• Washington Post

Animal Actors are on Strike, too. These are their Stories.

Photo for The Washington Post by Philip Cheung
Kelly Capponcelli, the manager of Phil’s Animal Rentals, feeds a reindeer at the ranch in Piru, Calif., on Aug. 4.

The human actors aren’t the only performers who are out of work.

Jack, a water buffalo who was born on the set of the film “Tropic Thunder,” has been turned out to pasture, where he spends his days chasing away people from a nearby campground who trespass onto his ranch.

Zora, a calico who works in Atlanta’s fast-growing film industry, is taking cat-food-modeling jobs in Tennessee. Luke and Little John, two actor raccoons, are spending their days outside of Los Angeles, hanging out by the pool. (It’s a kiddie pool, but still.)

The Rottweilers who star alongside Jeff Bridges in FX’s “The Old Man” – Freya, Fury, Creed and Cain – are staying busy with walks, fetch and games.

“If a Rottweiler gets bored, it’s not a good thing, because what they’ll do is chew and destroy your life,” says Sarah Clifford, their owner and trainer. (They have already chewed the mud flaps off her Toyota 4Runner.)

Much has been written about the ancillary players – the caterers, florists, costume-makers, prop masters and so on – who are dealing with the repercussions of this summer’s dual Hollywood strikes by screen actors and writers. Their concerns about how they’re going to pay their rent are shared by the industry’s animal trainers and handlers, who face an additional burden: Their animals still have to eat, too. They still have to go to the vet. They still need to be bathed and groomed. On their ranches – some of which have hundreds of thespian animals – they still need to pay for utilities, caretakers and permits.

Mr. Pickles, a lineolated parakeet who recently played the role of a woman’s reincarnated dead husband in a student film, has taken the break as an opportunity to focus on her family. Turns out she’s actually Ms. Pickles, and she has been laying eggs.

Instead of prepping to shoot a third season of the “Sex and the City” reboot, the bulldog who plays Richard Burton, Charlotte’s dog on the show, is “sleeping, snoring and farting, basically,” says trainer Bill Berloni.

The animal folk of Hollywood are finding themselves in a double bind. Artistically, they’re more aligned with the actors, stunt performers and puppeteers who are members of the Screen Actors Guild-American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (SAG-AFTRA). But trainers and handlers who work on the West Coast are, like film-industry drivers, eligible for membership in the Teamsters union, in part because they are responsible for transporting their animals. Not only are they taking a financial hit from their animals being out of work, but they also won’t earn protections in the contract that eventually emerges from the strike – because they aren’t members of SAG-AFTRA.

“Although we’re paying the price for being down during the strike period, it’s not going to benefit me at all,” says Teresa Ann Miller, a second-generation animal trainer who has worked on the films “Babe,” “A Dog’s Way Home” and “The Art of Racing in the Rain.” (Her father, Karl Miller, was the dog trainer for “Cujo” and “Beethoven.”)

The concerns of striking humans affect their animal counterparts, too. Human actors are trying to prevent studios from capturing their likenesses and using them in perpetuity via artificial intelligence, and this is something the animal handlers have been battling for years in the form of computer-generated imagery, or CGI.

Photo for The Washington Post by Philip Cheung
Capponcelli cares for flamingos at the Phil’s Animal Rentals ranch.

Kelly Capponcelli manages a large ranch outside of Los Angeles with a variety of animals, including horses, pigs, Jack the water buffalo, and exotic birds, including flamingos. (“You can’t really train a flamingo,” she says. “You kind of have to wrangle a flamingo.”) In better days, her reindeer would be working on holiday films right now.

“Christmas movies don’t use reindeer as much anymore,” she says. “Nobody has a budget anymore these days.” The reindeer are spending their summer cooling off in her sprinklers.

“It’s very, very sad, because there is an art to what we do. Just like there is an art with the actors,” says Megan-Kate Hoover, an animal trainer based out of Cincinnati who worked on “Hillbilly Elegy.” “I mean, can you imagine ‘Homeward Bound’ with AI animals? . . . You’re going to miss the connection of what that animal can do to bring that scene to life, and to put the heart in it.” (Outside of the industry, advocacy groups such as People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals see AI and CGI as tools to eliminate the use of animal acting, which they allege is animal cruelty.)

And those paltry residual checks the humans have been sharing? The animals and their handlers have it worse. There are typically no residuals paid out to handlers and owners, even if the movie is centered on a trained animal as the main character.

“The dog’s on the poster,” Berloni says. “Zero. Zilch. Nothing.”

Animals are rented at a day rate, often around $500. (Exotic animals can cost more.) Animal handlers and trainers are additionally paid a minimum hourly rate. For those working on West Coast-based projects, the rate is set by their Teamsters contracts – typically somewhere between $40 and $70 an hour, depending on the type of animal. They are compensated for travel, but only some projects pay for the hours of preparatory training, trainers say.

“We’ll be standing on a set, working for $500 a day,” Berloni says, “where the [human] extra standing next to me is making twice as much. And we’re a specialized entity.”

Clifford recalled her experience working as the trainer for Uggie the Jack Russell terrier on the set of the 2011 film “The Artist,” a foreign flick with an approximately $15 million budget.

Because of a grueling commute and schedule, Clifford says, “all the money that I had made on the movie, which was very little money, went to fixing my car,” which broke down during filming.

Then the film got picked up by the Weinstein Company and won best picture at the Academy Awards, where Uggie – by then a major canine star – walked the red carpet. “The Artist” grossed more than $133 million.

“I was like, ‘Man, it would have been nice to see a little bit of that money, you know?'” Clifford says.

There is a subtle aura of bitterness among the 11 handlers and trainers interviewed by The Washington Post, even though they support the strikes and would not cross the picket lines.

“We don’t make what the writers make,” says trainer and wrangler Alison Smith. “It’s rough to feel like, as Teamsters, that we’re fighting for the writers, but I know a lot of Teamsters are wondering, ‘Would the writers fight for us?’ We feel like we need it more.”

And the bills are coming soon. Owning animal performers is an expensive endeavor.

Capponcelli estimates it costs about $60,000 a month to maintain the more than 200 animals at the ranch she manages. The hay bill alone is $16,000, she says. Benay Karp spends $12,000 a month to care for her vast menagerie, which includes raccoons, coyotes, mockingbirds, woodpeckers, squirrels, prairie dogs and two skunks, one of whom is named Stinkerbelle.

Clifford’s Great Dane Rhino, who has appeared on the children’s show “Mutt & Stuff,” fell ill two weeks ago and needed a $16,000 emergency surgery to save his life. She had to start a GoFundMe campaign to raise the money.

Because they have fewer opportunities for work even in normal times – many productions do not use live animals at all – trainers and handlers are concerned that they will not be able to work the 400 hours required (per six-month qualifying period) to maintain their health insurance. (The Teamsters is granting extensions, according to a spokesperson.)

Just like the humans, the animal actors can do some types of work without crossing a picket line. They can work on independent or student films that aren’t connected to studios. They can do live performances and commercials, and model for still photographs. But none of these pays as well or offers any sort of long-term pay.

If they can’t scrounge up enough work, the financial strain of a double crisis – covid, and now this – means “some people will just quit entirely,” says Nicholas Toth, a second-generation trainer of big cats and exotic animals who decided to re-home many of his animals after earlier coronavirus shutdowns dried up much of his work.

Berloni and one of his dogs, a mixed-breed terrier, are in the Berkshires, working on a new musical titled “On Cedar Street” that has Broadway ambitions. He is being paid $300 a week.

Karp is hoping for work from international films.

April Gray, Zora the cat’s owner and trainer in Atlanta, just did a pet-food-modeling gig – “the only job we’ve had this month,” she says.

Hoover, the trainer in Cincinnati, is working a side gig as a dog walker and trainer while also trying to line up work with an exotic animal sanctuary.

Some trainers are taking on private clients for non-thespian pet training – which, not to be snooty, is a little like having Stella Adler direct your kid’s school play.

Todd Forsberg’s horses have worked on the HBO series “Westworld.” During the strikes, he’ll be booking children’s birthday parties, where his white pony, Arkas, will play the role of unicorn, fake horn and all.

“He likes his job,” Forsberg says. “He gets petted. People get to look at him.”

And that’s what’s important, the trainers say: keeping their animals ready for the limelight. They’re spending this down time reinforcing skills and keeping them socialized, so they’ll be ready to be on set as soon as the strikes are over. But how many bills will come before then?

The animals are “not just money to us. They’re all our best friends,” Capponcelli says. “Unless we get rid of animals, which I’m not willing to do, there is no backup plan. So, basically, they’ll eat before any of us.”