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Trainers Still Hear the Call of the Jungle : Thousand Oaks: Three former employees of Goebel's Lion Farm have kept the vestige of a defunct animal farm alive for show business.

September 16, 1991|PSYCHE PASCUAL | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Years ago, if Hollywood directors needed wild animals for a movie, they called Goebel's Lion Farm in Thousand Oaks, also known as Jungleland.

But since the last curtain fell at that farm in 1969, they've been calling on Hubert Wells, Wally Ross and Cheryl Shawver instead. The veteran Jungleland trainers have remained loyal to the trade, to the Thousand Oaks area and to each other--still working together sometimes at Wells' isolated compound.

"We're the last generation," said Wells, 58, sitting in an office surrounded by animal cages in the rugged foothills just south of Thousand Oaks.

A Hungarian emigrant who dresses in a safari suit, Wells said that while Jungleland's daily animal shows are long gone, the demand for wild animals that do tricks remains.

The needs of the entertainment industry have kept a piece of Jungleland alive, and a new generation of animals is being groomed for the screen at Wells' compound called Animal Actors of Hollywood.

Lions, wolves, a leopard and a tiger live in a maze of cages, lounging in the sun between training sessions. The compound is one of only half a dozen in California licensed to keep exotic beasts, officials with the state Department of Fish and Game say.

The farm is home to about 100 creatures--including tarantulas, poisonous snakes, sea lions and a chimpanzee--that do tricks for movies, television, music videos and birthday parties. The animals have 202 productions, including commercials, to their credit since 1969.

A current Wells project is training a spider monkey as an organ-grinder for the upcoming sequel to "Batman."

One of his favorite animals is Sudan, a lion whose credits include the Oscar-winning "Out of Africa." Sudan was born eight years ago at the farm, and he is used to being handled by humans.

Most of the time Sudan is penned inside a 300-square-foot cage. But when Wells lets Sudan out for a walk, the lion is as coy as a house cat, rubbing against the trainer. Wells has to growl and tease the lion with a cane to make him roar.

"Here, Sudani," Wells coos before feeding the lion a tiny strip of raw chicken by hand. Sudan has been filmed at the farm, where tall grasses have served as the savanna highlands of Kenya.

Wells also has an assortment of wild fowl. "I'm crazy about African birds," he said.

When the big cats roar, the wolves howl and the macaws squawk, it is easy to forget that the farm is not in a jungle. Much of the compound has been planted with bamboo, giving it a tropical look.

The vegetation also hides the cages, which suits Wells. He is as private about his compound as the old Jungleland was public. Visitors are discouraged from dropping in, and most animals cannot be seen from nearby streets.

Fellow trainer Ross stopped by one recent day to pick Wells' brain about a pigeon act that he is putting together. Ross, a 64-year-old Thousand Oaks resident, came to Jungleland in 1956 and served as the park's superintendent until it closed in 1969.

"I started out in the early 1940s with circuses and bears because I was 4-F and couldn't get into the Army," he said.

Semi-retired, Ross occasionally comes across an intelligent animal with an extraordinary knack for tricks that he will take on. He'll even train some that aren't so smart.

"I have a real dislike for pigeons," he said.

Shawver, Wells' general manager and next-door neighbor, began working at Jungleland when she was only 17.

"I wanted to work with animals so bad, I would go there every weekend and watch the shows, and bugged them until they hired me," said Shawver, 43.

Her first job was to clean the muck out of the animal pens, but in time she began handling the sea lion show. She graduated to the pigeon act.

All three trainers have their favorite animals. Wells is partial to lions. Ross likes horses and works with Moorpark College's equestrian program. Shawver likes elephants best.

She says she may be biased. Three adult elephants live on her 10-acre farm near Thousand Oaks, which is part of her own business. If you have seen the Little Lotto commercial that features elephants, you've seen her behemoths.

Even with commercials, which are the lifeblood of the trained-animal business, times have been tough for trainers, Shawver said.

An elephant may work only once a year, she said, but it still has to be fed and its pen cleaned year-round. The upkeep of the animals is enormously expensive and the long hours keep her working late into the evening, Shawver said.

But the work is gratifying, she said. "I could work for a zoo from 8 to 5, but I wouldn't be able to own my own animals. We do it because we love the animals."

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