Staff Reporter

Mommas, don’t let your babies grow up to be movie cowboys.

Twenty years ago, Denny Allen owned one of the hottest livestock companies in the Hollywood animal trade, supplying horses, antique buggies and wagons for such productions as “Little House on the Prairie,” “The Legend of the Lone Ranger,” “Lonesome Dove” and “Back to the Future, Part 3.” But in the newfangled era of digital special effects and cinematic thrill rides, there’s not much call for equine movie stars these days.

“They’re just not making Westerns anymore,” bemoans Allen, owner of A & R; Livestock in Lake View Terrace. “We’re still hanging in there, but now we’re thinking maybe we’ll just give it another year and then hang it up.”

The San Fernando Valley is home to an array of companies that provide support services to the entertainment industry, but few are as colorful or as unsung as the animal trade.

Ever since the early days of movie-making, producers have been demanding animal actors whether they were heroic sidekicks such as Rin Tin Tin, spirited transportation such as Trigger or exotic comical relief such as Cheetah, Tarzan’s chimp.

The private menageries that housed these hairy Hamlets were originally located in the Valley because, before it was developed into suburbia, the Valley had plenty of wide-open space for the animals to roam.

The Valley has remained the center of the animal-rental industry, but the ranches needed for large livestock and exotic animals are now almost all located on the fringes in such places as Sylmar, Canyon Country and Sunland.

The flight to fringe communities isn’t the only change that has affected the trade in recent years. Changing demands of the entertainment industry itself have forced many operators, especially those in the livestock-rental business like Allen, out of business.

A year and a half ago, he was forced to sell most of his antique carriages and 50 of his 70 horses, because jobs are too few and far between. Even the resurgence of costume dramas and historical epics such as “Braveheart” hasn’t led to an uptick in business for A & R.;

“They go to England to make them kind of pictures,” says Allen, who hails from Oregon but has a good deal of Texas stuck in his craw.

In better shape are the trainers and renters of domestic pets and exotic animals. Competition is fierce for these companies, but demand is fairly constant.

One of the better-known exotic animal firms is Brian McMillan’s Animal Actors Inc. in Canyon Country. McMillan has more than 40 animals on his eight-acre ranch ranging from elephants to tigers to African gazelles.

The best way to appreciate the range of different species owned by McMillan is to consider that in Walt Disney Co.’s recent live-action remake of “The Jungle Book,” McMillan supplied nearly the entire jungle.

The animals are kept in cages, but McMillan insists they are treated far more humanely than zoo animals because they are released every day to run around the thousands of acres of open land surrounding the ranch.

Even the big jungle cats are too well-trained and accustomed to humans to attack anyone they might encounter while taking their exercise, he says.

There are seven separate government permits required to keep exotic animals like McMillan’s, which is one reason companies like his are fairly scarce. There are only about five major exotic animal suppliers, he says, nearly all located on the outskirts of the Valley.

The fees paid to rent an animal for a day’s shoot vary depending on the rarity of the animal and the expense of maintaining it. Paul Calabria, co-owner of Studio Animal Services in Castaic, says it typically costs about $250 a day for a trained dog, $950 a day for a lion, $1,500 a day for an orangutan (an endangered species), $600 a day for a chimp, and $2,000 a day for an elephant.

A giraffe costs $1,500 a day, Calabria says not because it’s such a rare or expensive animal, but because only one company in Southern California owns a giraffe. Supply and demand, you know.

Nearly all the animals are trained to some degree. Not to perform conventional circus tricks, however.

“We teach them to do what they would do naturally in the wild, only they do it on cue,” says McMillan.

Some animals, such as reptiles, can’t be trained to do even that much. So trainers use various stimuli to get them to display the desired behavior in front of the camera. For example, explains McMillan, if you want a snake to get from point A to point B, you put a heat lamp under point B because snakes are attracted to heat.

Even more-advanced animals often require coercion to serve as working actors. Dogs are typically manipulated with food and not just dog food.

“Movie dogs get steak,” McMillan says.

Calabria whose company handles more than 200 domestic animals, from squirrels to horses says he has also supplied alligators to some productions. And that’s a major training challenge.

“You don’t really train alligators, they’re just kind of handled very carefully,” Calabria says.

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