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 "Many animals have been replaced by puppets in modern revivals," he explained recently at the New York Humane Society, where he volunteers as a behavioral consultant.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.