Adrienne Huen

For Doug Grabinsky every day spent working with Buttercup the albino Burmese python, Franklin the tortoise, Nikki the sulphur crested cockatoo parrot and the rest of their pals is like child’s play.            

“Ever since I was a little boy, I’ve always loved animals,” says the animal trainer from ZooTek’s Wildly Exciting Exotic Animal Shows and Displays, located in Innisfil, Ontario. “To tell you the truth, I never really knew growing up that I could work with them and I really can’t imagine doing anything else.”

Grabinsky, who was handling snakes at the age of six, had no idea his love for exotic animals would lead to a career showcasing them on television. “I got a phone call from a friend saying that he needed a snake for a commercial or something on TV, and since I had a couple from my personal collection I said yes,” he says.

Although Grabinsky seems like an average animal trainer, he’s far from it. “I consider myself an animal psychologist because, unlike a dog trainer, I don’t train my animals to do tricks. I learn the animal’s habits and what causes them to have different reactions, and that’s how I get them to do specific tricks,” he says.

A typical day on set, he says, involves 10 to 16 hours of waiting around and only a couple of hours actually working with the animals on camera.

“Usually it’s pretty boring,” affirms Gary Oliver of Cinemazoo Animal Agency Ltd. in British Columbia. “A typical day on set, for us, usually involves waiting around, making sure the animals are properly cared for and making sure that the set is safe and secure for the animal when they’re needed.” 

While Oliver and Grabinsky have been working with animals for many years, they hold differing views on what the future holds for live animals on sets.

“I think animal trainers are going the way of the dinosaurs in the next 20 years,” says Oliver, who will host a television program, called Cinemazoo, at the end of this year. “By then more specialized technologies will have developed in animatronics and computer generated imagery (CGI), creating a large decrease in the need for our services in film and television.”

Grabinsky, who has experience working with animatronics and prosthetic animatronic parts, says that while computer and robotic technologies are advancing he would like to see a combination of the fields in the future.

“I was working on this commercial for Sears and they wanted a peacock to open its tail so they could compare it to a paint swatch,” says Grabinsky. “The problem with that was that peacocks only open their tails when they’re mating. So we needed to bring in some extra help.”

With the use of animatronics, a prosthetic tail was customized to fit the peacock with special measures taken to make sure they did not harm the bird. “Once the cameras started rolling, we pushed a button and the tail opened to show all the wonderful colours,” he recalls. “The shot turned out fantastic and I guess the peacock didn’t mind either because when it opened, he turned around in surprise, looked at it, and then went along with his business.”

“Animatronics and trained animals  have always gone hand in hand in the movie industry, even when the animatronics animals were really, really bad,” says Gerry Therrien, owner of Action Animals in British Columbia.

While Grabinsky and Oliver can’t deny the animal business is in a current state of flux, they believe live animals will always be the main focus of their work.

There will always be a need to use live animals or robotic replicas in the industry, Grabinsky says. As for Buttercup, Franklin and Nikki, while they might not be needed on camera in the future, they will always be stars in their own right.