Crawling over actor Jack Black's feet in a chain-filled dungeon. Chewing on the lower lip of a fake, dead human's mouth. Taking a field trip to the White House for the annual Easter Egg Roll with an eagle owl, a 10 foot alligator and a gibbon ape.
Welcome to the life of a movie-star small animal.
Trained under the practiced hands of animal trainers Bobbi Colorado and Ken Begg, small animals like guinea pigs, hamsters, rabbits, mice, rats and hedgehogs have the unique opportunity to share the spotlight with human Hollywood celebrities.
Their business, Bobbi Colorado and The Wild Bunch, is based in Louisiana and Texas and takes care of locating animals suitable for film roles and training them to perform on-set — a process they've been doing for about 38 years.
Colorado finds animals to work with at shelters, pet stores, veterinarians and from pet owners who feel that their pets are silver-screen worthy. As rescue and educational work is a mainstay at her job, animals that had no owners are found homes after they finish their work on-set.
While Colorado regularly works with animals as exotic as wolves, lions and elephants, her work with small animals is also frequently in demand. She's recently worked with ferrets on the set of the television show Friday Night Lights, and she and Begg are ferret owners themselves.
But the task of working with and training small animals to work on motion pictures, television and print production is not as difficult as it may initially sound.
"We're not talking about huge intelligence, but they're very easily trained to go from A to B," Colorado said of small animals like rats, mice and hamsters.
A key training method Colorado employs is operant conditioning. Even with the use of one of her favorite training tools, a clicker, she said the process can be slow-going. Train a little bit at a time, Colorado said, by finding a food the animal favors and moving the animal back farther and farther.
Of course, if small animal owners want to teach their pets their own tricks, Colorado said it helps to start young. A young small animal that's rewarded with a hand-fed special treat and a simultaneous clicking sound is on its way to being more easily trained. She recommends that interested small animal owners purchase a clicker for clicker training to get started, as most animals are responsive to it. The benefits of training a small animal to perform can be great: Colorado said she's always looking for cute animals for films.
"We've made a lot of people's pets movie stars," she said. Traits that give a small animal movie-star potential include boldness, good social interaction, food responsiveness and, more often than not, cuteness, Colorado said.
After seeing their beloved small animal pets onscreen, Colorado said the owners are quite pleased.
"Oh my god, it makes them just so proud," she said. Likewise, the performing animals feel the same. On set, crew members dote on the animals with affection and treats. But when the camera rolls, it's back to business.
Some species of small animals, of course, can be easier to work with than others.
Rats? "They are very easily trainable," Colorado said. "They're fun."
Ferrets? "Training them is pretty easy; they like to have fun and they like to eat, and they're pretty rambunctious.”
Guinea pigs? "They're pretty easy to work with … they're fun."
And hedgehogs? "Not very trainable. You just put food down and they walk, and you hope they go where the food is. They're mostly there to look cute. They're just so darn cute!"