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The Cruelty Question : How Do They Get a Horse to Flip Flapjacks, an Elephant to Ring for Champagne, a Chimpanzee to Sit Still? Hollywood Animal Trainers Explain Their Side of the Controversy.

December 11, 1988|VICKI HEARNE | Vicki Hearne is a poet and the author of "Adam's Task." She is also an animal obedience trainer.

A more usual view is one that says animals can feel but cannot think. If you are playing ball with your dog, he can feel the grass beneath his feet, pleasure in running and pleasure in your cries of delight, but he can't think, "Oh, good, now it's time to play ball" or "It's under those leaves. If I dig, I'll find it."

This is the view of animals as wholly innocent, incapable of knowing the implications or consequences of their actions. Tradition has it that human beings are the only creatures endowed with reason and thus the only creatures who can know the difference between right and wrong. Animals cannot understand the things we have them do, so training amounts to forcing animals to do something that can have no meaning for them.

On this view, both the way trainers talk--they are always referring to an animal's knowledge, or plans, or decisions--and the entertainments they help create give us a wholly fantastic version of the animal mind: Rin Tin Tin carrying messages he understands; Lassie barking at her master to bring his gun along because she knows a cougar is in the corral; Trigger celebrating his and Roy Rogers' triumphs; Virgil the chimpanzee in "Project X" feeling smugly proud as he pilots an airplane, a circus dog enjoying applause--this is all sentimental, exploitative and dangerous rubbish. Besides, no one believes it, right?

Right and wrong. Mark Harden, for example, does not believe that Willie is likely to steal an observation aircraft. Rudd Weatherwax, trainer of all the Lassies, did not believe that his collies could read.

But trainers do believe that it makes sense to use morally significant terms such as dutiful , responsible , irresponsible , sneaky , stalwart , courtly , mean , kind or honest to describe their animals, which means that they have a theory of animal consciousness that includes the idea that when you correct an animal for not paying attention, he responds in part because he has a concept of the value of attending to his work, the concept of responsibility. The trainers also believe that animals are capable of caring about the proverbial baby on the blanket instead of staying protectively near out of mindless instinct, of caring about sustaining working friendships, of caring about the welfare of their community and, especially, of caring about a job well done, of taking pride in a good performance. On this view, animal actors enjoy their work not only because of the treats and praise and the relationships with their handlers but also because they enjoy the work itself, just as human actors do.

Bill Koehler, head trainer for Walt Disney in the heyday of the Disney animal classics, expounds a view that dogs are not only capable of understanding but also have a right to exercise that understanding.

Call this the Rin Tin Tin theory of animal consciousness, in honor of the heroic movie dog. Rinty was trainer Lee Duncan's companion during World War I and a champion competitor in police-dog trials before he was a movie star. The first Rin Tin Tin pictures were attempts to tell stories about what Duncan and others who knew Rinty believed were his real abilities.

This theory, as worked out in the movies, has given us any number of animal heroes, and it is about to give us another: the German shepherd Jerry Lee. Jerry Lee is the co-starring character in a film called "K-9," scheduled for release in April. Like the Rin Tin Tin stories, "K-9" was inspired by real-life dogs. The writing began when a restaurant owner who served K-9 officers became fascinated with their police dogs.

James Belushi plays an unorthodox cop named Dooley, and Jerry Lee is his partner. Dooley doesn't go by the book, and neither does Jerry Lee. Where Rin Tin Tin would no doubt puritanically refuse to go along with some of Dooley's more extreme capers, Jerry Lee dives right into the fun, making Rin Tin Tin look a little prissy.

In one scene, for example, the bad guys have Dooley down on a bar. There's a knife on Dooley, and one Very Bad Guy has just broken a pool cue in half, with a view to using the heavy end as a club. It seems to be all over for Dooley until Jerry Lee appears in the doorway, sits, and wags his tail gently. The pool player picks up a pool ball and throws it at Jerry Lee's head, at 90-plus miles an hour--

--And Jerry Lee catches the ball, of course. He mouths it a bit, spits it out in small pieces, dives into the action and has the bad guys rounded up quicker than Dooley can think to say, "I thought I told you to stay in the car!"

Karl Miller's daughter, Teresa Miller, assists him with the training on "K-9." The main actor, or "character dog," in the film is Rando, a German shepherd. Rando and his three stand-ins were cast because they were working dogs who had shown their ability to do a full range of police-type duties.

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