Beach, has been running her own animal talent agency, Paws for Effect, since 1995. The difference between her company and Hollywood Paws is that she owns and houses the animals she books for movies.
On a ranch near Lake Hughes, northwest of Palmdale, she keeps dogs, cats, birds, rats and other “little domestic things,” the occasional rabbit perhaps. Some of her 35 dogs live with their trainers, she said, emphasizing that the business is built on caring for living creatures, not exploiting them.
“It’s all about the animals for me,” said Pearl. “They’re all pets. My dogs all run and play on 4 acres. It’s a park-like environment. They have toys and blankets, people who play with them all day. Work is secondary. Their happiness is number one.”
Card also emphasizes her devotion to animals. From Aragon’s entry into star status — with celebrity appearances following his multiple projects, including Verizon commercials — emerged charity work under the nonprofit “Aragon’s Love.”
“Aragon’s mission statement is ‘a loving home for every animal,’” Card said.
Treatment of the animals is not the only concern in this business. People who deal in animals for hire need to understand each city’s ordinances or risk running afoul of them.
Take Huntington Beach. Its municipal code since 2002 has banned the “performance of any wild and exotic animal for public entertainment, amusement or benefit on any public or private property within the city.”
In October 2014, a pachyderm was supposed to participate in a ceremony at the Hyatt Regency Huntington Beach Resort and Spa. The elephant, belonging to the Johnsons, was going to be part of a traditional wedding ceremony.
Training involves gaining trust
The training of doves, elephants, tarantulas, cats and other creatures large and small is going to vary.
“The most important first step in training elephants is developing a relationship and gaining their trust,” said Kari Johnson. “Our elephants respond to verbal commands, and we use a husbandry tool called an elephant guide to direct them. Think bit and reins on a horse or a leash on a dog.”
Todd, whose TV credits include Bravo’s “Shahs of Sunset” and ABC’s “The Bachelor,” said he can do a 500-bird release. He outlines his method of training his doves this way:
“You get parents,” he said. “Then you have baby birds. You feed them, have them around the cage, and if you don’t want them to fly away, you soak their wings with soapy water. Eventually, you take the young ones out, maybe a block away with a few trained birds, and from then you increase the distance up to about 50 miles.”
But what makes them come back?
“They have an inherent thing about returning to where they were born,” Todd explained.
He also notes the importance of the birds’ senses.
“They memorize things they see,” Todd said. “The shape of their eyes indicates the quality of the eyes. Eyesight is important. Smell is important. They can smell ocean air, industrial. They use their different senses. It’s a combination.”
Of course some creatures, like reptiles and spiders, can’t be trained.
Talent agency owner Pearl says in these sorts of situations, it’s a matter of manipulation, “guiding them and using different techniques.”
Providing warm conditions, for instance, can make snakes move more slowly, she said.
Card said her cat Aragon isn’t trained, stating, “He’s a natural.”
About his selection for “Glee,” she said:
“We only knew that they wanted a great big cat. We knew nothing else. You can’t just take any cat and put him on a stage with six cameras and hundreds of people watching. It takes a special cat.”