15 fascinating things about animal actors, from dogs and cockroaches to the penguin who was fired out of a cannon

Animal ‘actors’ are often remembered long after their human co-stars. Flora Watkins meets people who’ve worked with ravens, stags, dogs, horses–and cockroaches.

Anything and everything can – and has – been trained

Animal trainer Julie Tottman runs Birds & Animals UK, the British arm of a Hollywood agency, from her farm in Hertfordshire – she’s been working in the industry for many years and has even written a couple of books of tips, Superstar Dogs and Superstar Cats.

Highlights of her impressive CV include training the puppies for 101 and 102 Dalmatians, Blofeld’s fluffy white cat in Spectre, ravens for Game of Thrones and the collie for the 2005 remake of Lassie. ‘We do dogs, cats, reptiles, rodents, deer, cows, foxes,’ she says, ‘lots of birds – ravens, owls, seagulls – and even ants.’

The toughest animals to train? Owls

Forget the image of the wise old owl – it turns out that these birds of prey are completely bird-brained. ‘They’re not the brightest,’ sighs Miss Tottman, who coached owls to deliver letters for the Harry Potter films, a job which took four months to get right – and which the creatures only got the hang of at the last minute. ‘You’d think they’d got it after a few weeks, then you go in the next day and no.’

The ‘dogs of the sky’ are ravens – so long as you keep the sandwiches out of the way

In striking contrast to the owls, the ravens used in Game of Thrones – who also deliver letters – were a breeze to work with. ‘Ravens are like dogs,’ says Miss Tottmann. ‘They’ll get it in a couple of days.’

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They’re not infallible, though: Game of Thrones has to have a no-food policy on set because the ravens are so rapacious. ‘They’d see a runner come in with a plate of sandwiches and the next minute, they’d be landing and having a party.’

Even cockroaches can be ‘trained’

Edd Lukas, a Los Angeles-based cinematographer, recalls his first day on a film set, when, as a production assistant, he was put in charge of a plastic ice-cream tub full of African cockroaches. ‘They’re big and brown and shake and hiss at you while you’re holding them, so your hands vibrate,’ he recalls, his shudder palpable even down the phone line from California. ‘My job was to put them on some dirty plates, then the camera would track along them and the cockroaches would scuttle off and hide. After each take, I’d have to re-set the plates, let go of the cockroaches and get my hands out of sight as quickly as possible.’

The penguin who got fired out of a cannon

Mr Lukas once had to fire a penguin out of a cannon for a short film. ‘We did this with smoke and mirrors,’ he assures me, lest I worry the penguin had been mistreated.

‘You may think they’re pretty cute, but they’re fairly aggressive creatures. I’d have to take my light meter up to the birds to take readings and they’d attack it every time. They pooped every eight minutes, too – and it was projectile.’

‘Cannon? No fear, I’m off!’

The dog who jumped through a window

Penguins aren’t the only animals who’ve had terrifying stunts to perform: Miss Tottmann taught a doberman to jump through a sugar-glass window for 2002’s Resident Evil.

The final danger for actors: animals stealing the show

Cheetah the chimp acted Johnny Weissmuller off the screen in the ‘Tarzan’ films, and a review of The Belstone Fox (1973) (on which Disney’s The Fox and the Hound was based) declared: ‘Hats off to the trainers and technical experts who let the animals steal the show.’

The incredible animals who took over the actors’ and directors’ lives

Born Free, the classic 1966 film about the plight of Africa’s lions, left an indelible mark on the lives of those who made it. Director James Hill concluded that working with Elsa the lioness affected his career so profoundly that he later ‘lost interest in any subject other than animals’. According to The Independent, nearly all of his later films, which included Black Beauty (1971) and The Belstone Fox, were, in effect, ‘feature-length wildlife documentaries held together by token human narratives’.

He wasn’t alone. Both the human stars of Born Free, Virginia McKenna (pictured both below and at the top of the page) and Bill Travers, were so deeply affected by their close contact with lions that they set up the Born Free Foundation in 1984 to promote conservation.

The dangers of Downton Abbey’s animals – particularly when there are sausage rolls around

In 2010 Caroline Daplyn was asked to ride side-saddle in hunting scenes for a then-new television series called Downton Abbey. She had her hands full controlling Luigi – a splendid grey gelding borrowed from Chiddingfold, Leconfield and Cowdray master Tim Lee – during multiple takes galloping downhill. ‘By the third take, I’d lost all my brakes and steering and Luigi took me straight through some trees and half my veil came off,’ she recalls. ‘If you watch carefully, you’ll see one of the men has lost his top hat and comes down the hill sitting in front of his saddle.’

Even trickier, though, were the tribulations of the actors tasked with handing out nibbles. Miss Daplyn remembers ‘laughing a lot’ at the meet scene: ‘the servants – people like Thomas [the footman] – were handing round sausage rolls and Port, but they weren’t used to hounds, which, of course, were jumping up. By the time we got to the end, we’d had to do so many takes that one guy had eaten nine pieces of cake.’

Training dogs is just as much fun as you’d think – and the bond can be incredible

Food, Miss Tottman explains, is often used to train animals – although with dogs, a ball sometimes works best. ‘My favourite [job] was 102 Dalmatians,’ she says. ‘I was the head puppy trainer, so was paid just to play with these lovely spotty puppies for about six months.’

Some of her best dogs, she discloses, have been rescue cases: ‘They’ve seen the bad and, when they come to us and life’s wonderful, the relationship they make with you is incredible.’ The training, she stresses, must always be ‘super-positive for the animals – and fun’.

Even animals have stunt doubles

On a big film, Miss Tottman may train three or four animals to play one part so that if one is tired, or having an off day, a stand-in can deputise for them. Over the years, she’s had a total of nine mastiffs playing the part of Fang, Hagrid’s dog in ‘Harry Potter’.

That’s far from unique. The kestrel in Kes (1969) was played by three birds, named Freeman, Hardy and Willis after the shoe shop. And Mij the otter, immortalised in Ring of Bright Water (1969), was actually played by American animals. The otters were supplied by Mabel and Tom Beecham of Wisconsin, who’d starred in a Disney production, An Otter in the Family.

Health and safety is never, ever forgotten

Mary Gordon-Watson (now Low) lent her Olympic gold-medal-winning mount Cornishman V to Dead Cert (1974), the Tony Richardson film of Dick Francis’s first novel, in which he got to jump Grand National fences with the amateur jockey and racing journalist John Oaksey. During one scene in which the hero is being chased, the pair had to jump in and out of a level crossing and over a taxi. ‘He’d tackled all kinds of funny things during his eventing career, so probably thought the car looked like a weird showjump,’ says Mrs Low. But the taxi itself was actually made of plywood.

Dead Cert (Pic: Woodfall/Kobal/Rex/Shutterstock)

Dead Cert (Pic: Woodfall/Kobal/Rex/Shutterstock)

Safety is paramount for Camilla Naprous of stunt team The Devil’s Horsemen. She’s horse mistress for Game of Thrones, choreographing the dramatic battle scenes. ‘The horses do all the falls and rears – the only thing CGI does is things that aren’t physic-

ally possible or would involve putting a horse in danger, which I could never do,’ she says, explaining that when the horses fall, they have 3ft-deep sand to land on and that they only do a maximum of three falls a day, ‘because it’s all about them and making sure they’re happy’.

Sellotaping antlers onto stags

No stags were harmed in the making of the 1986 fantasy film Highlander, although Martha Bryce, whose parents run Reediehill Deer Farm in Fife, remembers some jiggery-pokery was needed to meet the producers’ requirements. ‘They wanted a stag with a huge set of antlers to thrash them around during a scene in which Sean Connery and Christopher Lambert were fighting on the beach,’ she recalls. There was just one problem: filming took place early in the year, when stags’ antlers have fallen off.

They managed to attach some antlers to a docile stag and blended them in with boot polish. ‘Remarkably, they got their shot of it thrashing its antlers – probably because it was trying to get them off. As it got to the brow of the hill, one fell off and it ran away.’


Animals can act, but they won’t talk on demand

The answer to this conundrum? Animal impersonator Percy Edwards, who has saved producers a fortune over the years. His credits include the titular star of The Belstone Fox, a husky dog in Call of the Wild (1973) and Peter O’Toole’s parrot in Man Friday (1976). He was also the voice of the chestbuster in Ridley Scott’s Alien (1979)