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Gary Gero Is All About the Owls

<p>Gary Gero the owl trainer <br />(Photo: Stephen Hird/REUTERS) </p>

Gary Gero the owl trainer
(Photo: Stephen Hird/REUTERS)

Gary Gero is the owl trainer for Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. He gets to work with many different species owl.

Marie Morreale, our Entertainment Editor, was able to talk with Gary about his job and the owls. Read the following interview to learn how Gary became interested in owls, his favorite species and more.

Marie: Do you have a favorite species of owl? Why? What makes this species so special?

Gary: I have a couple of favorites. I really like barn owls because they've got a really outgoing personality, but also because they're so smart in terms of owl intelligence. Owls are not generally very clever, and barn owls are the exception. They're very clever little creatures. Really outgoing; they show affection and they really enjoy their work.

Marie: They show affection? How so?

Gary: Well, we raise them all, so they all think we're their parents. They'll climb in your jacket; they groom you. I love great grey owls. They're huge, funny looking creatures. Just everything they do is funny. They're not terribly clever, but they can be.

Marie: Where did the popular saying "wise old owl" come from?

Gary: I don't know who coined the phrase, but I certainly know it wasn't an owl trainer.

Marie: When you say that the barn owl is affectionate and it grooms you, does that mean it allows you to pet it?

Gary: Yeah, they like to be scratched. They pull on your hair; they're just great little characters.

Marie: You say they're smart. Can you give an example of something that would be easy to teach them but may not be so easy to teach another animal?

Gary: It takes about four months to train most of the other species of owl to retrieve—to pick something up and carry it and bring it to you. Some owls have taken a year. Barn owls learn within a week or less.

Marie: Why are barn owls so adaptable?

Gary: Something in the way they find their food makes them have to remember where things are or change what they eat. Basically it comes down to this: An animal that has to be flexible has to have intelligence.

Marie: What do they eat? Is their food choice different than other owls?

Gary: It's not different than other small owls. They eat small rodents, mice, and large insects—grasshoppers and potato bugs, things like that. I have a theory that the food source is not constant through the year, but that's just a guess, not an observation. I guess they would be changing that based on environmental influences, and possibly the other owls have a more consistent food source. Maybe they eat rats and there are always rats, or they eat grasshoppers and there are always grasshoppers. Then some owls eat a type of rodent. Thats just my theory. Not a scientific observation.

Marie: Is there a physical feature or characteristic that would make an owl the ideal magical creature for Harry Potter movies?

Gary: I think it probably is the mystique of their appearance that lends itself. They're really strange, interesting-looking things. They're mysterious because you don't observe their behavior out in the wild very much. I think it's the appearance as much as anything, because they are very different, visually.

Marie: There's a place in Hogwarts where all of the owls stay. Are those real owls?

Gary: All the owls you've seen—let's say you saw the group of owls at the owlry—basically all of the owls were real. We did bring some stuffed owls to have in the background. Basically everything you see, with the exception of a few times that there were stunts that were a little bit too much for us to feel comfortable using real owls in. Then we used a stuffed owl.

Marie: Is there ever a problem putting different types of owls together?

Gary: There are. The large owls, the eagle owls, are very aggressive. We have to do some training to prepare for any scenes where eagle owls are with smaller owls. They're all predators, so it's something that you have to deal with.

Marie: They would attack?

Gary: Well, we don't think so, because they've all been raised together, but we don't want to take the chance without enough preparation so that we're 100 percent comfortable that they're going to be okay.

Marie: You're the main owl trainer on the set. How many other people work with you?

Gary: I'm head trainer. Much of the work is done by other trainers. In the last show we had . . . let's see . . seven trainers. I could easily say that the vast majority of the training was done by the other trainers, just because there was so much work to do. I couldn't do it all.

Marie: When you're on the set, are you working with the animals every single day even if they're not on a scene?

Gary: Yes. We begin training for one of the shows between 12-13 weeks out. From there until the end of the movie, the animals are in training until their last shot in the movie, and then they're taken off training and given a rest. A lot of times if there's a long break in between, we feed them and let them rest. Dogs you can keep in training all the time. But wild animals and even cats need a break. So if there's an animal that plays heavily throughout the movie, we have to find another animal to replace it during the time that we have to give it a break.

Marie: What does the animal do when you give it a break?

Gary: It stays at the compound. We take them all out for walks. The amount of time the animal rests depends on the species of animal as well as the animal itself. Like cats—some cats become unhappy when we try to give them a break. They'd rather work. They enjoy the action. We find games to keep their minds going when we can.

Marie: Are there any particular laws about working with animals on a movie?

Gary: Well, there's the law of common sense, for one thing. The simple answer is: We have rules to follow. We have a certain amount of hours that the animals can work. It depends on the animal. Even if the animals are on the set eight hours, they are not working eight hours. They work while they're shooting for half an hour. Then the lighting for the next shot will take a couple of hours. Different animals have a different sort of criteria for how long they can be on the set. Some animals are really great for five hours; you know that going in, so you try to keep them to that.

Marie: Are there any scenes in the Harry Potter movies with the owls and the cat, and if so were there any problems?

Gary: Yeah, there are scenes with the owl and the cat together, but we haven't had any problems at all. Actually, this last movie we had several sequences with the cat and the rat. One of the scenes was the cat chasing the rat. So we spent months, doing what we were required to do so that we could actually coax the animals into working together. So by the time we got to the set, by the time we released the animals together, we were 100 percent confident that it was okay.

Marie: So that the cat wouldn't revert to instinct and come home with a prize?

Gary: Well, there was never really any indication that these cats were going to do that. But as much as we work with them—we worked with them behind wire, behind glass for the longest time—and preparing them a lot, we never had an instance where the cat turned and went for the rat. They're just so intent on what they do. They have a job, they're trying to work out what it is that we want, and they're pretty intent on their project. They just sort of ignore the rat. One or two times we were rehearsing the rat running away from the cat, and the rat stopped and the cat actually ran over the rat.

Marie: When you're training your animals, not for a specific movie, do you ever take a rat and a cat and just at your center bring them up together?

Gary: If it's required. The trainers all have their specific animals, their special animals that they train and the animals go home and live with the trainers. A lot of time there'll be a proximity issue so it's a necessity that they get along. That would be the only reason. We don't do it just to have these two animals together, not unless it's required.

Marie: With owls, is it easier to work with a young owl or an older owl? What are their life spans?

Gary: It's best to start with young owls. We start with owls that are 2 or 3 or 4 months old, and they can live for 30 or 40 years. They have a good longevity. It depends on the species, but basically in that range.

Marie: So do you have owls that have worked on different movies?

Gary: We have several species of owls that we've had for years and years. I've had a horned owl 25 years or something.

Marie: Does he live in your house?

Gary: He lives in the back. We don't work those birds anymore in the states, but they're indigenous birds. He's retired. He goes flying once in awhile. He has a nice retirement. He does educational appearances. There's a vet that lives near my house that does lots of school visits, and he uses our retired animals for that.

Marie: How do trained owls differ from those in the wild? Are their diets different?

Gary: No, they eat the same things. There's a fur or feather and bone requirement in their diet, because of the way their system works. They have to have that and it cleans their crop. So basically, the diet is the same.

Marie: When you say clean their crop, what's that?

Gary: They have a pouch inside, and when they eat something it goes into their crop. It pre-digests and sends dung down to the stomach that's acceptable, and the things that aren't acceptable are cast away. We call them a pellet. Interesting enough, owls don't digest bones. If you find a pellet with bones in it, it's an owl pellet.

Marie: The animals you own, are they in an environment where they can hunt, or do you feed them?

Gary: Well, they hunt, only the way that they hunt is to do the work for us. They always feed from us; they always feed from our hand. So they're hunting during the day and sorting out how to get their food by working out what it is we want them to do. It's very stimulating for them. They really think about it.

Marie: That retired horned owl you have, would he be able to go back out in the wild and hunt on his own?

Gary: No, he wouldn't. Some can be rehabilitated into the wild, but we wouldn't want to put him under that kind of pressure, because there's the chance that he wouldn't make it. He's been with us for so long and we wouldn't want to take that chance. Generally, if a bird is raised by people, it can't go back to the wild.

Marie: Are there any endangered species of owls?

Gary: I have to be careful with this because I don't keep up on it. There are, and I'm not clear on exactly which species. They're the more exotic kind of tropical things that are endangered. The captive breeding that's going on goes a long way in giving a future to some of those animals that are on the brink. It's very important that there's a large enough gene pool to keep a species alive. There can be numbers of the animals left, but the genetic pool isn't large enough to keep it a healthy species.

Marie: Were there any surprises while working with the owls? Are there any funny stories?

Gary: They're always doing funny things. I think the biggest surprise was how slow they are to learn—most of them. Particularly small owls. It's because they have such a successful niche and their food supply is so consistent; they don't really need any imagination. All they have to do is be able to catch a lemming, and of course they're very good at that.

Marie: What made you interested in owls?

Gary: I lived on a ranch in Northern California on the coast, way north. I took care of all the livestock and I was very interested in all the wild things around me. Everybody brought the injured and orphaned things. I had a fascination with falcons as a sport up there. I just wanted to try raising an owl, so I raised a baby horned owl and there you go.

Marie: That's not the same one that you have now, is it?

Gary: No.

Marie: How many animals do you keep at your home?

Gary: I keep some dogs when I'm in England. I travel a lot. I'm very rarely at my home. Since I'm on the road every six weeks out of the year, I can't really have animals there.

Marie: It must be hard to travel so much.

Gary: I really hate the fact that I can't have a dog when I'm at home. I live on an island and there's a little tiny airplane that flies out there. They don't take animals on a plane. The logistics of getting the dog and bringing it with me for a week or two . . . is overwhelming. It isn't great for the dog. But I really do miss having a dog when I get home. When I get to spend more time the first thing I'll do is spend it with one of my dogs.

Marie: When you were a kid, did you have a favorite book?

Gary: A Ring of Bright Water was one of my favorites. Everybody should read that book. It's a fantastic book. I also loved Never Cry Wolf; that was a little bit later.

Marie: Why did you like A Ring of Bright Water?

Gary: It's just a great character study of these two otters and their relationship with a human. A very close personal relationship. I got to do the movie Never Cry Wolf, which was years later of course. That was a thrill.

Marie: If a kid was really interested in working with animals, whether it be training or a vet, are there any books or places you would recommend?

Gary: There's a great program at Moorpark College in California. It leans toward training, but it's mostly a management program. It's a difficult program. It really makes the kids understand that it's a 24/7 kind of thing, and by the time they come out of the program they really understand what the responsibilities are. It's a whole lifestyle. It isn't just a job that you go to 8 to 5. If you're managing animals, their life and their basic survival is in your hands, and you have to be there for them all the time. You have to be supportive 24 hours a day. It's a great place to go.

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