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.

AP Images

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."


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.

For Manecke, now in her 80s, the biggest challenge the industry faces involves the shifting legislation surrounding some of her atypical clients. "The most difficult part about the business right now are the laws that are coming into effect, regulating the use of exotic animals," she said. "All the permits that are now required—I fully predict that soon we will not be allowed to represent lions and tigers and chimps.

"There will be laws that totally prohibit possessing them and using them in show business," she added. "And, you know, I go along with it, I really do. I think it's right. When they're little babies, like my little guys who didn't have a mother and had to be raised by humans, that's something different. But to raise them to be pets, it's not fair."

Not everyone agrees with Manecke, however. Nancy Novograd, the owner of All Tame Animals, an agency that supplies the Metropolitan Opera's horses and dogs, has a different perspective. "The more we see animals portrayed in a dignified and responsible manner, the better it is for conservation efforts. Tigers, wolves or elephants in entertainment can be wonderful ambassadors," she says.

Novograd is a newcomer in a world mainly populated by family businesses and companies with several decades of experience. Because of that, she says she has a different perspective than some of her competitors. For her, the real problem is the "irresponsible backyard owners," who, she says, "have ruined it for the real trainers." Among them, she includes Terry Thompson, the 62-year-old man from Ohio who set free more than 50 exotic animals before killing himself last fall. "The careless owners' recklessness has led to more laws," she says.

Animal talent agents primarily search for trainers who are patient and who have equally patient and well-behaved animals. Even more than tricks, agents look for creatures who can stay in the same place or perform basic commands while the owner is far away, be it in the theater, a studio, or a closed set.

"There's nothing like working with eagles or tigers or lions." Novograd said. "And it's amazing to see your own animals performing. When my horses walk onstage while trumpets are blaring, while people are talking and screaming, and they behave, I feel so proud of them."

Daisy's path towards the small screen started nearly a week before the day of the shoot, when the Severs received a call from Cathryn Long. Advertisers needed two dark poodles for a television commercial, she said. One would have to be spruced up to look like a dog show competitor, while the other would have to appear almost unkempt, its features buried under fluffy curls. Would they be available next week?

The Severs checked their schedule, called their neighbors to ask if they could spare Daisy's sister Eloise—an ungroomed pup who would play the scruffy part—and called back to accept the offer. Long then sent pictures of the dogs to the producers and negotiated a fee.

A week later, Daisy and Eloise were undergoing a trial in the Brooklyn warehouse. Under Long's watchful gaze, Mark and Delana Severs held their arms around their black poodles while a technician fixed a strobe light. Time was running out and the director still needed to film the scenes featuring Daisy.

"We've got an animal in the set!" he shouted. "Let's try to wrap this thing up!"

Using a short leash, Mark led Daisy to a grooming table in front of the camera. He carefully lifted the dog and placed her on the black surface.

In the commercial, Dax Shepard wins a bet by seemingly giving Daisy's hairy sister Eloise a makeover in record time. The miraculous change takes place so fast that co-stars Amir Blumenfeld and Streeter Seidell protest, accusing their competitor of using another dog. Their allegations are immediately confirmed: While Daisy looks pretty standing on the table, her unkempt sister runs across the frame, revealing Shepard's hoax.

As the actors waited for the cameras to roll, they gave the dogs some treats the Severs had made.

"What's wrong, girl?" Shepard asked Daisy after she refused to eat one of her rewards. "Are you watching your figure?"

When the cameras finally rolled, Blumenfeld hit a button to signal that Shepard's grooming time was up. On the table, Daisy shivered slightly when she heard the loud bang. Seidell said his lines and Shepard followed, vigorously petting Daisy in order to calm her down while he kept acting.

On the sidelines, Mark crouched next to the unkempt Eloise, hugging her gently. Across the set, Long and Delana kneeled with a treat in their hands, awaiting the cue to call Eloise's attention as soon as she was released. When Shepard finished his line, Mark let go and the unruffled pup pranced towards her sister, following an invisible trail of treats that the Severs had planted across the set.

"Crazy Daisy" lowered her gaze. Her inert pom-pomed tail suddenly looked like a metronome on speed as Eloise approached. Outside the camera frame, Long opened her arms in an anticipatory hug, beckoning her client Eloise to forget about the table and exit. For a couple of seconds, the dogs looked at each other, pom-poms wagging and mouths slightly ajar.

"Motorcycle quick change!" Shepard blurted in front of the main camera. His co-stars looked puzzled, just as they were supposed to do, and the director yelled 'Cut!'

Long and the Severs congratulated the dogs. Even though Eloise had not exited when she was supposed to, the director said everything had gone well. Before the second take, Shepard asked Blumenfeld to hit the button more softly, and Daisy seemed more relaxed. Fifteen minutes later, the dogs' first scene was over.

For their second and final scene, the dogs had to stay put on a couch while Shepard spoke, and then left the set on a loud motorcycle. Seidell and Blumenfeld sat on the arms of the couch, each holding one of the poodles' leashes in case the engine's roar scared them.

During the rehearsal, Shepard allowed Eloise to lick his lips. The director loved how that looked and decided that they would start shooting with that action. Seidell seemed appalled by the kissing, which carried on for quite a long time.

"They're getting pretty intimate over here," Delana said raising her thin auburn eyebrows.

"You need to establish some limits," Long said.

"No, Eloise!" Seidell admonished. "He's engaged! He's promised to another one!"

The director urged to Shepard to continue. No one from the production was knew exactly what they wanted the dogs to do. When Long asked if there was anything particular they wanted, the director hinted that he just wanted the dogs to improvise. The pups succeeded, and the second scene was an improvement over the first.

Nearly half an hour later, Daisy and Eloise were resting in their portable homes, done with the day's work. Long and the Severs sat around a table, waiting to be dismissed.

"An animal is sadly considered a prop," Long said. "I never refer to them as props, though." She looked at the crates for a moment. "They are animal talent."