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.

Hook, Line, and Sinker

Liar Liar Claw

Anoth­er piece at the Hearsay show that real­ly hooked my atten­tion was A. S. Ash­ley’s Dis­mem­ber Me For­ev­er, based on the urban leg­end “The Hook.” There are many vari­a­tions on this sto­ry, but the artist was there to talk about his piece, and in his own words, it goes some­thing like this:

I’m third-gen­er­a­tion native South­ern Cal­i­forn­ian, born and raised in Pasade­na. My fam­i­ly used to own a dairy right on Col­orado. I chose the urban leg­end “The Hook” as the basis for my piece because this area is famous for its car cul­ture, and SoCal could very well have been the ori­gin of the story.

It was a clear Fri­day night, and the boy (a foot­ball play­er) was dressed to the nines. He bor­rowed his dad’s big honk­ing boat of a Cadil­lac and picked up the girl (a cheer­leader, of course), who is in her best par­ty dress, to go to a par­ty. They are hav­ing a great time at the par­ty, but after a while, the boy asks the girl if she wants to take off. The girl asks, “To go where?” To which the boy replies, “I don’t know, let’s go watch the sub­ma­rine races or some­thing.” The girl thinks about it for a bit and says, “OK,” so they hop into the Cadil­lac and take off.

The boy dri­ves around until they get to a cliff in the woods out­side of town, with no one around for miles (or so he thinks). He turns on some music on the radio and makes his move. They get busy for a only a few moments before the DJ breaks into the broad­cast with a news bul­letin — a ser­i­al killing axe mur­der­er has escaped from the local asy­lum. If you spot him, you are to imme­di­ate­ly turn around and flee, do not take any chances by inter­act­ing with him. He is a large man and eas­i­ly iden­ti­fied by his pros­thet­ic arm, which ends in a hook. The mes­sage repeats a cou­ple of times and the music starts back up.

The boy smart­ly locks all the doors, then turns the radio up and starts in again with the girl, but she push­es him away, say­ing, “What do you think you’re doing? The asy­lum is right by here.” The boy says, “It’s OK, we’re per­fect­ly safe. I locked the doors, and this is a huge Cadil­lac. We’ll know he’s here long before we’re in any dan­ger.” The girl says, “That’s not good enough, I’m still scared.” The boy says, “If he does show up, I’ll just beat him up.” The girl says, “Nope, we’re done, take me home.”

The boy thinks about push­ing his luck, but can see he’s get­ting nowhere, and frus­trat­ed, he peels off in a hur­ry and takes her home. Back at her place, the girl gets out and slams the door in huff, only to dis­cov­er to her hor­ror that there is a hook hang­ing from the door handle.

Dismember Me Forever

From the object label:

1987 Cadil­lac d’El­e­gance pas­sen­ger door, pros­thet­ic arm with hook, par­ty dress.

The Hook” is an urban leg­end about sex, fear, rejec­tion, and a slew of Freudi­an metaphors.

For me it is a sto­ry of dismemberment(s).

I want­ed to know why our vil­lain did­n’t have a hand. Was it because of a con­gen­i­tal defect, or the result of some bru­tal­ly vio­lent inci­dent that pushed him into a per­ma­nent­ly psy­chot­ic state? And what did hav­ing his pros­the­sis torn off (along with part of his arm) by a speed­ing car do for his already rosy disposition?

Have you heard the leg­end of “the Hook” before? Do you think it is sim­ply a fun-to-tell tale of a near death, or is it a social warn­ing against promis­cu­ity? Is the hook a Freudi­an phal­lic sym­bol and his failed attack a psy­chic “cas­tra­tion”, or a lit­er­ary device to sim­ply high­light the near-miss?