Amateur Animal Trainer: Put Your Pet to Work in the Movies

movie-animalBette Midler plays Kitty Galore in the latest sequel to 'Cats & Dogs.' "Kitty Galore is a hairless cat," Midler said recently at the press conference for the film. "She's very cranky because she's been rejected by her beloved human family and she's determined to rule the world." Midler's counterpart was played by a real Egyptian Sphinx cat, Mesa, who is a bona fide movie star in her own right.

"We went over a lot of breeds of cats and wanted to get a villain look, something kind of scary and alien looking," said Mesa's animal trainer, Tracy Kelly. "We saw how outgoing she was and relaxed in a chaotic environment, and that was very important."

Most cats are not begging to work, so putting your own furry friend in front of the camera probably hasn't crossed your mind -- but you can actually make a few sardines in the film biz. It's not much easier than getting yourself a job in the Industry though: Seldom does an animal which does not belong to an established, professional animal trainer get employed to act in a movie. Directors like to work with long-standing trainers, and trainers generally prefer to own the animals they supply.

It's hard for a house pet to make it big, but it's not impossible. There are often spots for personally-owned pets in commercials (national, regional, and print), TV programs (everything from cars to infomercials), and independent films.

First you have to find an agent for your pet, and register it on their roster. The Internet is the easiest way to find a pet talent agency; you can also contact your state's film board for guidance.

In looking for an animal talent agency, be very wary of any that want to charge you a fee to list your animal with them. As with human actors, a legitimate animal agency will only take a percentage of the talent's earnings, and won't charge you to get on their rosters. Registering with a talent agency takes more than just a phone call or e-mail; a first-class outfit will want to see a professional photo and a very clear videotape of your pet in action. If they like what they see, they will then ask to meet your pet. Once your pet is screened for temperament and training, the agency will then decide whether or not to take it on as a client.

A few things to keep in mind:

  • Do you have flexible hours? Production is usually scheduled during the work week, and your pet may be called upon without much advance notice.
  • Is your pet used to strangers, noise, and bright lights? If not, will you have the time and patience to train it to accept such things in advance of its first job?
  • What is your pet's inherent temperament? Is he easy-going, or hyper? How will he react to the need to re-shoot scenes again and again? Does he get cranky when he's tired?
  • Your pet may not be the only "star" -- more often than not, several look-alike animals are used to play different aspects of the same part (one for lying down, one for running, one for tricks, etc.). If your pet has very unusual markings, she is less likely to be chosen as an animal actor for feature films because she will be harder to match.

If you think your pet has the right stuff, then go for it: You just might have the next horsey hero, cat celeb, or pup player!

What about yourself? Ever consider working as an animal trainer for movies? On average, an entry-level animal trainer will earn approximately $27,270 a year. But it's really about the non-monetary rewards, for most of these trainers.

When I was writing my book, 'Animal Movies Guide,' I interviewed several of the top Hollywood animal movie trainers, and they all said that while there's no hard and fast rule as to how to enter the business, it's one they'd never leave.

Q. What's the best thing about being an animal trainer for the movies?

A. Rob Bloch ('Safe Harbour'): Being paid to be around the animals you love. On more than one occasion I've been heard to say: "Just imagine: They actually pay me do this!"

Q. How did you get started?

A. Samantha "The Rat Lady" Martin ('Willard'): About 15 years ago now, I started my company with just a cage full of rats. It was originally called The Rat Company & Friends. I was working at a pet shop and I had these little cards printed up: Rat Company, Rats for All Occasions. I told everybody that I worked with, someday somebody was going to walk in the door who was going to need a rat for a movie and I was going to be ready. Of course, they all thought I was nuts. What are the chances of something like that happening? But then it did happen: Two guys came in, looking for a rat for an independent film being shot in Chicago called 'Sam & Sarah.' So I said, 'I've got rats!' I volunteered to do it for free, just to get my first credit. I wanted to get my foot in the door. So I got the job. With the film industry, sometimes you just get one day's notice, if that -- and my boss wouldn't give me the day off, so I quit. I quit my full-time job for one day's non-paying movie gig [but it all worked out].

Q. How does an animal trainer find out about jobs?

A. Anne Gordon ('Air Bud' movies): I had my own company for 18 years. When I had the company, I'd go through lists and I'd hear word-of-mouth on what was coming up, and there's the Hollywood Reporter and Variety where you can check out what's coming. But generally in this business when you go looking for a job, you're not going to get it. It's pretty much who you know, and word of mouth. Now that I've sold my company, I haven't looked for work in years, but I've kept on working anyway.

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