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From handling large exotic cats to 40 farmyard pigs – like he did on Charlotte’s Web - animal trainer (‘not tamer’) Larry Madrid’s agenda is the same: he wants to be able to relate to the animal he is working with, he tells Louise Keller from the big barnyard - Los Angeles.

There were a few gasps of concern from the audience when Wilbur the pig slammed his head into the barnyard fence early on in Charlotte’s Web. Not once, but twice. Ouch! When I asked the film’s animal wrangler, Larry Madrid, how this was done (I assume there is no such thing as Panadol for pigs), he enthused: ‘Wasn’t it great how they made that look?’ He explained that a real pig ran towards the fence, and ran through – even though there was no fence. Seamless computer animation was responsible for the rest of the shot when the fence was added.

His first pet was a beagle at age 6 or 7, but Madrid’s interest in animals was no more than that of ‘a normal person’ until he got a job at an amusement park after graduation. It was a summer time job and his first encounter working with exotic hoof stock and wild animals. After jumping around from job to job, the amusement park wanted him back because their staff had changed and he was the only one who knew how to take care of the animals which comprised large exotic cats, bears, hoof stock, buffalo and bisen.

“Does that mean you are an animal tamer, rather than an animal trainer?” I ask with a smile in my voice, but Madrid puts me straight quickly: “I’m a trainer. You can’t really train wild animals.” The phone line to Los Angeles is clean and crisp and he is softly spoken with a calm manner. A degree of calmness is no doubt required to keep those tigers, bears and more recently those cute little pigs in check. Madrid is one of Hollywood’s most sought after trainers, working at California’s Birds and Animals Unlimited, where he has worked for the past 20 years. It was his uncle Jack Lilly (horseman, wrangler, stuntman) who had put his name forward, knowing they were looking for someone with wild animal experience when setting up a live animal show at Universal Studios. Since 1984, he has worked on over two dozen major Hollywood titles including films such as Wag the Dog, That Darn Cat, George of the Jungle, Harry Potter, 102 Dalmatians, Garfield and Anchor Man.

“I was looking for work at the time - 1984 – my boss Gary Drew was putting together a live animal show at Universal Studios and because I had had experience at the Amusement park with my uncle Jack, horseman, wrangler stuntman from way back, knew Gary, from working on Little House on the Prairie, looking for someone with wild animal experience because he was looking to staff.”

"to relate with the animal I am working with"

When asked which is the most difficult animal he has ever worked with, Madrid explains that every animal presents a challenge. “The biggest thing for me is to be able to relate with the animal I am working with at the time,” he says. “As far as the most difficult. That’s kinda a tough question.” When it comes to Charlotte’s Web, Madrid says “I’ll be honest with you. The most difficult animals to train were the dogs.” What a surprise. I had visions of a temperamental pig on set, or a goose that is upstaging the gander. But not a dog. It seems the dogs were on the stubborn side, and the challenge was to try to get them to be happy to be working in front of the camera. How to win them over? “Time spent; positive reinforcement; consistency,” says Madrid. “I had to treat them as though they were wild animals. We worked on doing the same thing, setting up every shot carefully, to ensure the best chance for success.”

There were 40 pigs who played the lead role of Wilbur. ‘On a busy day, we might bring 10 pigs on set,’ he recalls. How can you keep a consistence of performance with a pig? ‘That’s basically what our job is,’ Madrid says. ‘It’s a matter of co-ordinating the efforts of the trainers, working out the schedule of production and being ready. It is not easy.’

As our conversation continues and we start to talk about specific animals, Madrid relaxes and laughs. Especially when he starts recounting anecdotes and scenes that went especially well. He remembers the scenes when the little pig plays in the water as being fun – when he gets thrown in the pond and has to swim out. ‘That was real cute,’ he smiles.

But of course, there were some animals that Madrid did NOT work with. Those created by CGI. There was no input to the spider that was voiced by Julia Roberts, nor the rat; the studio had decided early in the piece that a CGI rat would be used, voiced by Steve Buscemi. All the rest of the animals performed as a result of the animal training, enhanced by computer graphics and animation when talking.

"It was very challenging"

Madrid spent 12 weeks in Australia (his first trip) getting ready for camera. ‘It was very challenging, very hard. I loved the story, loved the people. Loved Australia. It was a really tough show for everybody and fun to be in the situation, putting out a product that we will all be proud of.’

Since working on Charlotte’s Web, Madrid has worked on the sets of Premonition with Sandra Bullock, Enchanted with Amy Adams and Susan Sarandon, and is currently doing a couple of sitcoms and a couple of TV drams. ‘I did some work in Santa Fe on the set of Russell Crowe’s new movie, 3:10 to Yuma,’ he says. ‘There were some shots with a hawk.’ (It’s a remake of the 1957 Western starring Glenn Ford and Van Heflin, directed by Delmer Daves, adapted from an Elmore Leonard novel. The remake is directed by James Mangold, with Christian Bale in the Van Heflin role.)

When he leaves the set, are there animals to greet him at home? ‘Oh yeah,’ he says with enthusiasm. ‘I have 3 or 4 dogs, 3 cats, a couple of pigeons, a starling, a crow, some canaries, a small ball python (in an aquarium in his house)… I keep a lot of stuff here. I love it because I get to love all different kinds of animals.’

Published December 14, 2006

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Larry Madrid and friend - at home

Charlotte's Web Australian release December 7, 2006.

..on set with Wilbur the Pig, Dakota Fanning and director Gary Winick

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