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Stage Presence a Priority for Animals Trained at Phil's Ranch


PIRU — Corraling a pair of raucous movie stars may be difficult, but most handlers in Hollywood have it easy compared to Phil Smith.

Smith, 54, supplies trained animals to the motion picture industry, and on any given day he can be found on location putting one of his many creatures through its paces.

"Sometimes it's easy to get them to do what you want them to do," Smith said during a recent tour of his 38-acre animal compound on Center Street. "Sometimes you never get them ready."

On this day, Smith and one of his trainers, Karen Kittleson, were trying to get a pair of pink flamingos to pose for the camera. The birds finally hit their marks, but not before one bit Smith's lower lip--an occupational hazard when your living is shepherding animals, including 30 horses, 15 pigs, swans, geese, peacocks, dogs and several cattle that are expected to perform on command.

Smith, who moved his ranch from Sunland to Piru in 1993, started out more than three decades ago as an animal wrangler. In that time, he has amassed an impressive resume, supplying animals and trainers, or coordinating animal performances for major studios and production companies.

Recent credits include the 1997 film "Men In Black," starring Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones, and the 1998 remake of "Psycho," starring Anne Heche and Vince Vaughn--and co-starring some of Smith's birds.

Although livestock is Smith's bread and butter, Phil's Livestock is much more than an animal farm; his tack collection features 120 saddles suitable for any period a producer has in mind, and his aluminum warehouse holds more than 85 wagons and carriages, spanning the early 1700s to present day. Included are three chariots that cost $12,000 each to build and what Smith says is the only horse-drawn full-size hearse. (Most other casket-carrying carriages are built for children and women, he said.)


Much of Smith's rolling stock is handmade, and for the most part it rolls into a scene and back out. Sometimes, however, his handiwork is blown apart or rolls over on its side and ends up as a pile of scrap. In last year's "Wild, Wild West,' starring Will Smith and based on the 1960s TV series, one of Phil Smith's carriages was smashed by a giant mechanical spider.

"You get attached to your work," Smith said, recalling the work that went into the carriage used in that film, "but you have to figure out what's worth more, the money or being attached to the stuff you make."

And, sure, he puts a lot of work into his creations, but Smith said, "You can't count the hours you put into it or you'd go broke."

Smith admits that the movie rental business isn't what it used to be. He estimates that just 30 of the 97 suppliers listed in an industry directory do most of the work. Like many in the entertainment business, he laments the amount of work being done north of the U.S. border.

"It's real slow here because of all the work going to Canada," he said. "I can send my animals there, but I can't go there because I'm not Canadian."

Recently, Smith was paid a visit by Tony Iwamoto, line producer for The M Co., a Los Angeles film company that was looking for a horse for a commercial for Japanese TV. A helicopter will be used to get the right camera angle, and Iwamoto said he needs a horse that won't get spooked.

"You don't want to get up to Arizona and have the horse say, 'I don't want to do this,' " Iwamoto said.

As Iwamoto saddled up and rode off into the Piru afternoon, Smith was sure he had a horse that would fit the producer's needs.

Helping Smith handle the animals is Ojai horse trainer-turned-wrangler Kittleson, 42, who joined up about 10 years ago. During a tour of the compound, it becomes clear that when Kittleson speaks--or moves her hands--the animals obey. Her voice alone is enough to send star pig Fanny and her grunt double Annie into a frenzy.

In another area of the ranch, Molly, a Holstein cow who just wrapped a "Got milk?" commercial with country band Dixie Chicks, is up to her eyes in breakfast a la trough. When a photographer creeps up, Molly turns her head to chew for the camera.


Each of the animals, from Maggie the bloodhound, who appeared in a TV movie about Little Richard, to Molly to the flamingos, has its own talents, Kittleson said. As for the horses, some are best on the gallop, but others made their name for the ability to rear with rider aboard. Another is best known for its calm temperament, which came out on the set of the NBC comedy "Friends." In one episode, Rachel (Jennifer Anniston) takes up jogging--and runs face first into a horse carrying one of New York City's finest.

"Every time she did it, the horse would just stand there, turn its head and look back at her," Kittleson said. "She couldn't care less what was going on."

The key to getting an animal to do what you want is to earn its respect.

"I think they're like kids," Smith said. "If you let them walk all over you, they won't respect you. Of course, you don't want them to be afraid of you."

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