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Hamster Wrangler on the Set

Posted: Nov. 21, 2011, 1:15 p.m. EST

When Hollywood calls, Animalia Pets & Supplies answers.
By Elizabeth Creith

"The hamsters are out! The hamsters are out again!"

David Syme, owner of Animalia Pets & Supplies in Sault Ste Marie, rushed in from the sidewalk, dekeing around men with stepladders, wires and lights. In a few minutes he fielded six hamsters and stuffed them back into their cage yet again.

"Do you have duct tape?" David asked one of the crew.

"We'll find you some," the crew member said, and hurried off. Soon he's back, and the hamsters are secured, this time for good. Filming can start.

This wasn't a typical day at Animalia. It's a 1950s pet-store movie set and the hamsters were escaping from the period-looking, but clearly not hamster-proof, cages provided by the set dresser.
 
Every time an animal is used in a movie, that animal was supplied by someone. In Hollywood, New York, probably even Toronto and Vancouver, there are companies specializing in supplying animals for movies.

1950s pet store
A storefront on Gore Street, St. Sault Marie, Ontario, Canada, is transformed into a circa 1950s pet store.

In a smaller center, a movie company will have to contact rescues, shelters and pet stores for the animals it needs. When the company producing "Foxfire," based on the Joyce Carol Oates novel of the same name, needed livestock for its 1950s pet store, one of the places it called was Animalia.

In the silent movie "Greed," a mule is shot dead on camera. In many of the old Hollywood westerns, horses were rigged with a "running-W," an arrangement of cords on the legs that, when pulled, made the horse stumble and fall. Often horses broke a leg and had to be destroyed.
 
Animal use in movies has come a long, long way since those bad old days. Whether or not there was someone from the Ontario Humane Society, or even the local humane society, on the set, the animals in "Foxfire" were treated with every possible consideration. When the Foxfire Company called David to see if he would provide animals for the shoot, they made it clear that he would be on the set, too, simply to make sure the animals had all they needed.

The dresser needed animals that would have been available in a small-town pet store in the 1950s. Most of the animals, even the fish, that we now consider common in the pet trade weren't available then. We provided hamsters, mice, small birds and a smallish iguana. Nothing else in the store—ferrets, leopard geckoes, hedgehogs—was suitable. The puppies and kittens needed for the set had to come from an animal rescue. It was an interesting reminder of how the pet trade has changed.

The week before the filming day, two of the set crew brought aquariums for David to decorate, and some cages that they thought he might be able to use. The night before filming they took all the aquariums, plus the cages of hamsters, budgies, finches and canaries, to the set. We followed with bagged fish and the iguana in a cat carrier. David brought water conditioner for the aquariums, and in an hour or so all the animals were set up and bedded down.

Morning was when things got interesting.

We arrived at 8 a.m. The little store was crowded with people arranging wires and lights and hanging a black-fabric baffle from the ceiling.

"This looks too modern," the set-dresser said, indicating the white powder-finished hamster cages. "We were going to put them in that one last night, but we decided to wait for you."

"That one" was a rabbit cage in 1-in. hardware cloth. If they'd followed through with that plan, there wouldn't have been a hamster in sight by morning.

"Can you put them in these?" she asked. "These" were old wire birdcages, with gaps in the wire for the missing feed cups. It took several tries with wire, cardboard and, ultimately, duct tape, to keep the hamsters in.

The film company had transformed Gore Street with vintage cars and actors in 1950s clothing. What we learned about making movies is that it's a lot of hurry-up-and-wait. For most of the long, hot July day we, along with the crew, sat outside in carefully designated areas out of camera range. The actors—some of them local people with small parts or walk-ons—were put through their scenes over and over again. Even minor things, like two women walking past a store window while a car drove up the street in the opposite direction, were filmed five or six times before the director was satisfied.
 

Two pet store owners
Actor Tim Hewitt (left), playing the pet store owner, and hamster wrangler David Syme. Costumers decided at the last minute not to give Hewitt's character suspenders.

All morning the scenes inside the pet store were filmed while we waited outside. While cast and crew sweltered waiting for a scene to begin, the puppies and kittens were kept in an air-conditioned van. They were carried in right before shooting began, and taken out again immediately afterwards. When filming stopped at two for lunch we checked on the animals. Air-conditioning had kept them far more comfortable than we were.

After lunch, filming went on. This time the scenes being shot were on the outside of the pet store, so we were moved inside, to spots where we would be invisible to the camera. We checked the animals again, and spent several more hours seeing the same scenes shot over and over again. I learned that "rolling," not "action," is the most usual word to start a scene, and that the actors still managed, after four, six, eight repetitions, to keep their lines fresh. Around six o'clock the pet store sequences were done and we began draining aquariums and getting ready to return the animals to Animalia. By eight o'clock everyone was back in their usual places.

In spite of the heat, the lights, the quick set-up and the stress of moving, only two —out of two dozen—died during the day. None of the other animals showed any effects.

Overall the care and consideration for the animals outweighed that for the humans on set. Stress is inevitable in such a situation; transportation, a strange place, strange people and noises all take their toll. One young actress, tired and stressed herself at the end of a long day, waved her arms around the cage of finches to make them fly, but stopped when David asked her to. On the whole, the animals were pestered less than they would have been during a day in the store.

We're waiting for the movie, which is due to come out in 2012. We'll be going to see it at the theatre, and when the credits roll, we'll look for that one line, "Animals supplied by Animalia."

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