Uncertain future for animal wranglers in the entertainment industry


Tough life: Jim Brockett (right) owner of Brocketts Film Fauna, and raptor trainer Tony Suffredina work with an African Augar Hawk. Animal wranglers who provide animals for entertainment productions such as television and film, like Brocketts, face tougher regulations on treatment of animals on set.

Tough life: Jim Brockett (right) owner of Brocketts Film Fauna, and raptor trainer Tony Suffredina work with an African Augar Hawk. Animal wranglers who provide animals for entertainment productions such as television and film, like Brocketts, face tougher regulations on treatment of animals on set.

Animal wranglers adding themselves to endangered species list.

Animal wrangler Jim Brockett stands a few yards away from Arrow, like a director studying his actor.

The African augur hawk latches his yellow talons onto what looks like a severed finger – actually a piece of foam – and swoops into the air before landing on the gauntlet of a falconer (who promptly rewards him with a thawed chick stashed in a leather pouch).

“He’s got the finger part down,” says Brockett, who’s helping train Arrow for a macabre scene in the crime drama Bones.

Brockett, 70, and his wife, Gina, are owners of Brocketts Film Fauna Inc in Thousand Oaks, California in the United States. They have been supplying hawks, bobcats, alligators, snakes, spiders, lizards and various other critters to the entertainment industry for more than three decades, operating out of a secluded five-acre ranch in the Santa Monica Mountains.

An Emperor scorpion is shown in August 2013 at Brocketts Film Fauna in Thousand Oaks, Calif. Animal wranglers who provide animals for entertainment productions such as television and film, like Brocketts, face tougher regulations on treatment of animals on set. (Lawrence K. Ho/Los Angeles Times/MCT)
An Emperor Scorpion at Brocketts Film Fauna.

The Brocketts and their animals have made regular appearances on The Tonight Show With Jay Leno, numerous crime dramas including True Blood and CSI: NY, and movies such as Terminator III and We Bought A Zoo.

But they’ve grown increasingly uncertain about the future of their business.

“We’re not going to be doing it that much longer,” Gina Brockett says. “It’s going to go away.”

Animal trainers and wranglers, those who transport horses and other animals to sets, have been fixtures of the motion picture industry since the dawn of Hollywood. But many veterans in Southern California view themselves as an endangered species in their own right.

They cite the growing use of digital effects, the flight of film work from Southern California, as well as mounting pressure from animal rights groups.

The use of animals in film and television productions has become increasingly controversial. HBO in 2012 shut down production of its drama Luck after three horses died during production.

The horse deaths renewed debate in the industry about the use of animals on film sets and the role of the American Humane Association, the group charged with safeguarding the welfare of animals in entertainment.

Tippi Hedren, the actress and animal rights activist best known for her role in The Birds, in 2012 lobbied for a bill that would outlaw the private breeding and possession of exotic cats except at highly qualified facilities, such as accredited zoos. Similar measures have been proposed for bears and primates but have been resisted by the circus industry.

Although none have been approved by Congress, animal wranglers like Jim Brockett view them as a threat to their livelihood. He and his peers contend that People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (Peta) and other groups pressure filmmakers to avoid using live animals on sets, and constantly lobby federal and state agencies to impose costly rules aimed at driving them out of business.

“I would have to say they are not wrong,” says Peta spokeswoman Lisa Lange. “We’d like to see them pursue other careers. We do want to see a complete end to the use of wild animals in film and television, and we’re getting there.”

Brockett’s face tightens when the subject turns to animal rights activists who criticise his trade. He insists the film and television industry has helped to educate the public about the animals the activists think they’re protecting.

“No one would care about dolphins,” he says, “if there wasn’t a TV show like Flipper.”

Going green

Some animal trainers have found novel ways to adapt to the digital revolution.

A company called GreenScreen Animals of Santa Monica, California, has found a lucrative niche supplying stock footage, shooting video of wolves, lions, bears and other big-game animals on a giant green screen stage, which can then be rendered as a forest, mountain, parking lot or school crosswalk.

“Animals never go out of fashion,” GreenScreen co-owner Mark Shockley told the Los Angeles Times last year. “Our footage is only going to grow in value.”

Brockett has his doubts.

An albino cobra from Thailand (left) and a lynx at Brocketts Film Fauna.

“That’s the last time your elephant or wolf is going to go to work,” he says, “because at that point they have everything they need on a green screen.”

As a truck drives by the ranch, a low, throaty growl emanates from a concrete pond, where a group of alligators lounge in swampy green water.

“Hear that noise?” Brockett says. “It’s an alligator bellowing. He thinks the truck is another alligator.”

Brockett keeps as many as 30 alligators. “Our alligators do all the Lubriderm commercials.”

Brocketts Film Fauna charges by the day to rent its animals for film crews. Chickens cost about US$200 (RM650) a day, while a large alligator or king cobra snake would cost US$1,500 (RM4,900).

But it costs as much as US$15,000 (RM49,000) a month to feed the animals, whether it’s kibble for alligators, beef-based food for bobcats, and rats and mice for the snakes. There’s also an additional US$8,000 (RM26,000) a year to truck in sufficient water.

Last year the company had 30 jobs in one month alone. But the orders aren’t as large as they used to be, and business is down as much as 40% from 15 years ago, Brockett says.

Teamsters Local 399 has seen at least a 50% drop in the number of animal wranglers over the last decade, says Ed Duffy, the union’s business agent.

“These trainers have spent years working with their animals and teaching them what is necessary to perform in front of the camera,” Duffy says. “They are really fighting for jobs right now.”

About 20 trainers have left the business or retired in the last three years because there wasn’t enough work to go around, Duffy says. The union now has 90 trainers and 21 wranglers, most of whom live in Southern California.

“Long-term it just gets harder and harder to do this stuff,” Brockett says. 

“Gina and I are probably going to retire next year.” — Los Angeles Times/McClatchy-Tribune Information Services