The Crowded, Competitive World of Animal Acting

Pets appear in movies, TV shows, commercials, and plays, but low pay and changing regulations make it hard for their trainers and managers to get by.

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One winter afternoon in Brooklyn, Cathryn Long peered at a grooming table inside an abandoned warehouse. Long, the vice president of All Creatures Great and Small, a New York-based animal talent agency, was inspecting the scenery where her client, a large black poodle named Daisy, was set to make her acting debut.

Nearby, Mark Severs, a square-faced financial assistant, furiously combed Daisy's coat. Squinting, he walked around a table examining his pet's continental trim, unsparingly using a blow-dryer, scissors, and a can of hairspray to stiffen the individual pom-poms on Daisy's legs and tail.

A bearded man in a plaid shirt and skinny jeans signaled Severs. "We'll be ready for the dog in five minutes," he said.

Severs kept toiling, his lower lip curled in a bulldog pout as sweat varnished his temples. Like his wife Delana, a poodle breeder who trains their dogs, he was looking forward to Daisy's first gig.

That afternoon, their 11-month-old pup, was to play a supporting part in a cell phone commercial, alongside Dax Shepard, an actor in the NBC series Parenthood, and two young comedians named Streeter Seidell and Amir Blumenfeld, the stars of MTV's Pranked. Her scenes featured a loud motorcycle, blinding strobe lights, and other distractions that threatened to instigate the rampages that had earned her the nickname "Crazy Daisy" back home.

Severs clipped a tiny speck of Daisy's hair. Shrugging, he wondered how the pup would react to the different environment. Long stepped in, glanced at Severs, and then turned towards her furry client.

"All's going well," Long said. "I think they will call for Daisy soon." She approached the dog, petting her lightly in order not to disrupt the blooming hairdo. "Are you ready, girl?"

Daisy belongs to an ancient tradition of using animals as entertainment. From the Roman arena to the Elizabethan stage, from Broadway theaters to movies like War Horse and The Artist, the world's fauna has managed to enthrall audiences, in many cases even upstaging their human co-stars.

There are more than 40 animal talent agencies in the country, spread throughout cities that include Honolulu, Miami, Chicago, and Portland. Every day, agents audition animals and contact the owners of talented pets to put all sorts of creatures in films, theaters, photo shoots, and television commercials. Each agency represents hundreds of clients, which include inhabitants of wildlife preserves, pets, their own trained animals, and both domestic and exotic beasts.

In New York, nearly a dozen different agencies compete for the advertising, television, and theatrical roles that the East Coast offers. They do so in spite of low pay rates and cut-throat competition, relying on volume for their profits while working under the looming threat of tightening laws that might soon ban the possession, transportation, and use of exotic animals in the state.

William Berloni is the owner of Theatrical Animals, a New York animal talent agency that has trained and supplied most of Broadway's four-legged actors during the last 35 years. He received a Tony Award last year. Lately, however, he hasn't been able to find work in the city. "Many animals have been replaced by puppets in modern revivals," he explained recently at the New York Humane Society, where he volunteers as a behavioral consultant. Producers want to save money, so the animals are the first to go, he said, citing as an example the current Broadway production of Anything Goes, in which the role of the dog is being played by a stuffed animal.

Last year, Berloni was on the road more than 200 days, setting up productions of Annie or of Legally Blonde in small and big cities throughout the country while business picks up in New York. To supplement his income, he has also worked on movies, yet his experience was far from enriching, he says. "There's no union for animals, there's no protection for animals..." he said. "There's no minimum pay for animal trainers, so they'll call us up and say, 'We have this movie, how much will you charge us?' I'll say, 'Five thousand dollars.' Then my competitors will say, 'Forty five hundred,' and then someone else will say, 'Four thousand.' So my competitors will continue to keep the rates low in terms of equitability of films and television, and the producers take full advantage of that."

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In California animal trainers do belong to unions. The membership guarantees a degree of financial stability that does not exist in New York. The union also helps to regulate prices, and prevents what some animal agents call an "unfair competition" from questionable trainers. In New York, the idea of forming a union has been bounced around throughout several decades, but some agencies have always refused to follow through. "They'll say, 'Go ahead. We won't join. We'll underbid you and get all the work,'" Berloni said.

"When I do a commercial," he continued, "and the rates here in New York city are $800 a day for a dog, and the kid sitting next to the dog is earning $50,000 for doing the same amount of work, you have to wonder, is it fair?"

Cathryn Long's mother, Ruth Manecke, has witnessed all the failed attempts at unionization and has learned to work around the existing fees by keeping a database of several hundred animals. In 1956, Manecke founded All Creatures Great and Small, the oldest surviving agency in the city (she now runs it jointly with her daughter). A two time Emmy Award-winner for her work as the staff zoologist of the TV show Captain Kangaroo, Manecke has represented horses and lemurs; zebras and llamas; blue-eyed black leopard cubs and Asian elephants; variegated macaws and Bobo the Orangutan; Pippin, a Chinese crested powder puff, and Vortex, a jumpy Jack Russell of many television commercials; pet cheetahs and cats and dogs of almost every breed.

Presented by

Santiago Wills is a journalist basted in New York City. His work has also appeared in Salon and several South American magazines.

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