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.
First, we chatted with Chris and Bobi as they worked in the wolf enclosure by the gate.
These guys have been on Game of Thrones, True Blood, Teen Wolf, Zoo, Bourne Legacy, and more!
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.
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.
… 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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
Next up was “Tara,” a monkey star from Babe 2 and Pirates of the Caribbean.
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.
The final Working Wildlife actor Jeff brought out was “Ninja” the binturong, or 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!)
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!
This is also where Working Wildlife’s green screen is, and they will bring animals here to film stock footage for CGI inserts.
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.
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.
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.
Oh, and we learned that if you neuter a lion, its mane falls off.
Then it was time for Kenya and Shiva, the lionesses.
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.
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.
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.
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.