WEEKEND — Animal-star trainer to speak Saturday

By Charlie Bermant
Peninsula Daily News

CHIMACUM — An animal trainer who has worked with creatures in a variety of high-profile Hollywood movies will talk about his life's work Saturday.

Gary Gero will appear at 7 p.m. at the Chimacum High School auditorium, 91 West Valley Road.

Admission is $15 for adults and $7 for children younger than 12. All proceeds will go to the Port Townsend Film Institute.

Gero, 66 — who started his own company, Birds and Animals Unlimited, in Lake Forest, Calif., in 1964 — is now semi-retired and living in the San Juan Islands.

He said attitudes toward animals on movie sets have changed since he began his career.

“In the 1960s, the animal trainers had a totally different outlook,” he said.

“With this generation of animal trainers, there is no one on the set who is more concerned with the safety and the comfort of the animals. The trainers are on their side,” he added.

Gero said the change is generational but that the efforts of watchdog groups concerned with animal safety “have helped a lot.”

Film credits

Over the years, Gero's company has provided dog, cats, birds, alligators, zebras and even flies for such films as 1996's “101 Dalmatians,” “Eight Below,” “Batman Returns,” “Never Cry Wolf,” “Casino Royale” and others.

He also worked on seven of the eight Harry Potter movies, training the animals portraying Hedwig the owl, Fang the dog and Scabbers the rat, among others.

Gero said animals “acting” in movies face a casting process that can be as stringent as that for humans.

“They first need to have the right look,” he said.

“Then, they need to be comfortable in new situations and with people they haven't met before,” he continued.

“They need to be able to get along with strangers, so you need to see how they react to people.”

This casting rule applies to domestic animals such as cats, dogs and horses, all of whom can be plucked from obscurity or an animal shelter to find themselves starring in a movie.

Wild animals, such as deer and raccoons, are bred in captivity and become accustomed to human contact from birth.

“You couldn't take a deer off the streets of Port Townsend and put them in a movie in the same way that you couldn't trap a deer in the San Juans and put it in Port Townsend,” he said.

“The Port Townsend deer know how to deal with traffic, while the deer who didn't grow up there won't know what to do,” he added.

Patience necessary

Gero said effective animal training requires a lot of patience.

Occasionally, there is a breakthrough — but that usually comes after months of work that is based on positive reinforcement, he said.

“You spend time with each of them, go away, come back and spend more time with them,” he said.

“You need to be happy with taking little tiny steps.”

He said it was a rewarding but not lucrative occupation.

“This is not a high-paying career,” he said.

“You can work on a big-budget movie where the pay is quite good, but there are long periods of time when nothing much happens,” he added.

Since the 1990s, Gero had lived part time in the San Juans, spending most of his time traveling around the world to movie sets and his company's animal installations.

After slowing down in 2009, he still makes periodic visits to these facilities in California, Florida and England. A facility in Japan recently was closed.

Wooden boat owner

As a wooden boat enthusiast and owner, he spends a lot of time in Port Townsend and is always in town for the annual Wooden Boat Festival.

Gero's presentation Saturday will include a description of his job as well as stories about the most notable animals and actors he has met during his career.

He won't be bringing any furry friends.

“Sorry, there will be no animals there but me,” he said.

Tickets are available online at www.ptfilmfest.com and at Quimper Sound, 230 Taylor St., Port Townsend.

________

Jefferson County Reporter Charlie Bermant can be reached at 360-385-2335 or at charlie.bermant@peninsuladailynews.com.

Last modified: November 15. 2012 9:40PM
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