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BJORK, DIMITI: Animal Wrangler

Animal film stars donít have crazy hotel room demands, they donít ride in limos and they donít talk back at the director, but they are stars nonetheless: but they do have agents Ė they are called wranglers. BRAD GREEN visited Creatures on call on the outskirts of Sydney to talk to the wrangler who can wrangle anything from an emu to a lion (soon).

The emu is not the most even-tempered of creatures. Most emus are highly-strung, frequently stressed and easily startled. It is not a personality profile that suggests an aptitude for the bright lights, cameras and action of a film studio. But what if someone wants to make a movie starring an emu, or even film a scene with essential emu extras? Who they gonna call? Ghostbusters? Not likely. This is a job for an animal wrangler.

"Wrangler" is a term used in North America to describe a person who herds cattle or horses; it is believed to have been derived from the Mexican Spanish "caballerango", which means "groom", and is commonly used as an alternative to "cowboy". In the film industry, however, the wrangler is nothing short of cowboy/girl, animal trainer, animal handler and animal psychologist all rolled into one. To be precise, when an animal is used on a film set, it is the animal wrangler who is responsible for its care and control.

"never work with children or animals"

Anyone who has ever been entertained by the cute, unpredictable, clever and mischievous antics of animal screen-stars can thank the wranglers that the old showbiz saw: "never work with children or animals" doesnít get taken too seriously.

But back to emus. New South Wales-based animal wrangler, Dimity Bjork, is introducing me to her own quartet of these fine-feathered flightless birds. Despite their nervy dispositions, and with a little help from some CGI wizardry, these emus have been seen in a recent Australian television commercial engaged in deep conversation with one another . . . on the subject of sheep cloning of all things.

"Yeah, itís a funny ad," says Bjork, "and Iím really pleased with the results, especially considering Iíd only had the emus for a couple of months before the shoot. The emus are only fifteen-months-old now, and were already a year old when I got them. Because theyíre so easily stressed theyíre a difficult bird to work with and much more so if you havenít had them since they were babies."

Bjork and her husband Richard run Creatures On Call, which supplies and trains a great diversity of animals for the film and television industries. "Working with a variety of animals is really interesting to me," Bjork comments. "Since we started exclusively servicing the film and television industries in 1994 weíve supplied dogs and cats, rats and mice, ducks and geese, horses and cattle, and then the more exotic animals like monkeys, camels, buffalo, emus, and lots of other birds like parrots and cockatoos. Actually, I particularly enjoy working with birds, and just earlier today I was out at the airport to pick up my first kookaburra."

Home to the Bjorks and their animals is a 10-acre property at Bargo. Itís a 90 minute drive south-west of Sydney, but the farm atmosphere makes it feel like itís a million light years away. The ensemble of squawks, barks and cackles that greeted my arrival were a pleasant contrast to the cacophony of motor vehicles with which Iíd been assailed on the M5-highway, and the air is a sweet mix of country soil and recent rain. In fact, it was pouring cats and dogs (sorry, couldnít resist) on my way down but has thankfully cleared up just in time to enable a tour of Bjorkís "menagerie of movie stars".

"If the animal trusts you ... you know youíll be able to train it .. for a particular scene,"

After visiting the emus, we move on to King Marcus, an 11-year-old Clydesdale. His broad pale nose and hirsute fetlocks may not be the markings of a thoroughbred, but he lives up to his regal name with the dignified, amiable bearing he presents as he plods up to say hello. Heís smart too. "Iíve trained him to fetch a tennis ball, much like a dog," notes Bjork. "Of course, there isnít always a call for that sort of thing," she adds laughing. Alas, it is the lot of any thespian-inclined Clydesdale to be somewhat typecast and King Marcusí most recent assignment comprised ploughing a paddock for a scene in "Mumbo Jumbo" Ė a new telemovie starring Rhys Muldoon.

In all, there are over 70 animals on the property and Bjorkís ability to maintain a unique, individual relationship with many of them is quite uncanny.

"If the animal trusts you and responds to you and is trained properly from the beginning, then you know youíll be able to train it to do whatever might be required for a particular scene," she says. "The most important aspect of animal training for this sort of work is ensuring that the animal basically knows how to learn. Iíve always had fun getting animals to do weird things just for the sake of it Ė a horse fetching a tennis ball or a monkey riding a horse. Mostly, however, Iíll train them for a specific job. Almost all the training I do is based on ĎOperate Conditioningí, or ĎPositive Re-enforcementí Ė the animal is rewarded for doing whatís wanted but if it doesnít do what it should itís simply ignored, not punished."

Which isnít to say Bjork will ever allow an animal to slide into recidivism. While acting as my tour-guide sheís been shouting gentle chastisements across her shoulder to an incessantly noisy canine out of our view. Even such venial misdemeanours are not ignored, but it is patience and vigilance that win results for Bjork; her animals undoubtedly respect her but, because she doesnít punish them, they arenít scared of her either.

"Running away with a circus was a big childhood fantasy."

"Iíve always seemed to have an instinct with animals," she says. "When I was ten I used to have a dog that I harnessed-up, which would pull me around on roller skates. And then I had a pony that I trained to do little tricks like lie down or rear up on its hind legs. I always wanted to take my pony along to a circus and show them what I could do. Running away with a circus was a big childhood fantasy."

But Bjork never actually did join that circus and even to today her comprehensive skills with animals are basically autodidactic.

"There have often been people along the way from whom I could pick up an extra tip here or there about good animal handling technique, but the training I use is very specific. Iím a great admirer of Karen Pryor, one of the best dolphin trainers in the U.S. who has developed that method of training so it can be used with dogs. I donít know her personally, although I have spoken to her on the Internet. I must say that since I got hooked up to the Net some 18 months ago Iíve found that the information it provides access to is extraordinarily useful."

Bjork has ambitious plans for the next few years, regarding both new animal acquisitions and the development of Creatures on Call in servicing major feature film productions. Although the bulk of Bjorkís work over the past few years has been in television she was involved in the training and handling of dogs and cats for Babe: Pig in the City and is enthusiastic about upcoming opportunities that suggest a shift towards more feature film assignments.

"Mission Impossible 2 ...will be using our Rhesus Macaque monkeys for a laboratory scene"

"It looks quite likely Mission Impossible 2 [which is being filmed in Australia, The U.S.A. and Spain] will be using our Rhesus Macaque monkeys for a laboratory scene. And I recently obtained four six-month-old foxes for an upcoming production of Gillian Rubensteinís Foxspell [1995 Childrenís Book of the Year, Childrenís Book Council of Australia]. As far as new animals go, Iíve set the wheels in motion to obtain a license for a big cat. It may take a little while but Iíll definitely get one. Iíd quite like a tiger or leopard, but will probably opt for a lion as theyíre a little easier to handle."

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Dimiti Bjork & friends

Bird with hat


Bruce, the sheep

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