Animal Trainer for Film and Television
Many film reviewers said that in the movie Eight Below, it was the animals who stole the show. The six Siberian Huskies and two Malamutes in the film play sled dogs. For each dog, there were six to eight stunt doubles. Dog trainers worked with the dogs to teach them tricks for their roles in this film. “Animal trainers have a close relationship with the animal actors,” says Rose Ordile, a film and television animal trainer who is the 9Lives Morris the Cat handler.
Ordile has worked on the sets of Eight Below, South of the Border, and other movies and television shows. “Ever since I was eight years old, I knew that I wanted to work with animals,” she says. “The only trouble was that I didn't want to be a veterinarian or vet technician. I wanted to be an animal trainer for TV and films. I grew up watching Lassie, Petticoat Junction, and Green Acres. I told my high school guidance counselor that was what I wanted to be. He said those types of jobs didn't exist. Growing up in New Jersey, we really didn't know about other opportunities working with animals other than vet or vet tech.”
Since she didn't know she could work in film and television with animals, she went for an associate's degree as a veterinary technician, and also majored in art. While at school, someone suggested she study grooming. After graduating, she enrolled in a grooming school in Las Vegas. “There I learned about grooming and coloring techniques,” she says.
While studying to be a groomer, she learned about Moor Park College in California, where students can get a degree in exotic animal training and management. Ordile didn't go to Moor Park, but she did move to California. “The tuition at the time was a bit out of reach,” she says. “But I went to California hoping to get into the film industry. While I was there, I worked as a groomer.”
“I tried to get my foot in the door, but it wasn't easy,” she continues. “Through my work, I met a girl who said she had a friend who was looking for people to ride ostriches in a movie. I called and the producer asked me if I ever rode an ostrich. I told him I was a city girl from New Jersey and New York and the only animal I ever road was a taxi. He laughed and asked me if I could ride horses. That I could do. So, I went down and got the gig. It helped being 103 pounds. They needed lightweight people for that role.”
After that, film work dried up, but she had her grooming business to fall back on. In the meantime, she volunteered on movie sets cleaning kennels. “That was fine with me,” she says. “I was able to meet people and I weaseled my way in as a volunteer. Still, I didn't have steady work.”
When she heard that the same producer was looking for someone to train exotics, she called him. “He asked me if I worked with exotics,” she says. “I told him no, but that I have worked with domestics — just cats and dogs. He said ‘no,’ but I didn't give up. I called him once a week for a few months. He finally gave in. I worked hard and showed that I could do the work.”
Where was Morris the Cat found?
The original Morris was found in a shelter in Hinsdale, Illinois, in 1968. He retired in the late 1970s after working almost 12 years. The second Morris also was a shelter cat. He was discovered at a New England shelter and stepped in as spokescat for 9Lives.
In this business you get jobs through people you know. “You just have to get your foot in the door; then it gets easier,” she says. “The best way to start is to volunteer. Show people that you can do the work — even if that means cleaning kennels. I don't mind that work at all. Actually, I get to spend more time around the animals, and they get to trust me. You can also work as a second or third trainer to the main trainer. Again, you will do some grunt work, but you are getting experience.”
Show business isn't steady. Animal trainers work from production to production. One constant in Ordile's life is working as Morris the Cat's handler. She, Morris, and Morris's double travel the country making live appearances as part of Morris' Million Cat Rescue. The rescue started in September 2006. On their travels, Ordile teaches the public about animal care and the importance of taking care of and adopting shelter cats.
The salaries for animal trainers range from moderate to more than six figures. It depends on where and how often you work. Ordile does well thanks to her work in film, television, and with Morris.
Many animal actors began their lives as strays. Fang, the drooling Neapolitan Mastiff from the Harry Potter movies, was rescued from a junkyard and adopted by his trainer. Max and the six different dogs who played the same role in the film How the Grinch Stole Christmas also were shelter dogs.
Ordile also works as a colorist in Hollywood. As a groomer, she learned a lot about hair color. She creates animal-safe dyes so animal stunt doubles can look like the star. In a film where a zebra befriends a small child, Ordile actually colored a white horse to look like a zebra. “Zebras are ornery,” she says. “They have bad tempers and don't always cooperate.” For this show, she dyed the horse's white coat with black stripes. Voila! a zebra was created. “Animals lick their fur, so I only use my own dyes, which are animal-safe.”
In the film Eight Below, each dog had six stunt doubles. “The dogs are not exactly alike,” she says. “That is where a colorist comes in. You can dye an animal's fur to match the star.” (You can see samples of her work online.) Colorist's salaries are similar to those of animal trainers. Being a certified groomer is a way into the industry. Ordile notes, “The path into this industry is to volunteer and network. You really have to know people.”