Meet Gary Gero, Animal Trainer for Two Harry Potter Movies
Gary Gero is a superstar among Hollywood animal trainers. His company, Birds and Animals Unlimited, has provided animals for films since 1964. The one thing Gary couldn't teach Hugo, the huge mastiff that plays Hagrid's dog Fang, was not to drool!
© Peter Mountain/2002 Warner Bros.
Meet the man with one of the coolest jobs ever: Gary Gero, animal trainer. Even cooler, Gary got to teach his own form of movie magic to Hedwig the owl, Fang the dog, and Mrs. Norris the cat in both Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone and Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets.
In 1964 Gary founded Birds and Animals Unlimited in Lake Forest, CA. Over the years Gary's company has provided dog, cats, birds, and even alligators, zebras and flies (yes, flies!) for films such as 101 Dalmatians, 102 Dalmatians, That Darn Cat, The Indian and the Cupboard, and many, many more. Birds and Animals Unlimited's motto—"any animal you want"—is known to film producers all over the world. Scholasticnews.com got to talk to Gary just as production was ending on Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets. Here's what he shared with us.
Q: How did you get started in your career?
Gary: I lived on a ranch in northern California when I was a child and I took care of all the livestock, horses, cattle, and pigs, all those things. Very quickly I became interested in the small wild animals around. I was a falconer when I was young, 10 or 11 years old. And I moved down to southern California for my senior year of high school, and I met someone who was doing this in the film business. I've been doing this ever since.
Q: What was your first pet?
Gary: My first pet, oh—I had dogs, of course—they were always on the ranch. But my first pets, besides the farm dogs, would probably be pigs and horses and baby raccoons and skunks. And I had a fox and falcons from the time I was about 10.
Q: Were they animals and birds from the wild that you trained?
Gary: A lot of what I took in were rescued animals. A lot of people would give me orphaned animals, but as a falconer I would trap wild birds. Now you can't.
Q: Tell us about your company Birds and Animals Unlimited.
Gary: There are lots of trainers that work for our company and our animals mostly live with the trainers in their home environment, so we have lots and lots of animals. Any [animal] that can go home and live in a home environment [does]. Of course, you don't send an orangutan home to somebody's apartment. You know, we have lots of dogs, cats, and birds, and small wild animals. The monkeys and things that we have, they live with us for their lives and their [entire] careers.
Q: What's the most unusual animal that you've ever trained?
Gary: I tried to train a Venus Flytrap one time, just for fun. They don't live long enough to learn anything. That didn't work out. I trained an octopus one time.
Q: What did you train it to do?
Gary: To climb up out of a tank and to come get it's food. And I had him so that he'd flash different colors. You know, they're chameleon-like, so he'd come up out of his tank and flash colors. That's the only thing we did with it. And we trained a sloth. I actually trained flies one time. They can actually learn something.
Q: What did you train them to do?
Gary: To stay inside. We drew a [white] circle on the table, and we taught them to stay inside the circle.
Q: Did you put some kind of food in the circle?
Gary: No. You show them the circle, and then they fly really well. If they're in the proximity of somebody's hand, they'll avoid it. So very quickly they learned that they go to the white lines and not across. It was actually pretty interesting.
Q: Do you have any special code or catch phrases when you're training the animals to do something that's very specific.
Gary: Code? Well, each of the behaviors has a different and distinctive cue. All the animals are individuals, each one is different and require a different level of, sort of, attention, if you will. Some of them really have a little lack of attention and you have to have everything stepped up a beat just to keep their attention. Other animals are 100 percent with you all of the time, and everything is toned down a bit for them.
Q: What are the easiest animals to train? Dogs?
Gary: The easiest animal to train is one that you like and one that you're interested in. That really is the truth. The training is basically the same with all of the species. It's all positive reinforcement, whether it's praise, a toy, a treat, whatever, it's all positive. But the cues and reinforcements and the steps that you take, approximations you take with each creature, with each species, differs a little bit. It also has to do with how much intelligence they have, so you operate at a different level of understanding. Just like you would, the difference between working with a college freshman and a second-grader—that sort of difference.
Q: Are owls particularly bright?
Gary: Owls are about halfway through second grade. Contrary to the stereotype, they're not necessarily intelligent. For something it would take a raven or a parrot 10 trials to learn, it would take them a thousand. So it's lots and lots of hours of repetition with the owls. They're wonderful creatures. They're the most interesting things, and they get very dedicated to you. They really want to work with you, but it just takes a while to get the idea across.
Q: Well, what would a typical training session with an owl be?
Gary:Fifteen minutes on, four times a day.
Q: And that would be like having him fly to you? Gary: It depends on what exactly we're trying to achieve with the guys. Flying is mandatory. They need their exercise, so they are flown every day. But we did some fairly sophisticated training with these guys. They learned how to retrieve, carry things, go from one place to another place, and those are the things you work in a more concentrated, dedicated, formal training environment.
Q: For Harry's owl—Hedwig#151how many owls played Hedwig, or did you use just one?
Gary: There really is just one Hedwig—his real name is Gizmo. He has a couple of helpers that help him out with the different things. We have a lighting stand-in, so he doesn't have to do all of the lighting. And we have a couple of owls that will help him with his flying shots, so he doesn't have to do all of the flying shots himself.
Q: How many rats were used for Scabbers in The Chamber of Secrets?
Gary: Three. There are three Scabbers, depending on how animated they want Scabbers to be.
Q: Were they difficult to train?
Gary: No, rats are very intelligent little animals. They learn simple things really quickly.
Meet Ron Weasley's rat pal Scabbers. In real life, this rodent thespian is named Dex.
© Gavin Smith/2002 Warner Bros.
Q: What kind of things did you have to teach them to do?
Gary: Go and stay on a mark was one thing. We've trained the rats to retrieve; we haven't used that yet, but they come to a buzzer. They can do pretty nearly everything they're physically capable of doing. They have lots more to do in the next [Harry Potter film], so we're developing all of their skills now.
Q: Would you be using the same rats?
Q: And Mrs. Norris, the cat?
Gary: Yep, Mrs. Norris is in her second movie, she's had two years of training now and she's becoming a fairly sophisticated old hand at this.
Q: I have cats, so I know they can be very temperamental. Are they hard to deal with?
G: No, [but] we have to very carefully select cats. That's one of the keys—you get a cat who enjoys work and enjoys the environment and enjoys new people and new situations. And then, it's all about dinnertime with cats, isn't it? We take their dinner and we divide it up into training sessions, and they're pretty much working for their dinner. Then, they get a bowl of food at night as well. But they're food is all regulated, and they're fairly intelligent. Their training method is a little less direct than, let's say, a dog. You make smaller steps. And again, once you understand exactly how a cat learns and what progress it makes, it's not difficult. They try—you just have to be careful that you don't expect too much of a single training session.
Q: What was the most interesting trick that you taught an animal in The Chamber of Secrets?
Gary: There's the owl that crashes into everything—Aerol. He's a silly character, and he runs into everything. He flies and crashes into bowls of potato chips. We had to teach him not only to fly and carry letters and normal things, but we also had to teach him how to lie on his back and get up from lying on his back—lots of silly things.
Q: And how long did it take?
Gary: Oh, months and months and months.
Q: What advice would you give to kids interested in becoming an animal trainer or working with animals like this? How should they start?
Gary: I would start by keeping your grades up, keeping your interest up, keeping your hand in with animals like your pets. And do remember it's a very hard vocation; it's a 24/7 kind of a job. It's very demanding of your time and you have to remember at all times that the welfare of all the animals are in your hands. They're completely vulnerable and if you don't become a mature, responsible person, then they can't trust their welfare to you. So stay in school, study hard enough to be able to get in to a proper college. Keep your hand in, keep working with animals, and be ready for a very difficult career, if that's what they want to do.