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VENTURA COUNTY BUSINESS | THE BUSINESS BEAT

Four-Footed, Feathered and Furred Actors Get Start at Ranch

Conejo Valley studio is home to more than 100 trained animals, from piano-playing chickens to dancing elephants.

November 17, 1998|COLL METCALFE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

THOUSAND OAKS — With her bald head, black eyes and love of spoiled meat, Morticia has a tendency to be typecast.

Yet she doesn't mind being pigeon-holed into acting roles that usually involve waiting for someone to die. Morticia's a vulture--with a sharp beak and wrinkled gray skin--so romantic leads don't come her way.

Still, she gets plenty of work.

"She's done a few car commercials and does pretty much the same thing in every one," said Cheryl Shawver, owner of Conejo Valley-based Animal Actors of Hollywood. "She just kind of sits there and looks mean."

But as Shawver points out, that's easier said than done.

It takes the patience of Job and the skill of a diamond cutter to make an actor out of an animal, which is where she and her half a dozen trainers come in.

Call it the Actors Studio for the furred, four-footed and feathered.

Animal Actors of Hollywood is where Tinseltown moguls turn when they need stars of a different genus, phylum or species.

On her 20-acre ranch west of Thousand Oaks, Shawver has a corral of more than 100 trained animals, ranging from piano-playing chickens to dancing elephants.

For 29 years, she has provided the entertainment industry with animals for commercials, sitcoms and feature films.

Her clients have appeared in more than 250 productions--including "Men In Black," "Out of Africa," "Home Improvement" and more 30-second television spots than a cheetah has spots.

The 50-year-old Shawver got her start more than 30 years ago as a caretaker at Jungle Land, which was Hollywood's only supplier of animal talent in the 1950s and 1960s. When Jungle Land closed its doors in 1969, Shawver purchased the animals and property and renamed the company.

Being the only firm in Ventura County, and one of only a handful in Southern California that specializes in trained animals, Shawver said she and her trainers stay busy taking the animals to shoots or preparing them for upcoming jobs.

But keeping up with Hollywood and its often last-minute needs is the real work, she said.

"We generally get one of two requests," Shawver said. "Either they want something like a golden retriever that will pretend it's asleep or a dog that will lift its leg on command.

"The more specific stuff takes some time because we'll have to train the animal, but if they're not specific we can set them up with something pretty quick."

Animal rights groups have criticized studios for using animals in their productions, saying they are often abused to make them perform unnatural tasks.

"People don't know what happens behind the scenes, but there is a lot of abuse," said Lisa Lange, director of public relations for People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals. "Animals are not actors, and we've documented many cases where animals were deprived of food and intimidated to perform."

Shawver, who says she understands such concerns, said none of her animals are ever abused and that she must comply with stringent county, state and federal regulations.

"We're watched very closely," she said. "But this is a job we do because it's something we love. . . . We get very close to these animals. It's very personal, and we all come to love those that we work with."

And that's the reward.

Shawver said training animals is not a growth industry and that those who pursue it often have reasons beyond making money.

Each animal fetches a standard daily rate, ranging from about $250 for a dog to $2,500 for an elephant. The price then increases, depending on the task the animal is asked to perform.

Shawver and the trainer share the money. Shawver said a good portion of her share goes into caring for the animals.

"Nobody gets into this for the money," she said. "It's about working with animals. . . . That's kind of how we get paid."

Yet, it can be frustrating and trying work that requires equal parts patience, psychology and an instinctual knowledge of animal behavior.

Deana Gregory, a caretaker at Animal Actors who is learning to become a trainer, spent more than a month teaching a fat rat named Critter to negotiate an obstacle course.

He still can't ring the bell mounted atop a straw, but can balance on a string, climb up stairs and crawl through a tube and open a door for which he receives a cold piece of macaroni.

"It's not easy," Gregory said. "They're pretty smart animals, but the trick is being smarter."

But what if the animal is a towering hulk of trumpeting tonnage that could flatten a trainer with an easy lift of a leg?

"Same thing really," Shawver said. "Just use a sugar cube."

The fundamentals of training are the same for every animal, except those, like insects and reptiles, who react to stimuli like heat and cold.

It's all based on Pavlov's principles of conditioned response, where an animal is rewarded for performing a task. The only thing that varies is the reward.

Where chickens might perform for a bit of mashed corn, an elephant like Malaika will do it for a lump of sugar.

"That's their favorite treat," said Shawver as she ran the 10,000-pound pachyderm through her repertoire of circus-like stunts.

Shawver said her animals are booked for the next few months. Some will appear in commercials, a few are scheduled for sitcom appearances and one, a jumping Chihuahua named Ping, has a group of seasoned screenwriters penning a script specifically for her.

But the concept is still on the QT.

"You know how it is out there," Shawver said. "All I can say is that it involves going on an adventure."

* PARTNERS: Cousins of original owners hope to buy Pierpont Inn. B7

* OTHER BUSINESS NEWS: B7-B10

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