Hollywood’s Wildest Stars

Last Sun­day, I trekked out to Fra­zier Park to vis­it Steve Martin’s Work­ing Wildlife with Atlas Obscu­ra. The dri­ve itself was an adven­ture. The last leg was on a dirt road, and it was the far­thest I have tak­en the RX-8 off-road.

Wolves

First, we chat­ted with Chris and Bobi as they worked in the wolf enclo­sure by the gate.

Bobi and Wolves

Chris and Shadow

The­se guys have been on Game of Thrones, True Blood, Teen Wolf, Zoo, Bourne Lega­cy, and more!

History

When Field Agents Sandi and Erin arrived and signed us in and col­lect­ed our waivers, the real tour start­ed. Our guide, Jeff Lee, start­ed us off with a bit of his­to­ry about Work­ing Wildlife.

Steve Mar­t­in, the ani­mal train­er (not to be con­fused with the comedian/actor), has worked in the movie indus­try since he was 17 years old. Steve was a nat­u­ral with big cats, intu­itive­ly read­ing their body lan­guage. He quick­ly became “the guy” to call when big cats were on set. He worked with Tip­pi Hedren as she adopt­ed a lion and set up the Sham­bala Pre­serve. He cham­pi­oned pos­i­tive rein­force­ment train­ing meth­ods. Jeff recalled that when Steve was start­ing out, ani­mals would be put down on the spot if they mis­be­haved. The Prague zookeep­ers on set for Zookeep­er were so impressed by his rap­port with the lion star that they promised Steve the lion’s next off­spring.

Alligator

Jeff is Steve’s nephew and han­dles more of the day-to-day oper­a­tions now. He told us some great sto­ries about learn­ing to be an ani­mal train­er, includ­ing his “haz­ing” as an alli­ga­tor wran­gler. On his first day, Jeff and sev­en oth­er guys had to dive into a pool at the same time to grab a sev­en-foot, 800-pound alli­ga­tor and get it ready for trans­port. The oth­er guys all held back so Jeff was the only one in the water. Then he pulled out this guy.
Gator

… who prompt­ly peed on his arm. Jeff said Work­ing Wildlife got this alli­ga­tor from the police depart­ment, who took it dur­ing a raid and looked for some­one with the prop­er per­mits to take care of him. He has already dou­bled in size in the few months that Jeff’s been work­ing with him because the pre­vi­ous own­er only fed him gold­fish, which was not near­ly enough calo­ries.

Scarlet Macaw

Appear­ing next was “Red Lady.” Not because he planned to bring her out, but because she was scream­ing bloody mur­der and set­ting off the oth­er ani­mals. Jeff joked it was like the most annoy­ing sound in the world.

Red Lady

Jeff explained that macaws mate for life, but Red Lady’s mate, Blue Boy, was killed when a large dust devil/small tor­nado picked up a tree and dropped it onto their enclo­sure. As her next strongest bond, Jeff is now her “mate” and she is like Over­ly Attached Girl­friend meme. Appar­ent­ly macaws have incred­i­bly long lifes­pans and she act­ed in Swiss Fam­i­ly Robin­son!

Prehensile-Tailed Porcupine

The third crit­ter we met was a coen­dous, or pre­hen­sile-tailed por­cu­pine named “Boris.” Jeff had orig­i­nal­ly thought it was a girl and named her “Bora,” but one day he mount­ed Jeff and made it quite clear he was male.

Prehensile-Tailed Porcupine

He was super friend­ly after a cou­ple of peanut but­ter pret­zels and every­one got to pet him. “One direc­tion only,” Jeff warned us. Then he told us to smell our hands. Appar­ent­ly the­se guys give off a strong scent (even stronger at night, so we got off easy) to warn away preda­tors.

White-Headed Capuchin

Next up was “Tara,” a mon­key star from Babe 2 and Pirates of the Caribbean.

Capuchin intro

She was a per­fect exam­ple of the Work­ing Wildlife train­ing phi­los­o­phy. When Jeff brought her out, she was a bit ner­vous and start­ed run­ning back to her enclo­sure to be with her capuch­in friends. Jeff chased after her and grabbed her leash. Tara turned and bit him on the fore­arm, but he did not hit or even yell. He just let her bite a few times until she calmed down and real­ized that noth­ing bad was going to hap­pen to her. When Jeff brought her back to the group, she was much nicer and even let us groom her.

Capuchin grooming

Bear Cat

The final Work­ing Wildlife actor Jeff brought out was “Nin­ja” the bin­tur­ong, or bear cat.

Bear Cat

Hard to see its form in that pic­ture, but that is the best one I got. Nin­ja was very attached to Jeff. You can find bet­ter shots else­where. Jeff talked a bit as we pet Nin­ja about how bear cats form extreme­ly strong bonds, so they are not com­mon in zoos because train­ers come and go. When Ninja’s lit­ter was born, Jeff was invit­ed to vis­it, and she picked him. For the next three months, they lived togeth­er in the same room and slept on the same bed. (Jeff says she sleeps on her back with a pil­low… she thinks she’s peo­ple!)

Barn”

That wrapped up the por­tion with ani­mals that could be brought out of their enclo­sures. Next we walked into their biggest struc­ture, “the barn.” Nor­mal­ly, this is where the first bit of the tour would have tak­en place, but “Major,” their old­er male lion and biggest star, just had surgery to fix a her­ni­at­ed disc and was recu­per­at­ing there, since it is the eas­i­est place to keep him cool and calm. Major, by the way, plays MGM’s mas­cot Leo!

Major - Working Wildlife's Biggest Star

This is also where Work­ing Wildlife’s green screen is, and they will bring ani­mals here to film stock footage for CGI inserts.

Green Screen

Enclosures

Then we walked around to the oth­er ani­mals in their enclo­sures. By the front gate were a fox and a racoon. Fox­es, I learned, smell like skunks. Not sure if his dip in the water trough made it bet­ter or worse. The racoon was spread like a rug on top of his igloo-shaped house and either growl­ing or wheez­ing at us.

Fox

Racoon

We stopped by Amos the brown bear and Tag the Kodi­ak griz­zly. We learned that when ani­mals growl on film, they are actu­al­ly just “smil­ing” for the train­er, and the sound effect gets added lat­er. Also, Tag is trained to act tran­quil­ized since they do not actu­al­ly want to drug him up on set.

Amos

Tag

Next was Mas­sai, Major’s under­study. He would try to cud­dle up with some of us on one side of the enclo­sure and then dash as if to pounce on the lone pho­tog­ra­pher on the oth­er side.

Massai

Oh, and we learned that if you neuter a lion, its mane falls off.

Then it was time for Kenya and Shiva, the lioness­es.

Lioness

Near the end of the line was Spir­it and Storm, the moun­tain lions. Spir­it came over to say “hi,” but Storm was not hav­ing any of our shit in the heat.

Mountain Lion

At the far end of the com­plex was the chim­panzee enclo­sure, where we met Suzy, Bil­ly, and Eli. We were not allowed to take any pic­tures because orga­ni­za­tions like PETA had been giv­ing Work­ing Wildlife a lot of grief. We learned that the fam­i­ly were soon to be shipped to a pre­serve in Flori­da to be with oth­er chimps. With the cur­rent legal land­scape on great ape per­son­hood, they will prob­a­bly be the last chimps in show busi­ness.

As we cir­cled back, we saw the ful­ly-grown gator, “Stripes” the zebra, a cou­ple of coy­otes, and some more fox­es. Oh, and there were three bears board­ing at the com­plex that actu­al­ly belong to anoth­er train­er who is hav­ing a new enclo­sure built for them.

Big Gator

Stripes

Stripes did some­thing fun­ny to my cam­era and there area extra stripes in the fence but the actu­al zebra looks like it has a brown­ish tor­so. I am going to blame it on a per­fect storm of zoom, stripes and heat.

Last­ly, we met “Cat” the house­cat. She wan­dered into the com­plex one day and lives between the cages, using her big­ger cousins as pro­tec­tion from the local preda­tors.

Cat

Future

As the tour wrapped up, we found out that Work­ing Wildlife will be dras­ti­cal­ly chang­ing in the future. As Steve Mar­t­in is get­ting old­er and no one else is as qual­i­fied to han­dle big cats, they will not be tak­ing any more on. Jeff said they are even­tu­al­ly going to move to Ore­gon and com­plete­ly shift from film­ing to edu­ca­tion and out­reach.

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