I was ready for my close-up.
I drove two hours north to visit Working Wildlife, a facility founded by Steve Martin (not that wild and crazy guy) to provide trained animal actors for film shoots, TV shows, commercials, music videos, etc.
And I was going to meet them.
I know there are people who think that no animals should be put to work in any way—that farm animals shouldn't go to slaughter, and that turkeys shouldn't be eaten on Thanksgiving, and that chimpanzees don't belong in front of the camera. After reading about the horrors of the early film industry—and about current conditions on some sets where animals actually do get harmed and just don't get reported—I was curious to see if Hollywood animal training could be done humanely.
I was pleasantly surprised to see that Working Wildlife is as focused on education and outreach as it is on getting their critters cast in starring roles. And, like many sanctuaries, they don't purchase their animals from breeders, and they don't breed the animals.
And clearly, they treat the animals really well, with a lot of care and tenderness, using only positive reinforcement training methods. You can tell when an animal is scared or intimidated or abused or (God forbid) drugged—the way they cower or are listless. But these animals at Working Wildlife, like Taj the brown lemur, seem to absolutely adore their trainer, Jeff Lee.
He handles them gently and unprotected because he trusts them, and they trust him.
But, of course, even with a baby alligator (which they rescued), he has to be careful. He can't make a mistake with them, or they will teach him a rather painful lesson.
To me, the most positive sign of these animals' well-being was Red Woman, the exotic bird who'll probably outlive us all. Her feathers are in pristine condition. There is no sign that she's been pecking herself at all. And that's hard to find with parrots in captivity, even when they are loved and safe.
We had unprecedented access to these animals, which crawled all over Jeff first and nuzzled his neck, and then ventured over to explore us. "Just let them do their thing," Jeff told us. "Just don't, like, try to pet them." Of course, if we had pet Boris, the pretzel-loving porcupine, we wouldn't have liked the way our hands smelled afterwards. He was pretty funky just sitting there and chewing in front of us.
The most spectacular display of affection came in the form of a Southeast Asian bearcat (known as Binturong). "That's my baby," Jeff said, as he proceeded to let her crawl all over him and bite his nose.
And then she let him cradle her in his arms like a baby, clawing affectionately at his face and rolling around as he rubbed her belly. "Every time we play," he said, "I wind up bleeding." But she doesn't mean to hurt him, or anybody else. She's curious and cuddly. She just happens to like to nibble when she gets to know you, like when she got a taste of my ear today.
Not all the animals like visitors or care to deal with humans, which makes them better performers than outreach ambassadors. The foxes, for example, don't seem to be scared of people per se, but they also don't seem to have much use for them.
As cute as they are, it's probably for the best. Their natural scent is surprisingly skunky, making it easy for us to keep our distance.
It's kind of a mind-blowing experience, seeing top-of-the-food-chain big cats purring like kittens...
...rubbing against their enclosures and Jeff's hand to get a good scratch (and mark their territory).
We were almost fearless in our approach to them, sticking our camera lenses through the fences and staring deeply into their eyes. Fortunately, none of them saw us as either competition or as prey, so our meet and greet with the wild kingdom of animal actors went without incident. But we had to remember that many of these animals wouldn't hesitate to eat us, if provoked.
If the lions were like kittens, then the bears were like puppies, licking Jeff's hands and pressing against their enclosures to get belly rubs and praises of "Good boy." We forgot to bring some snacks for them. I hear they like Rice Krispie Treats.
I came to Working Wildlife with an open mind. I was ready to ask questions about animal welfare and humane treatment of wild beasts, but once I was there, I felt that I didn't really need to. These animals seem pretty happy—or, at least, complacent. And that's an improvement on some of the other sanctuaries, where the big guys have nothing to do and are so bored and agitated, they just pace back and forth and huff, waiting for some type of enrichment activity (a cardboard box or maybe a watermelon) to be tossed into their cages.
At least these animals have something to do and, at times, somewhere to go. They have a purpose. Most animals in captivity don't get to hunt or forage for food or fight off predators or defend their pack or even sometimes raise their own offspring. So they just lie there in the sun, and get a drink of water, and then lie down in a different spot.
Being a movie star kind of seems better than that to me.
Photo Essay: The Hidden Kingdom of Big Cats
Photo Essay: Lions, Tigers, and Bears - Oh My!
Photo Essay: Into the Wild Safari Park
Photo Essay: Wild Wine Safari