Rarely in public do I like to talk about what I do for a living. it is not that I am not interested in talking about it, since I love my career. It is just that people want me to go on and on because they are fascinated with what I do. I find it boring to talk about myself and never have the opportunity to find out about other people and their lives, but I do like teaching others about the animals I have worked with. When I started my career in the late 1970's, my focus was on education and conservation. By accident, I was whisked away from the marine mammal world into the terrestrial (land) animal field. I started by enrolling in a course and apprenticing with some of the biggest names in Hollywood trainers. Basically I began as a glorified pooper scooper. This is a traditional role for new people in the field since it is a good way of getting to know the animals, their behavior, and letting them get used to you.
Many of my first experiences were watching other trainers training. Then I got to assist by being what is called l a "backup". Essentially the backup trainer is the person who handles crowd control, alerts the trainer to possible problems or obstacles and assists them should there be any trouble. They handle everything else but the animal! This can be a very interesting and demanding position. It is also a very important one since it allows the trainer to completely focus on the animal. Most accidents happen due to trainer error, so it is important to assist them in being able to have that focus.
Learning how to work big cats starts with learning how to "read" animal behavior. You essentially have to become one with the animal to understand how they think, react and feel. Captive wild or exotic animals are highly evolved creatures. They have all the evolutionary advantages due to the survival of the fittest" heritage and lack of domestication by man. No matter how tame a wild animal appears, the fact is that they are still wild animals and react that way. Reading behavior means anticipating what the animal will do before they do it. Sometimes, when you see an accident, the trainer has failed to do this successfully. Good trainers will see or sense a problem BEFORE it becomes one or before the animal decides to do anything dangerous. When they fail to do that, someone gets hurt.
Each species is different and there are different ways of approaching them. Also, the individuals within any group vary too. Just as with humans, each individual has certain approaches or techniques that they will be more responsive to. With the big cats you deal with a couple of basic differences and species characteristics.
JAGUARS AND LEOPARDS
Jaguars and leopards have attitudes that can best be described as being compared to our domestic felines. They are independent and solitary in nature and have quick reactions. During a scene in the filming of the television series "Daktari" a leopard was supposed to be jumping over the actor. In the scene that was filmed, the leopard bit the actor numerous times while jumping. It was so fast that it went undetected by the crew until the scene was done. Interesting enough it was good footage and remained in the series
These cats react on a dime. They are quick to take action and are very tactile responsive. They can get excited by scents and physical touch which means that they can get so turned on they become dangerous. Most cats bite or scratch when aroused, so figure in a size difference and go from there with your imagination! These animals take your breath away with their beauty and grace. They can also take you or leave you depending on their mood! Fast and intense is how I would describe them.
TIGERS AND COUGARS
Tigers and cougars are some of my favorite animals to work with. They are very responsive and pretty stable creatures in comparison to some of the other big cats. They could be categorized as more like our domestic canine friends in how they react and approach things. Tigers have a greeting called A "chuff". When they like you they will make this sound to greet you. It is like blowing puffs of air out of your mouth in a quick short sequence. Each tiger has their own version of this. They will often accompany this with a head thrust towards you similar to a gesture where you would point your nose at something. If they really like you and have something to say, it may be followed by a drawn out tiger sized "meow" and rubbing.
Most tigers I have worked with have a great sense of humor and playfulness. They get this twinkle in their eyes and have a great time bounding around after the "joke" is played. One of my favorite cubs used to "hide" behind a small fence post like she was going to ambush me. It was pretty silly since the post only covered the tip of her nose and in between her eyes! This was playing out some of her hunting instincts which was a natural behaviors but one has to be regulated and controlled so that when the tiger grows up they do it on command or only in controlled circumstances.
One of the biggest challenges in working with the big cats is to remember what things need to be controlled. For instance, it was considered cute by others when "Sheba" was a cub and she would mouth you in play. This was not acceptable behavior! She was taught to rub instead. As a cub a "hug" with her paw pulling you into her was sweet. However, these behaviors when she becomes a 500 pound tigress are less than desirable! Everything done in cubhood has to be carefully directed so some trainer down the road doesn't have a problem with the things the animal was allowed to do as a cub but are not longer appropriate.
Cougars or mountain lions are very similar to tigers in attitude. They have a whistle greeting that they make when they are young. They also have a rumbling like purr. This type of vocalization vibrates through your whole body! If you have ever wondered how they got the Mercury Cougar to snarl so wonderfully, I'll tell you! It was not a snarl most of the time. "Flehming" is a behavior where a large cat will wrinkle up their nose and analyze a scent. Often, all that was needed was some sort of scent or perfume to get that reaction. The rest was done by dubbing in the sound. Very rarely did they use a real snarl
Lions are one of the only truly social animals. The difference between the males and the females is greater than that of any other big cats. I would say that they are the most emotional of all cats in that the males have pretty instant mood swings. They are pretty laid back but when they aren't, you had better watch out! Lionesses can be worked in groups pretty easily due to their social nature. They are great hunters and have a very strong cooperative bond.
Working the big cats is dangerous when you work with food because of the intense food drive and "fight or flight" response. Food is the key to survival and they will fight over it. Often the cats will be utterly aggressive at feeding time while calm at others. One of the tricks of the trade is not to feed on a completely predictable schedule to avoid having a problem with that type of aggression.
These animals are also great at nonverbal communication. Once, we were working a group of lionesses loose in an arena. T hey were being trained to run to different buzzers, which is called "A to B work", and is used in getting some scenes you see in commercials or television or movies. The food is placed on the buzzer location and the tone calls the lion/ess to it. I was elected to give out the supply of meat and work the buzzers behind the protection of an electric hot wire. Things were going well and we were finishing up when one of the lionesses, "Arusha" came up to me. She looked at me, looked down at the hot wire, and looked back at me. I knew in a heartbeat that the wire was not "on". When she went off with her trainer I touched the wire . . . it was cold. One of the electrical connections had slipped off the connector during our training. She knew it, I knew it and thank goodness she told me! With a male lion, I probably would have been in grave jeopardy despite having taken the precautions before we started.
TRUST, RESPECT AND UNDERSTANDING ARE THE KEYS
Training or owning wild animals is not something I would recommend. Many animals are not cared for properly by people who think it would be fun to own one. In my 18 years in this type of work, it has broken my heart to see animals being abandoned, having severe illness or mistreatment because of a lack of understanding or concern for them as the beautiful wild creatures they are. They are not good pets, and I do not own any myself. If you would like to help them, work at conservation and education with a zoo, private facility or captive collection.
Since 1978 Diana Guerrero has achieved international recognition for her work with both wild and domesticated animals. Trained in Europe and the United States, she graduated from three of only four recognized wild animal training programs in the world. Her experience encompasses working for private animal and educational facilities, zoos, movies and television, an oceanarium and a marine aquarium. Most recently Guerrero has achieved national recognition for her work on "Animal Disaster Preparedness ". She currently writes several columns for the print media, and the lnternet, provides seminars and phone consultations. Working with some of the most endangered species in the world, she is known for her unique training methods using trust, respect and understanding as a foundation.
Diana can be reached through Ark Animals Behavior Consulting and Training
"We Take Over Where Noah Left Off' P.O. Box 1154, Escondido, CA 92033-1154. (619)
599-3697 or (l-800) 818-7387.
Or . . . try E-MAIL
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