Filmmakers increasingly turn to technology to portray creatures on screen.
THOUSAND OAKS, Calif. – Animal wrangler Jim Brockett stood a few yards from Arrow, like a director studying his actor. The African Augur hawk latched his yellow talons onto what looked like a severed finger — actually a piece of foam — and swooped into the air before landing on the gauntlet of a falconer, who rewarded him with a thawed chick.
“He’s got the finger part down,” said Brockett, who’s helping train Arrow for a macabre scene in the crime drama “Bones.”
Brockett, 70, and his wife, Gina, are owners of Brocketts Film Fauna Inc. in Thousand Oaks. They have been supplying hawks, bobcats, alligators, snakes, spiders, lizards and other critters to the entertainment industry for more than three decades, operating out of a secluded 5-acre ranch in the Santa Monica Mountains.
The Brocketts and their animals have appeared on “The Tonight Show With Jay Leno,” crime dramas including “True Blood” and “CSI: NY” and movies such as “Terminator III” and “We Bought a Zoo.”
But they’ve grown increasingly uncertain about the future of their business.
Animal trainers and wranglers, those who transport horses and other animals to sets, have been fixtures of the motion picture industry since the dawn of Hollywood. But many veterans in Southern California view themselves as an endangered species.
They cite the growing use of digital effects, the flight of film work from Southern California and mounting pressure from animal rights groups.
The use of animals in film and TV productions has become increasingly controversial. HBO in 2012 shut down its drama “Luck” after three horses died. The deaths renewed debate about the use of animals on film sets and the role of the American Humane Association, the group charged with safeguarding the welfare of animals in entertainment.
Actress and animal rights activist Tippi Hedren in 2012 lobbied for a bill to outlaw the private breeding and possession of exotic cats except at highly qualified facilities, such as accredited zoos. Similar measures have been proposed for bears and primates but have been resisted by the circus industry.
Although none has been approved by Congress, animal wranglers view them as a threat to their livelihood. Brockett and his peers contend that People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) and other groups pressure filmmakers to avoid using animals on sets, and continually lobby federal and state agencies to impose costly rules aimed at driving them out of business.
They’re “not wrong,” PETA spokeswoman Lisa Lange said. “We do want to see a complete end to the use of wild animals in film and television, and we’re getting there.”
Brockett insists that the film and TV industry has helped educate the public about the animals the activists think they’re protecting. “No one would care about dolphins,” he said, “if there wasn’t a TV show like ‘Flipper.’ ”
$1,500 a day for king cobra
Brockett’s path to the animal kingdom began after he graduated from Cal State L.A. with a degree in zoology, headed south on his motorcycle and kept riding — to Brazil. Running out of money, he started exporting wild animals to zoos and dealers. Over the next five years, he lived in nine countries in Central and South America.
When he returned to California in the late 1970s, he started an import-export business supplying animals. His large inventory of animals, many of which were rescues, drew interest from studios.
He met Gina through a mutual friend and invited her on a trip to Los Angeles International Airport to pick up a 25-foot python. “It was an interesting first date,” Gina said.
The couple married and launched their company in 1978, supplying animals to TV shows, Hollywood blockbusters and B-horror films.