When my Mom told me there was a movie with an orange cat in it, I didn’t care what it was about, I was definitely going to see it.
The movie turned out to be “Inside Llewyn Davis,” and as I began reading reviews, one name showed-up consistently in one article after another. It wasn’t the name of an actor, writer, producer or director. No, it was the name of one Dawn Barkan, animal trainer. In this case, cat trainer. (She’s well known for training Jinx the cat in “Meet The Parents” and “Meet the Fockers” to flush the toilet – among other things)
After watching the movie I knew I had to find this woman. I like a challenge, and boy did tracking her down turn out to be a big one. Many emails were sent. They started off professionally and ending-up with my shamelessly begging for 15 minutes of her time. In my final attempt, I shamelessly attached a photo of my three cats and – voila! I got the interview! I felt like I’d personally won an Oscar!
Here you have it, my interview with the elusive and talented Dawn Barkan (T = Tamar and D = Dawn).
T: How do most people get into animal training, and how did you make the journey yourself?
D: Everyone comes at it through different routes. I slipped and fell into it. I was planning on going into advertising and decided to take the summer to work at the local zoo. It was an eye opener, I was like “OMG people get paid to work with animals – I’ve been missing out!” So I ended up going into animal behavior, training dolphins in Florida at the Miami Sea Aquarium. But being poor was not for me.
I eventually met a woman who introduced me to Gary Gero who owns “Birds and Animals” (a premier supplier of animals for the television and movie industries). I didn’t know who he was at the time, just that he needed people for a show at Universal Studios who had previous primate experience, which I did.
T: Did you grow up with animals?
D: No, but growing up in Chicago I spent time at the zoo just observing them. I really identified with them and always loved them.
T: How many pets do you have now?
D: Six dogs, three cats, one pony and a salt-water tank (she didn’t mention what was in that tank and I feared to ask!). I have Jinx #4 – Meet The Parents and Meet The Fokker’s – as well two other male cats I adopted from Petfinder who have learned to use the doggie door (since they live with an animal trainer I’m not THAT surprised!).
T: What’s the biggest misconception people have about being an animal trainer?
D: That we’re weird, uneducated people living with all of our animals in a doublewide trailer. What they don’t realize is that some of us are highly educated.
T: Having worked in advertising I’ve heard people use the term animal wrangler. How is an animal wrangler different than an animal trainer?
D: Animal wrangler was used more as terminology for working horses, cattle and other farm animals. They wrangled them but didn’t actually train them. [Tamar: Essentially, to be called a wrangler if you are an animal trainer is an insult.]
T: What’s the hardest part of your job.
D: The people I work with. You get on-set and people start in with, “I have a dog that does x” or “My cat can do z.” It is one thing to do it once, but to do it on command multiple times is another. [Tamar: Good thing my cats don’t do anything or I could have totally seem myself making the same faux pas! Thanks untalented cats, you saved me this time!]
T: What’s most rewarding about your job?
D: 100% it’s the relationship with the animals. You break-through with them and you build trust.
T: Do you work mostly with pure breeds or do you ever work with rescue cats? And what’s the best way to work with and motivate a cats?
A: Most of my animals are from rescues, even the purebreds. Getting them comfortable with their surroundings. Desensitization. Showing them the situation won’t hurt them helps them do their job. As far as motivation, pretty much for cats its universally food!
T: What’s the strangest, most unusual animal you’ve had to work with on-set?
D: I work with bugs, like scorpions.
T: You can train a scorpion?
D: Well, that goes into the realm of wrangling!
T: Are there animals you refuse to work with?
D: Up until last year, I refused to work with rats. I was completely phobic. That changed last year when one of the people I work with all the time was doing “Ninja Turtles” and wanted me to work on it. I just couldn’t say no to her. Now I think rats are the best!
T: Have you ever been in a situation where you flat-out refused to do the job?
D: I’ve had requests I wouldn’t do because of the content. In one situation they wanted to do a scene where they were trying to kill a cat that just wouldn’t die. Another company did it.
T: Do any celebrities come to mind that you really enjoyed working with and were great with the animals?
D: Robin Williams. He’s just one of the most awesome people, he was phenomenal. He is actually very quiet and soft. Cameron Diaz is another one, just lovely. And Billy Bob Thorton, even helped us carry dog crates!
T: How many takes did it take to get Jinx to flush the toilet in “Meet The Parents”? And how did you get him to jump up into De Niro’s arms – rub him down with tuna juice, put Temptations in his pockets?
D: Not that many, you tell the production company how much time you need and then you practice at home. Ha, no. It’s just a trained behavior that the cat learns. Bob [Tamar: Robert De Niro to the rest of us] is another one who is just phenomenal.
T: What’s the biggest challenge you’ve had on set?
D: “Inside Llewyn Davis,” was particularly challenging because of the environments – the live subway station in particular. But by the time we got to set, the cats were already desensitized. I bought a subway sound CD and played it at home. But the vibrations of the subway were what they were most sensitive too.
We also did a lot on the streets of New York. We had safety measures in place like waist ties, but it was not a closed set.
NOTE: For those of you who saw the movie and thought Ulysses was by played one adorable ginger kitty – surprise! There were three cats sharing the lead cat role! According to www.vulture.com Dawn hired the three ginger cats, Tigger, Jerry, and Daryl because of their varied temperament that could be leveraged depending on the situation (being held, being on a live subway etc).
T: Getting back to “Inside Llewyn Davis,” how did you manage to make the cat limp in pain on the side of the road?
D: Well the animal was supposed to be ambiguous – unclear if it was in fact the cat. So we used my dog, my Brussels Griffon Finn! I taught him to limp and we put a foxlike tail on him!
For the record, when watching the movie I was convinced the ambiguous animal was Ulysses the cat and was crying like a baby. My Mother kept having to lean over to comfort me, reminding me it was just a movie and not real life. It’s ironic to end this piece congratulating a dog, but I must say – well done Finn, well done. Ya got me.
And In case you were wondering, Dawn is very friendly and down-to-earth. Turns out she lives in New Jersey, which isn’t that far from me. Maybe we can do drinks? But that’s probably pushing it. Maybe if I send her kitten pictures? Or an actual kitten?