Monday, April 4, 2011

ONE WITH THE ANIMALS by Christopher Moore

Starting out on this gloomiest and cold of days I knew even the drizzle could not ruin this day for me. I picked up a new friend who I wanted to set out on this adventure with me. Coffee in hand, satellite tuned in to some good music, navigation telling me to tread south; we were on the road. Conversation for the drive was about Sunday drives, but this was Saturday and I was excited about what was in store for us. The navigation spouting off turns and commands making us completely miss our destination but I had a co-pilot, and she immediately took the helm and found this hacienda de los Lobos.

We were first greeted by a three legged dog and my thoughts went to “what did I get me and my co-pilot into?” Soon we met up with one of the trainers Matt Martin who quickly pointed out how the inauspicious canine lost his foot. Just as I suspected, a small run in with a wolf, but wait we were here to see these very malicious wolves ourselves, and would meet the same fate? Soon out of the woods comes a tall brunette named Tracy Oliver who quickly moved over to a cage with 3 wolves and she goes right to work, no play, with these callous creatures. I was asked to step right into the cage of death and that is where my thoughts changed. Why is this wolf licking me, and why is this wolf lying down and letting me scratch its belly? Also, why is it that my co-pilot is outside the cage where it is safe? I had it all wrong; these animals were gentile, much like a playful Fido. That was no mistake; they were trained by the best, Sid Yost and fellow trainers, Matt, Tracy, and JJ Engel. I could tell these animals were trained with love and respect.

Sid Yost is no stranger to animals he owns Amazing Animal Productions which owns the animals and holds the licensing for the animals in Louisiana and Animal Actors Worldwide which handles agency work and the locally and federally licensing. Both companies’ affection train studio animals for motion picture and television production and Sid, Tracy JJ, and Matt do just that; train and love.

To understand how Sid got to this ranch in North West Louisiana I must first backtrack to his humble beginnings. It has been a long road for Sid who got his start when he decided to write the first book in 1977 on ferrets called “What’s a Ferret” and introduced ferrets to the United States which made him responsible for the indoor ferret craze in America. Some call Sid “the father of ferrets”. A short time after Sid’s love of animals convinced him to buy a ranch in Colorado and he went a little bigger. He bought his first two African lions for pets. A local store owner and friend asked if he would consider putting the lions in a water bed store commercial. The owner, who was a friend, was not doing so well at the time so Sid said he would help because that is the kind of guy he is. Within a couple of years the friend had a dozen stores because the lions were in all of his commercials and a light bulb went off in Sid’s head. Around the same time Sid got a call from Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom, Marlin Perkins and Jim Fowler to train animals with them and do some shows which Sid welcomed; the stars had aligned.

This had a snowball effect for Sid, and before he knew it he had over 80 animals and a full private zoo with lions, tigers, bears and wolves. While training his animals at his zoo, he soon got a call from the largest animal movie companies in Los Angeles called “Gentle Jungle” who bought him out to California in the early 1980’s to bring his training skills to train their animals. Sid became one of the top 10 trainers in the country. He was a working trainer for years in California though the competition for animals in film was fierce so Sid wanted to make a move.

The tax incentives then made Sid think about taking his experience somewhere else and Louisiana seemed like a good move. He and his trainers were brought out by ABC and FOX for the short lived series The Gates and for six months they worked their wolves’ deer and birds of prey. Even though the show did not make it Sid and his trainers fell in love with the area and the people so they decided to make it home. Since Louisiana was a virtual untapped market and they were getting offers from major movie productions, commercials and television shows it seemed like a good move.

Now back present day, Amazing Animal Productions is the only full service animal company in Louisiana. This move has kept them moving from one film to the next nonstop since their arrival. Some of the industry top crew has moved to Louisiana and this has allowed Sid to work with some of the best.

My favorite part of the day and I believe my co-pilot would agree, was getting to watch the six wolf pups that were six weeks old get their first real taste of food other than their mothers teat. They were gentle and sweet and it was hard to imaging in no time these would be the future wolves you will be watching in some movie starring Nicolas Cage or “place said actor’s name here”. We also got to meet a few other animals like a trained fox? Yes, I said it, a trained fox that also does a real treat to its own food, but we will not talk about that right now. Trained birds, they have them too, crows, a falcon, a hawk this place has it all.

Of course my morbid curiosity goes straight to the thoughts of scars on the trainers. Sid does this with passion and has paid for it dearly. He was a pioneer in training that always comes with a price. There were no books written on training wild animals so you learn by mistakes. 100 bites later he says he has not been bitten in the past 10 years. His wounds would include 3 fingers sewn back on after a bite from an African lion. He has been picked up by a 10 foot Kodiak bear and thrown against a wall leaving puncture wounds in his shoulder. Sid has endured a bite from an alligator doing a Kodak commercial which left him with 72 stitches in the back of his leg but he says that comes with the job. I am doing an interview and I have not been bitten once, my job must be much less dangerous or they have something in store for me. Not only do they train the animals they also do all the stunts with the animals, which must include bites and scratches. Amazing Animal trainers has 8 trainers right now who also work as stunt double’s who take “Hits” which is anytime someone on film is attacked or brutalized by an animal.

The list of animals that Sid handles are Lions, Tigers, wolves, bears, elephants, giraffes, camels, zebras and all kinds of horses and virtually any other kind of animal you can think of. The only thing that Sid does not work with is Killer whales and dolphins; they just don’t work with Marine life. If they don’t have it they can get it and train it. “One of the things about the animal business is that you may not own all the animals but you better know where to get them. Some animals have to have special permits and so you have to know the people who own them and have the permits to have them to get here. One example is we get a lot of calls for penguins which require special permits as do otters.”

Amazing Animals can be seen in Cowboys and Aliens, Bless me Ultima, Book of Eli, Spy Next Door, TheCourier, Season of the Witch, Transit, Haunting in Georgia, Contraband, Year One, The Gates, and the Jack Ass movies. In addition, there is great interest in a pilot show for Sid one being the Real Animal House that is being shopped around. There is always great interest in Amazing Animals because of the fact that they put their life on the line everyday with these animals and that when they have free time they like to spend their time goofing around and “punking” others while on the set and off. The team also just got the green light for 13 episodes to be filmed on the ranch and on set which should be a real treat for everyone; I know it will be a treat for me because I found some new friends at Amazing Animals. Not only did they make me and my co-pilot feel more than welcome they gave us some new understanding of what it is they do, not just train animals, but show you how to interact with wildlife and humans alike.

The tax incentives were secondary to coming to Louisiana. They were already in four other states they were working in with incentives before they moved into Louisiana. Sid will admit in some states the incentives have not worked. In some states they offer incentives and then they just give you an IOU. “Louisiana is a little different what they mean is what they say.” He says they are honest and their integrity is that what they say is what you get. That is what is brining the business into the state. The Gates got them here, but the people kept them here. They love filming in Louisiana because you can be anywhere in the state within 6 hours. They love working with the film offices that really take care of them and the wildlife fish and game who help them as well.

Sid still says the favorite part of his job is that he is an above average animal lover and he loves training with his animals through the method he developed over 30 years called “affection training” using love patience, calmness, consistency, with mutual understanding and respect. Working with his animals and teaching others to work with his animals. Working on the set is great also but coming home and working with his animals with no pressure is still his favorite part. You can tell the love that is between the animals and the trainers, I felt at real peace once I got to know each of the animals that they train and that is exactly what they do; make you feel the same as they do.

“We are always looking for interns and volunteers; it takes about 140 plus hours to train someone the skills.” They would like also to join a union which at this point does not recognize them. One of the biggest things Sid wants production companies to know is that Hollywood does not need to bring the animals from California. “We have everything you need here. We have the animals locally and in the state, and we can help Hollywood who is coming out here to take advantage of the tax incentives to give them a honest reason to use us as the local company as part of their tax incentives. Let us be the local company you hire. We will provide the same expertise and we deliver results, not excuses.”

As me and my co-pilot loaded up the car for our venture back to the real world, I realized I did not go to Amazing Animals for just an interview and a couple of snap shots. I went to meet real nice people who train animals and who have a passion for what they do. I was taught by the trainers about each and every animal that I met and found out about each their individual personalities and quirks. As for me, I think in one single great day, the bad weather did not matter, the cold did not matter, the warmth from that trip me and my co-pilot had experienced made us one with the animals, if only for a day.

Amazing Animal Productions

Sid Yost

Story by Christopher Moore

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