Lights! Camera! Animals!
When the script of Sex and the City calls for two dogs, a horse, and a cat trained to run away with an umbilical cord; when Dave Letterman requests his beloved rats; and when Conan O’Brien urgently needs a duck — who you gonna call?
By: Dorothy Noe
For nearly 50 years, this Orange County-based family business has been providing professionally trained animals for movies, TV shows, magazine photo shoots, corporate theme parties in the Hamptons — even the New York City Opera. Their crew of (mostly) cute and clever critters has starred alongside the likes of Sean Connery, Jeremy Irons, Uma Thurman, and James Gandolfini; and taken direction from such hotshots as Francis Ford Coppola, Woody Allen, and Spike Lee. Of course, the animals actually take their cues from one of their trainers, who stands on the sidelines praying that the animals will do their duty. “You do everything you can, but at the end of the day they’re animals and you can’t be 100 percent sure what they’ll do,” says agency co-owner Babette Corelli. “But we always find a way to make it work out.”
When all goes well, the Hollywood celebs often fall head-over-heels in love with their furry costars. After riding Corelli’s horse Denny, David Letterman tried to buy the animal. “He’s an amazing, well-mannered horse,” says the owner, who graciously refused the late-night host’s offer. Then rapper 50 Cent offered her $40,000 for her cat, Teddy Bear. “This cat can do everything — he can sit, stay, come, go, whatever. It was tempting, but he’s my baby,” she says. “I offered to get him another, very similar cat, but he wanted this one. But it would have been like selling my child. I don’t have kids, so these animals are really my babies.”
Corelli’s soft spot for animals comes across loud and clear when you consider the flip side of her business. Since 1974, the agency’s professional animals have worked to support the Sanctuary for Animals, a charity that cares for abandoned and abused animals on their large and scenic farm in Westtown. At any given time, approximately 12 to 15 percent of the 600 animals calling this peaceable kingdom “home” are in the workforce.
The fees earned on location — along with every donated penny — buys the feed, mends the fences, and pays the medical and insurance bills for the sanctuary. It is not, however, a home for just any animal. “For many of the animals rescued or confiscated from zoos and private owners, the sanctuary is the home of last resort where they will live out their lives,” Corelli explains. “Most are unadoptable because of physical or psychological problems and have nowhere else to go. Horses that are lame or blind; dogs that have been used for fighting or have been starved; cats without personalities so they can’t be in a family setting as a pet. We don’t breed our animals, and are very selective about taking pets people simply no longer want.”
The elephant, bear, lions, tigers, ostrich, wolves, birds, and primates are spread over 270 acres and housed in heat- and humidity- controlled barns (for the elephant and primates during the winter months), converted trailers (snakes, rodents, and birds), and super-sized kennels (cats and dogs) with free access to outdoor areas. “Of course, animals that are predators are kept separated,” adds Corelli. “But the herd of camels, horses, cows, ponies, and goats all share a 100-acre field with a barn, stream, and run-in sheds. Another 10-acre field is for the donkeys and zebra, and the elephant has access to 17 acres.”
If there is one thing Babette Corelli knows, it is animals. She was raised with a large collection of critters in the house, including tiger and lion cubs. “We never had any friends over when I was a kid,” she remembers. “I suppose everyone was afraid that something might eat them.” Her mother, Bunny Brook (who worked at a vet’s office) and her aunt, Barbara Austin, founded Dawn Animal Agency in 1959 after Austin received a call from a photographer friend asking if she could train a dog for a photo shoot. He paid her $50, and a new career was born. Babette’s own introduction to the family business occurred at age seven when she was mortified to be dressed “like a boy” while leading a mule on stage at City Opera during a performance of Pagliacci. “I was too young or too stupid to be nervous,” she says of the experience.
Over the years, this niche industry expanded along with the family’s abilities. There was no formal training involved. “Animal training is all about being observant and having common sense,” says Corelli, who now runs the business with her sister Bambi and Bambi’s daughter, Amanda Brook. “While we all train any animal, over the years we have specialized a bit. I enjoy domestic cats and birds, Bambi manages horses and dogs, and Mom handled primates, the big cats, and elephants.” Babette has even trained cockroaches not to run, while Amanda enjoys working with dogs, horses — and rats! “Of course, the 15 rats we trained to scatter on cue for an episode of Law & Order performed better than the actors who needed three takes,” Corelli says. “Along the way, we learned to groom pumas, administer all sorts of medicines, and shear 60 sheep.”
Working in show business, of course, is not all glitz and glamour. With two six-horse vans complete with dressing rooms, a cargo van, a carry truck for equipment, assorted cars, and many trailers, the animals can be brought to almost any location on the East Coast — and there are often multiple events each day. “While the work is always different and interesting,” Corelli allows, “it is not easy. We get many re-shoot assignments because other trainers couldn’t deliver what the director envisioned. When a shoot calls for an orange cat to do something, we’ll train the orange cat but bring another we know can perform the trick as backup. ”
Even with their longtime expertise, the agency is also subject to a host of controls. A local veterinarian visits for a monthly check-up, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture inspects the farm twice a year. The agency holds New York, New Jersey, and federal animal permits, but bringing an animal into the Big Apple nevertheless requires clearance from the Mayor’s Office on Film. “Every time we bring an animal into New York City,” explains Corelli, “we must contact the New York City Health Department.” The American Humane Association monitors film sets, which helps ensure that the animals are treated fairly. “They help us limit the amount of work and stress the animals endure while on location,” she says.
According to Corelli, the pay scale that governs the use of trained animals differs from the east coast to the west. In the east, there is a flat fee with no residuals. Out west, there is an animal trainers’ union and the pricing for trainers is quite different. Before submitting a bill, Corelli must take into consideration training time (which can be days to weeks to months), travel to and from the job, and time spent on location. “Training professional animals is a very competitive field,” she adds. “Today, we have a Web site, but beyond the New York City Film Guide, we still mainly rely on word-of-mouth.”
Besides the five family members, the business employs one full-time employee to man the New York City office, some farm helpers, and per-diem folks as needed. The sanctuary is entirely staffed by volunteers.
As anyone who owns or works with an animal knows, a finely tuned sense of humor is essential. When Corelli considers all the things the agency has done to support the sanctuary, she is the first to laugh.
“We’ve worked at three a.m. on the closed-off streets of New York City. I’ve disguised myself as a page and a peasant to lead animals on sets and stages. Bambi folded herself into a hidden box when they needed a driver-less horse-drawn carriage for the movie Cloverfield. I was giving her directions via an earphone, telling her which way to turn.
And getting 15 horses to trample a dummy for Pink Panther II took a while — because horses, by nature, will do anything to avoid running into something.”
When asked if she goes to the movies to view her handiwork, Corelli concedes, “I don’t have time. I wait for the DVDs.”
Donations in support of the Sanctuary for Animals can be mailed to 38 William Lain Rd., Westtown, New York 10998.