Bonnie the pomeranian and trainer Jasmine Delaney share a kiss.
Bonnie the pomeranian and trainer Jasmine Delaney share a kiss. Glenn Hampson

Lights, camera, animals - what does it take to make the cut?

We've all heard the old golden rule of Hollywood: never work with children or animals, but at least one of them is mostly trainable.

If you're still deciding which one, this story is about the vast network of four-legged, feathered and reptilian wannabes looking for their big break.

Animal talent agencies are bursting with dogs, cats, birds, farmyard friends and all manner of quirky and exotic creatures available for commercials, TV shows, stage productions or feature-length films.

"We've been crazy busy,” founder of agency Animal Extras Fiona Macdonald says.

Fiona started out with a dog-walking business when one of her clients, who worked in TV production, encouraged her to get into supplying well-trained dogs for the industry.

Twelve years later, Fiona now has about 600 animals on her books from around Australia. If you're looking for an albino peacock, a trained owl or a chilled-out python, complete with qualified wrangler, she's your girl.

"We can usually meet most requests,” Fiona says. "Although we did have to turn away a Japanese production company recently who were after a boxing kangaroo.

"I had to explain that you can't really train a kangaroo to box and it's probably not good to try. And we did have a bit of trouble coming up with a zebra the other day.”

As it turns out, much of the "bread and butter” work in the industry goes to more domestic creatures - dogs, cats, horses and farm animals.

Heidi Mackay has four dogs that work in TV and on other productions, including Gracie and Red (pictured).
Heidi Mackay has four dogs that work in TV and on other productions, including Gracie and Red (pictured). Luke Marsden

Animal trainer Heidi Mackay has made a living from working with animals in the entertainment industry for the past 25 years.

She shot to prominence as the horse trainer for the 1995 film In Pursuit of Honour, starring Don Johnson. She had to manage a cast of 300 horses, one of the largest assembled at the time.

Her stellar job led to regular work in the US, with credits on big budget Hollywood films Dancing With Wolves and Gladiator. She trained ferrets for the TV series BeastMaster, wolf-crosses for The X-Files and has worked with most animals, including tigers, elephants and birds of prey.

"I can't even tell you all the jobs,” she laughs. "They all get mixed up. After a while, a job's a job.”

These days she is the horsemaster at Australian Outback Spectacular and has seven of her own beloved dogs, all different breeds, who she'll use for production work as it comes in. She says this year has been her busiest.

"You can't just pull a dog out of a backyard,” Heidi says.

"They have to have trained behaviours and do everything asked of them on set. People might see a dog on TV and think my dog could do that but there's a lot more to it.”

As well as being impeccably trained, usually from a young age, the animals need to be able to perform their tasks or tricks in any environment and not succumb to distraction, fright or an "off day”.

It requires meticulous preparation, troubleshooting and a good working relationship between animal and trainer.

Funnily enough, Heidi prefers working with dogs over cats ("yes, you can train a cat but cats can be hard to work with” - who'd have thought?).

"It's horrible being on set when your animal isn't doing what it's meant to,” Heidi says. "You always need to have a back-up plan.”

Heidi just completed a short film with her red kelpies, two brothers, who also happen to feature in the current Outback Spectacular production. The film required only one dog but Heidi has been around long enough to know how handy a body double can be.

"One got a bit of a fright and didn't want to speak on cue so I brought his brother out. He did it first time and no one will ever know. You can't keep the crew waiting.”

Of course, working with animals is not without its unique challenges. Every trainer has a few funny stories that were probably not so funny at the time.

Sydney-based trainer Ann Harris, the founder of Animal Talent Time, once took her own pet goat to a TV set in a nappy to avoid the obvious.

"I whipped the nappy off for the shoot and actually that went pretty well,” she says. "It was a segment to raise money for a charity to buy goats for people in third world countries.

"There was a table of promotional brochures nearby and after the goat had done his thing, he went over and ate them.

"They decided to keep it in the segment because it was a blooper that worked.”

Ann has erected a star picket fence in the bush for four hours before a shoot to stop a kangaroo hopping off into the wild and trained her pig Coco to roll out a red carpet and pull a flag up and down a flag pole.

"You always have to put the animal first,” Ann says. "There's a Code of Practice the industry has for working with animals and you always need to have someone experienced on set and keep monitoring them.”

Heidi too says respect for the animal is the basis for her work.

"At the end of the day, you need the animal to be happy in what they're doing, to love their job,” she says.

"You need to praise more than correct. My two kelpies absolutely love doing the Outback Spectacular show every night.

"They thrive on the applause and the attention. They hate it when they have to miss a show.”

But don't think peddling your pet's star appeal is your key to giving up the day job.

One-off animal gigs are generally modestly paid. There are no set minimum or standard rates for animals as there are for people and some production companies, not all, can still consider animals akin to props for hire.

If it's a simple job, such as a pet sitting on a box for a photo shoot, owners may be entrusted to do it unaccompanied. For anything more complicated, qualified animal trainers - known as wranglers - are needed and that may affect the rate that trickles down to the animal's owner.

But, as happens in the fickle, fantastical world of showbiz, your pet could be one of the lucky ones. The right look, or perhaps a unique trick, could lead to long-term work or an exclusive deal.

Henry the Heritage Bank cat.
Henry the Heritage Bank cat.

Henry, the Heritage Bank fluffy cat, has recently been signed to a cushy three-year contract while the Melbourne owners of Axle the staffy scored a tidy sum when the Pizza Hut chain in South America purchased exclusive video of him doing his signature trick, balancing three fidget spinners on his nose and two front paws.

"At the end of the day, the people who put their pets on our books are mostly animal lovers who love their breed,” Fiona, of Animal Extras, says. "No one does it to get rich.”

But that doesn't mean you should stop practising that cool trick your pet can do when no one's looking.


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