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.


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!


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.

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!)


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


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.

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 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.

Cradle of the Cosmic Age

On Sat­ur­day, I went on a tour of the Colum­bia Memo­r­i­al Space Cen­ter in Downey. Atlas Obscu­ra’s Ben Har­mon was the orga­niz­er and our host was the Cen­ter’s Ben Dick­ow. The first part was a pre­sen­ta­tion about the his­to­ry of the Cen­ter and the sec­ond part was check­ing out the var­i­ous exhibits. Just inside the entrance is a beau­ti­ful pho­to­mo­sa­ic of the Columbi­a’s crew.

Columbia Mosaic


My only pre­vi­ous expo­sure to the SoCal avi­a­tion scene was The Rock­e­teer, so I was sim­ply aston­ished by all that hap­pened here. As soon as the Wright Broth­ers showed it could be done, many avi­a­tion start-ups appeared in SoCal, where space was plen­ti­ful. The area between San­ta Mon­i­ca (lat­er pushed up to Simi Val­ley), Long Beach, and Palm­dale was a “Gold­en Tri­an­gle” of avi­a­tion, with count­less com­pa­nies design­ing and build­ing their air­craft along the coast and then doing final assem­bly and test­ing in the desert.


Specif­i­cal­ly at the site of the muse­um in Downey, it start­ed humbly with local entre­pre­neur E. M. Smith and his com­pa­ny, EMSCO. It fold­ed because of the Depres­sion, but the space was next tak­en by Bert Kin­ner’s Secu­ri­ty Nation­al Air­craft Cor­po­ra­tion, which built two planes for Amelia Earhart and pio­neered fold­ed-wing air­craft, which rev­o­lu­tion­ized naval aviation.

Next at the site was Avi­a­tion Man­u­fac­tur­ing Cor­po­ra­tion’s Vul­tee Air­craft Divi­sion at the sug­ges­tion of Ger­ard “Jer­ry” Vul­tee, who once worked for EMSCO as their chief design engi­neer. Vul­tee’s BT-13 Valiant was the chief train­ing air­craft for the U.S. Army Air Corps dur­ing World War II. Rosie the Riv­et­er worked at the Downey site assem­bling these planes!

Vul­tee was spun off and then had a merg­er/buy-out by North Amer­i­can Avi­a­tion, which made the B‑25 Mitchell famous­ly used in the Doolit­tle Raid.


After the end of World War II, orders for planes dropped sharply, so North Amer­i­can piv­ot­ed to rock­et tech­nol­o­gy. The SM-64 Nava­ho was essen­tial­ly a mod­i­fied V‑2, but refine­ment led to the AGM-28 Hound Dog, Amer­i­ca’s main nuclear deter­rent for many years.


When Pres­i­dent Kennedy announced that Amer­i­ca would put a man on the moon by the end of the 1960s, no one was sure how that would hap­pen. But because of North Amer­i­can’s expe­ri­ence with rock­et tech­nol­o­gy, they won the con­tract to do it. Around this time, the Downey site was offi­cial­ly bought out by NASA and then leased to North Amer­i­can as a con­trac­tor on the mission.

Ben Dick­ow invit­ed Jer­ry Black­burn in as a guest speak­er, who actu­al­ly worked on site at the time. He told us it was a crazy and mag­i­cal time for them, because the project was answer­ing ques­tions no one had thought to ask before. Ben Dick­ow called it the “ulti­mate mak­er­space.” The Rock­et­dyne divi­sion of North Amer­i­can built a small nuclear reac­tor on the Downey site to pow­er the facil­i­ty, and built the larg­er com­mer­cial nuclear pow­er plant at San­ta Susan­na when they were spun off into their own facil­i­ty in Simi Val­ley. Jer­ry also told us about build­ing giant cen­trifuges just because some­one thought it would be a good idea to test the effect of G‑forces on mate­ri­als, mak­ing a 250-foot-high crane over a pool to per­form splash down tests, and shoot­ing fuel tanks with pel­let guns to test resis­tance to space debris.

All of this exper­i­men­ta­tion came to bear fruit in form of the Lit­tle Joe rock­et that car­ried Mer­cury and Gem­i­ni cap­sules into space. This in turn led to North Amer­i­can get­ting the con­tract to design and build the Apol­lo com­mand mod­ules along with the sec­ond-stage Sat­urn rock­ets that would car­ry them. (When they won that con­tract, Jer­ry said the direc­tor told a man­ag­er to fill his pick-up with ice and cham­pagne and head to the local bar. The whole town was invit­ed to a par­ty that went on for three days!)

The Downey site became Engi­neer­ing Con­trol for the Apol­lo pro­gram. This was where the failed Apol­lo I com­mand mod­ule was returned for study and refine­ment after the dis­as­ter in Flori­da. The famous scene in Apol­lo 13 where engi­neers need to find a way to fix life sup­port for the astro­nauts? That was on a con­fer­ence table in Downey!

Space Shuttle

After the Apol­lo Pro­gram wound down, North Amer­i­can Rock­well, as it was known at this point, was not sure what to do with itself. They actu­al­ly stopped so sud­den­ly that they had left­over Sat­urn rock­ets that end­ed up con­vert­ed to Sky­lab. So they built a to-scale engi­neer­ing mock-up of the space shut­tle (still in stor­age on-site) and sold NASA on it. The orig­i­nal orbiter design was a glid­er designed to be launched from the back of a mod­i­fied Boe­ing 747, and while Boe­ing did even­tu­al­ly acquire Rock­well, the design was changed to be launched with the help of boost­er rock­ets. The engine on the orbiter, itself, though, can still trace its roots back to the Nava­jo.

As the space shut­tle pro­gram was wind­ing down, Boe­ing shut down the Downey site, and much of it has been rede­vel­oped. All that remains is the Colum­bia Memo­r­i­al Space Cen­ter and the dis­used for­mer main build­ing, which is in need of seis­mic retrofit.

Downey site


The muse­um is in fact a memo­r­i­al for both the Chal­lenger and Colum­bia space shuttles.

Challenger and Columbia dual memorials

Ben Dick­ow told us about how his vision was to be a muse­um of the 21st Cen­tu­ry. He wants the Colum­bia Memo­r­i­al Space Cen­ter to be very inter­ac­tive and very dis­trib­uted. They want to keep the muse­um’s phys­i­cal foot­print small but do as much out­reach as pos­si­ble, bring­ing pre­sen­ta­tions and exhibits to guests in order to inspire STEM study and indi­rect sci­ence learning.

That said, they do have some very cool stuff there. Down­stairs, there is are exhibits on propul­sion and aero­dy­nam­ics (air pump rock­ets, a con­trol­lable mod­el plane in a wind tun­nel, and a small drop test with para­chute cap­sules). Upstairs there is a real space suit you can take pic­tures inside and com­put­er sim­u­la­tions of land­ing or dock­ing a space shuttle.

There two stand-out gems, though. First is the robot­ics lab, where we got to play with LEGO Mind­Storm Mars rovers.

I got it on my third try. Not bad for some­one who was going to do this sort of thing for a career! I’m told the sum­mer robot­ics camps go into much more detail and chal­lenge, but this was a nice sam­ple. It was my first time play­ing with a Mind­Storms kit, and the first time I have done visu­al pro­gram­ming. Instead of typ­ing out instruc­tions, the Mind­Storms inter­face is a bunch of blocks that you drag into place and they get exe­cut­ed along a “track.” I saw the abil­i­ty to expand the track with loops and con­di­tion­al state­ments, but did not need to use those fea­tures to accom­plish my “mis­sion.” The pro­gram­ming ends up look­ing like a flow chart, much more intu­itive than lines of text code. The lab is open to the pub­lic if you want to come in and try your hand!

The sec­ond is the Chal­lenger Learn­ing Cen­ter. This is an advanced sim­u­la­tor for teams of 12 – 40 split across two rooms, Mis­sion Con­trol and Space Team. At the front of Mis­sion Con­trol is a bank of mon­i­tors show­ing the Space Team. Every mem­ber of Mis­sion Con­trol is assigned to a dif­fer­ent aspect of the mis­sion, and gets two screens of stats and a mis­sion binder, just like at John­son Space Cen­ter in Hous­ton. Space Team goes next door after putting on “space suits” and going through an “air­lock.” There, each mem­ber is assigned to a dif­fer­ent sta­tion where they are respon­si­ble for either per­form­ing exper­i­ments in space, keep­ing an on essen­tial sys­tems, or fly­ing the shut­tle. As the sim­u­la­tion goes on, “emer­gen­cies” pop up and both sides of the team must work to solve them.

Oh, and not to bury the lead or any­thing, but Ben told us that they are doing an “alien inva­sion” re-vamp for Hal­loween, which will have an “escape room” type of sce­nario! I would absolute­ly love to try this, who’s with me?


Since I was in the area, I went down the street to the old­est run­ning McDon­ald’s in the world.

Oldest McDonalds

Oldest McDonalds sign

The sign has their “Speedee” char­ac­ter from before Ronald McDon­ald. The store itself is walk-up only. The seat­ing area con­tains a muse­um with some his­to­ry about the McDon­ald broth­ers and Ray Kroc. I was dis­ap­point­ed to find that the store only has the stan­dard cur­rent McDon­ald’s menu, no unique stuff like old DQ’s.

Chùa Điều Ngự (Dieu Ngu Temple)

Last week­end, I had plans to go on an Atlas Obscu­ra tour, but then my par­ents decid­ed they would be com­ing down for a sur­prise vis­it. My moth­er’s local Bud­dhist tem­ple told her that the Dalai Lama was com­ing to West­min­ster to speak at the grand open­ing of a new Viet­namese Bud­dhist tem­ple, Chùa Điều Ngự. I want­ed to play with wolves, but see­ing the Dalai Lama was an oppor­tu­ni­ty of a life­time! Plus, you know… spend­ing time with my par­ents over Father’s Day weekend.

Dalai Lama


My par­ents picked up Dong Ha and Gam­bit on Fri­day and drove down, meet­ing up with me as I got off work. We met up with my aun­t’s fam­i­ly for din­ner at Mira­da Restau­rant in Foun­tain Val­ley. My aunt told us that it is appar­ent­ly Thai-owned and His­pan­ic-staffed, but well known for their Viet­namese food, par­tic­u­lar­ly the canh chua (sour soup) and cá kho (braised fish). My cousin, though, told us the most impres­sive thing about this place was that the His­pan­ic wait­staff’s Viet­namese was bet­ter than hers. Since we were already in the area, we swung by the tem­ple after din­ner to pick up our tick­ets. This is when I learned it was a two-day event, not just Sat­ur­day. I sat in the car since we parked in a tem­po­rary no-park­ing zone, but my par­ents got a brief tour of the temple.


The gates were sup­posed to open at 8 and ser­vices begin at 9. Since it was a bit of a dri­ve from my place to the tem­ple, we left at 6, parked at the near­by mall, and caught a shut­tle to the tem­ple. We got to the mall to find a huge line wait­ing for the shut­tle, and stood in that park­ing lot for almost an hour. Then the shut­tle took us with­in a block of the tem­ple (the roads imme­di­ate­ly sur­round­ing the tem­ple were closed for secu­ri­ty) and dropped us off into a new line to wait to be let into the gates. This line moved slow­ly at first, but sud­den­ly picked up a great deal of speed. Then peo­ple walked back and told us the grounds were com­plete­ly full and closed to addi­tion­al vis­i­tors. We went for­ward a lit­tle fur­ther until this was con­firmed by West­min­ster police offi­cers work­ing security.

It turns out the West­min­ster fire depart­ment had set a lim­it of 1,500 atten­dees for safe­ty and secu­ri­ty rea­sons, and the City had required the tem­ple to print tick­ets accord­ing­ly. The tem­ple, though, worked like a club pro­mot­er and print­ed much more than 1,500 tick­ets. And the morn­ing of, they start­ed let­ting peo­ple in ear­ly (at 7:30 instead of 8) and not even check­ing for tick­ets, so any­one who showed up could get in. So frustrating!

It all worked out, though. We end­ed up spend­ing the day with extend­ed fam­i­ly that we do not get to see every often, includ­ing an aunt vis­it­ing from Viet Nam.


We revised our game­plan for the sec­ond day of the Dalai Lama’s vis­it. First, we slept at my aun­t’s house, which was slight­ly clos­er, to save a bit of time. Then, we dropped our par­ents and aunt as close as pos­si­ble to the tem­ple and Dong Ha and I parked as close as we could and walked back to join them in line. By start­ing ear­li­er and skip­ping the shut­tle line, my fam­i­ly was able to make it into the tem­ple this time. As we went by the secu­ri­ty check­points, the police offi­cers on duty men­tioned that Sun­day was going much more smooth­ly than Sat­ur­day did.

Once we got in, the logis­tics were amaz­ing. There were jum­botrons to help the crowds see and hear what was going on. Vol­un­teers went through the crowds and up and down the bleach­ers giv­ing out free sand­wich­es and pas­tries, water bot­tles, desserts, fans, and even sun­screen! A lady next to us in the bleach­ers told us that they turned her away from the gate on Sat­ur­day morn­ing but she stuck around and was able to get into the after­noon ses­sion. I guess we could have seen the Dalai Lama on both days if we had stuck around, too.

The morn­ing start­ed off with a lot of pomp and cir­cum­stance. Announc­ers spoke in both Viet­namese and Eng­lish, and they rat­tled off every local dig­ni­tary and named every monk and nun who appeared. Then the Dalai Lama came up to the stage and the local dig­ni­taries took turns offer­ing him praise and com­mem­o­ra­tive plaques.

After all that was out of the way, it was time for the Dalai Lama to give his keynote speech, which focused on increas­ing youth involve­ment. He start­ed by say­ing he has been to many new tem­ple open­ings, and he always tells them, this is a beau­ti­ful tem­ple that will last for 1,000 years. But if you do not involve the youth, it will be emp­ty long before then. His solu­tion was to focus on tem­ples as learn­ing cen­ters, both for younger and old­er gen­er­a­tions. He said he that he him­self is still learn­ing dai­ly, and no one can rest on their lau­rels. Active­ly learn­ing was the best way to get youths inter­est­ed in learn­ing as well.

After that was a short Q & A ses­sion for addi­tion­al dig­ni­taries and then a lunch break. All atten­dees were offered rice plates. The after­noon ses­sion was a big Q & A ses­sion for youth mem­bers of the audi­ence. We heard from a friend of my moth­er’s that after the after­noon ses­sion con­clud­ed, the Dalai Lama was doing a more inti­mate ses­sion at a near­by Tibetan tem­ple, but my par­ents want­ed to get ready to dri­ve back so they would not get home too late.

All in all, it was a great week­end. I got to see a bunch of fam­i­ly, ate some great Viet food, and I can now say that I saw the Dalai Lama speak in per­son! (One of the ques­tions asked was about the rumors that His Holi­ness the 14th Dalai Lama might choose not to rein­car­nate, mak­ing him the final Dalai Lama. He did not give a def­i­nite answer if he was going through with that or not, but he did say that he felt the Lama tra­di­tion is sim­i­lar to the feu­dal tra­di­tion and has per­haps become out­dat­ed. If you get a oppor­tu­ni­ty to see him speak, I high­ly rec­om­mend you take advan­tage, as there may not be many chances left!)