All the Cows are Cool and the Women are Beautiful

Posted on Leave a comment
Written By Barbara O’Brien
Making movies is a little bit like making magic.  It may look real on film but, of course, it is all an illusion. I was reminded of this a few weeks back when a good part of the country including western Wisconsin, where I live, was in the grips of a dangerous heat wave.  Temperatures soared and heat indexes were at 115º F plus.
As I sat working in my home office, sweat dripping off my brow in spite of the two fans positioned on either side of me, I was reminded of when I was working on a feature film called Here on Earth.  It starred a young Chris Kline, and equally young Josh Hartnett, and a lovely young actress named Lee Lee Sobieski.  We had been contracted to provide a herd of dairy cows to give reality and atmosphere to the dairy farm location.
We dutifully hauled the six Holstein cows to the set every morning and once they were unloaded, cleaned up and made comfortable we waited around for their inclusion in a scene.
Movie work is a classic case of hurry up and wait which means everyone must show up at 6:00 am because they just might change the shooting schedule in which case you better be ready when the first assistant director runs up to you, walkie-talkie in hand, and says breathlessly, “The director would like to use the cows now.”
This in itself is not so bad, but shooting happened to be taking place in a record heat wave not unlike the one we all just experienced.
We had a place in the shade, and plenty of water for the cows so they were ok when we were not working but once we moved into the lower level of the barn it was stifling hot and we felt the cows were at risk.
I mentioned this to the first assistant director who expressed our concerns to the director.  The order was then given, “Cool the cows!” and a large plastic duct was pushed through a window and cool, clean conditioned air began to pour into the barn.  It was heavenly if you were a cow.  But if you were a trainer or just about anyone else, you had to stay back out of frame and almost die as the barn heated up even more because of the monstrously huge movie lights and close pressed bodies of the crew.
The actors were treated well, also.  The crew had broken for lunch in a large event tent, which offered shade, but there was still no breeze and the heat and humidity was oppressive.  I was watching as everyone moved as slowly as possible to avoid any extra exertion when I noticed Lee Lee Sobieski exiting her trailer.  She looked liked an angel just stepped down from the clouds as she approached – every hair on her head in place, her makeup perfect and completely sweat free, as if she was immune to the weather.  She came with her plate and sat at our table, which was unusual, as animal trainers are pretty low on the film crew totem pole. She happened to be an animal lover and wanted to know more about the cows.  So we enjoyed a brief, if hot, lunch break with her.  Then she floated back to her air-conditioned trailer and we went back to the cows.
In my next life, I am either going to be a beautiful young actress or a beautiful young acting cow.  In either case, I will be cool.

A Wolf at Every Door

Posted on Leave a comment

Written By Barbara O’Brien

Early in my career as a trainer of animal actors I had the chance to work with a wolf on a TV commercial. A hot shot director flew in from Chicago. I located a wolf owner through another animal trainer, and Steve, a man with many years of experience in handling wildlife for film, brought two beautiful wolves. The set was an abandoned farmhouse out in the middle of a recently vacated cow pasture. We did the filming at night. The wolf’s job was to run up to the door and scratch at it as if trying to get in. My job was to entice the wolf.
Steve and my helper, my husband Kevin, met at the back of Steve’s SUV and opened the hatch. Inside there was a large dog crate. Inside the crate was a wolf who initially pulled back and then came forward to check us out. Steve opened the crate and took the wolf’s heavy lead in his hands. He gently coaxed the wolf out. The wolf was a beautiful animal and much larger than I had expected. His head and jaws were powerful enough to cause serious damage if he was so inclined. His coat was silver gray and glinted under the temporary lights the crew had set up at base camp. The wolf, his head held low, eyed us suspiciously.
“He likes woman better than men,” Steve said. “You need to get low and speak to him quietly to show you are not a threat.” Steve then stooped and talked to the wolf in a sweet singsong voice, all the while stroking his head and back. I lowered myself and did the same. The wolf came forward and licked my hand. I was amazed to see such strength and power quietly submissive under my hand.
Steve told us that this wolf had been handled from birth. Although it appeared tame it was nowhere near tame. If provoked, the wolf could attack out of fear. If startled, the wolf might run off the set into the countryside.
There were the usual delays on the set. Spending a lot of time standing around and waiting is the not-so-glamorous part of show business. Finally, the producer came over to us and explained what he wanted the wolf to do. It’s funny how the instructions I receive on the set always involve more or different work than what I agreed to initially. In my initial conversation with the TV people, the wolf was to stand next to the farmhouse door, jump up, and scratch at the door. Now they wanted the wolf to be placed some distance away from the door, to run up to the door, and then scratch at it. For all of this the wolf would need to be off-leash with no handler visible on camera. Then the camera would pan to the side past the wolf to the open field that bordered the cow pasture.
I was skeptical. To my surprise, Steve agreed that he could get the wolf to do it. My husband Kevin was stashed out in the field beyond the farmhouse set. If the wolf was startled or frightened, he would most likely run for the field. 
I stood inside the farmhouse door with my hands full of strips of raw chicken. My plan was that the wolf would smell me and my chicken inside the door and then he would jump up on the outside of the door in hopes of getting some chicken. We did a few practice runs, off-leash. The wolf did not run away and he came to the door as hoped, but he didn’t jump up on the door and scratch at it. I guess my strips of raw chicken were not sufficiently enticing.
Steve put the wolf back on his heavy leash and we discussed what to try next. The wolf then pulled Steve to the side of the house where he began to scratch and dig at the ground. 
Meanwhile, the director, well known for displays of temper, was growing impatient. His assistant, walkie-talkie in hand, repeatedly came up to us to say nervously, “We really have to get this shot now. We really do.” Steve, having been in the business longer than I, took this in stride. He said the wolf would do the shot when he was ready and not a moment sooner.
The wolf continued to dig for a bit longer and happily pulled a dark slimy object from the ground. I could smell it before I saw it. Steve laughed and said, “This will work.” With his gloved hand, he handed me the putrid object. “What is this?” I asked, quickly pulling on my own leather gloves. “It’s a dead raccoon,” he said. “Long dead.” Long dead was right. Its decomposing flesh barely clung to its long skeleton. It was a disgusting object but the wolf wanted it badly.
The nervous assistant popped up again, keeping a safe distance from the wolf, and said again, “We have to get this shot now.”
Carrying the raccoon carcass, I resumed my position behind the door. Steve took the wolf some 25 yards away from the farmhouse door. Inside the dark farmhouse, I could see a grip (one of the fellows that do all the electrical for the lights on the set) standing just outside a window to my right. “Be careful,” he warned. “There is no floor behind you. The cattle broke it all up by using the house as a barn.” I had only a small ledge to stand on. If I moved backwards off it, I would fall into a basement full of cow manure. It was dark inside the house but I didn’t need to be able to see to know that lots of cows had only recently left this house. I clung to the frame of the door, clutching the rotting raccoon.
The assistant whispered “Action!” to me, signaling that the wolf had been released. I held on to the frame of the door and held up the rotting raccoon. I could hear and feel the wolf slam against the door feet first as he scratched and pawed and tried to get to the dead raccoon. Steve was able to collect the wolf and gave him some raw chicken as a reward for being caught. Of course, the director wanted as many takes as the wolf could do and so we did it few more times. Each time I held on to the door frame for dear life so as not to fall backwards into the cow manure. My eyes began to burn from the smell of the raccoon and the manure. I wondered if my chosen career was so fun after all.
Then I heard the director bellow from his seat on the crane: “Who the [insert very bad word here] are you!” I heard my husband’s startled voice call a reply from across the field, “Uh…I’m here…for the wolf.” The director yelled, “Get the [insert another very bad word] out of my shot.” Although I couldn’t see his face, I was sure poor Kevin scrambled out of the field vowing never to work on a commercial with me again.
We did one more take and Steve decided that the wolf had had enough. We were done. The director was none too happy about this, but I deferred to Steve’s expertise. This was his wolf and he knew its limits. “You don’t want us to be chasing this wolf all over the countryside, do you?” he said to the producer. I envisioned a large wolf running down the nearby road surprising the drivers on their early morning commute.

Kevin joined us and moved to give me a congratulatory hug. “What is that smell?” he said, recoiling. “Oh, just a rotting raccoon carcass,” I said blithely, as I tossed a pair of good leather gloves into the trash bin.

The Animal Connection: How it All Began

Posted on Leave a comment

 Written By Barbara O’Brien

I had seven (count them, seven!) jobs in one year before I started my own business, the Animal Connection.
Ok, I was young. Twenty-one to be exact. Kevin and I had been married for three years and we had moved at least that many times. We were now renting an old farmhouse on the outskirts of Woodbury, Minnesota.
We met in college and eloped the beginning of our junior year. We soon discovered that we both needed to work full time, and then some, to make ends meet. Something had to give and, sadly, it was school.
So began the year of many jobs.
Even though we were in the middle of recession, low paying jobs were still easy to find and I was quickly hired as a waitress at a hotel restaurant. I enjoyed meeting the business people and families that were traveling but I hated the lack of hours and even more, the lack of tips.
My sister hosted a Tupperware party and as I watched the demonstrator, I thought, “I could do that”. I talked to her after the party and within weeks I had immersed myself into the world of party selling.
The first few months were great. My friends and families hosted parties for me and sales were good. But it didn’t take long before everyone I knew had purchased all the Tupperware they could possibly use. Finding new customers was really hard so I even tried what they called a fundraising party. I took my little sales pitch a meeting of my local high school band backers meeting. They were polite at first as I explained how they would get 10 percent of the sales from their party but after a few minutes they began to get irritated with me and pertly much booed me from the podium. I was devastated. I was just trying to help them and they thought I was a joke. Maybe I was a joke. 

“What a loser! I can’t even sell Tupperware.” I was crying so hard I could barely see the road.

I started to cry as I was driving home. “What a loser! I can’t even sell Tupperware.” I was crying so hard I could barely see the road. What I did see was a police car flash his lights, signaling for me to pull over. I did and the police officer came to my window. I rolled it down, and choked out the words, “Yes…what did I do?”   He shined his flashlight at me and into the car and asked, “ Have you been drinking tonight?”
“No…no…!” I sobbed. “I am a Tupperware lady and I had a really bad night.” He must’ve pitied me because after of few minutes of making sure I wasn’t a danger to others he let me go. Thus ended my career as a Tupperware lady.
I answered an ad in a newspaper for a survey taker that paid five dollars per completed survey. It was a fun job. All I had to do was go into small main street type businesses and ask them to fill out a questionnaire about their insurance needs. The people in the small towns I visited were kind and most of them took the time to answer my questions. I liked seeing what they were doing and they seemed happy be running their own business. I liked the job and completed over 30 surveys in the first two days. On day three when I went to pick up more surveys the doors were locked and the company gone. I found out later that the Minnesota Attorney General booted them out of the state for fraudulent business practices. Apparently you couldn’t use false surveys to generate insurance leads.
I then talked my way into a desk job at the Minnesota Humane Society. It was not a shelter but more of a legislative and enforcement agency. I did paperwork and accompanied the humane investigator when she went out on calls. It was a great job but after a few months a new director came and, “in with the new and out with the old.” I was part of the old.
After that I tried to make a living as an artist and sold some of my animal designs to stationery companies but that wasn’t moving fast enough to pay the bills. I took another restaurant job but, again, not enough tips and hours. I tried to work as a fitness instructor but I have to tell you, I almost died. How do those people do that?
It was then that I was hired as a receptionist at a one-man construction company.  The company built waste treatment plants. And since the company only built one plant at a time there wasn’t much to do except answer the phone and water the plants. The owner was rarely in, so I entertained myself by reading whatever magazines came in the mail.

“It was full of local-boy-makes-good stories and small companies that were making it even during tough times.”

My favorite was the Minnesota Business Journal. It was full of local-boy-makes-good stories and small companies that were making it even during tough times. I was inspired by these articles. If someone else started a business and succeeded why couldn’t I? I certainly wasn’t going anywhere sitting in an office and just wishing it was so.
One day as I paged through the new business section, I spotted a piece about a modeling agency that had just opened in Minneapolis. It said they represented adults, children and most importantly to me, animals.
Animals as models. That was something that I had never thought of. I have a dog, I mused. She is relatively well trained and of course, really cute. She could be a model.
I picked up the phone and dialed the number. A young voice answered and I said, “Hi. I am Barbara O’Brien and I have a dog that could be a model.” “Ok,” the voice said. “Send us a picture and we will call you if something comes up.” I thanked her and hung up as I leaned back in my chair.
I sat there a moment and then suddenly it occurred to me, I know lots of animals. Through my years of showing in 4H, my stint at the Humane Society and selling my animal art, I had developed a list of animal people contacts. I knew where everybody was and if I didn’t, I knew how to find them.
I picked up the phone and dialed the number again.
“Hello, it’s Barbara O’Brien again. I was the one with the Airedale. I was just thinking. I know lots of animals. I can help you find whatever your clients need.”
There was a pause and then the voice said. “Ok, why don’t you give me your number?”
A few days later there was a message on the answering machine from Sue Wehamn, the owner. She was wondering if I could provide a kitten for a photo shoot the next day. I called her back and told her I could. She told me the studio’s name and the time they needed me and when it was all done, I thought to myself, I just booked my first assignment.
I called a friend of mine that worked at a vet and asked her if she knew of any kittens. She did and put me in touch with the owner. I called the owner and asked her if she would like to bring her kitten to Minneapolis for a photo shoot. She agreed even though she didn’t know me, but she knew my friend and that was good enough for her.
Since I was still working for the construction company, I couldn’t go to the studio myself but from all accounts the kitten performed beautifully and soon was on the package of Purina Tender Vittles Cat Food.
A few weeks after the kitten shoot the agency called and wanted to know if I could get my hands on a bunch of rabbits for a major department store chain called Daytons.
I quickly located seven white rabbits and sent the owner to the shoot. The session went well and, as agreed, the agency sent me a small finder’s fee for my efforts.   This was really cool but still not enough to live on. It was then I decided I should run my own animal modeling agency.

“To this day, whenever I am stumped by a business problem, I ask the smartest man I know—my Dad.”

I called Sue and asked her how she felt about me starting my own agency just for animals and she said, sure. She was focusing on people and didn’t really want to bother with animals anyway.
Now that I had Sue’s blessings I figured there was only more thing I needed before I could start my business—a name.
To this day, whenever I am stumped by a business problem, I ask the smartest man I know—my Dad.
I told him about my plans and that I had booked a few first shoots already and what should I name my company. He smiled and said, “Start it with an A. You will be first in the phone book.”

I laughed at first but the thought, why not? And it only made sense to have the word animal in the name. My job was to bring people and animals together and that is how, in 1984, the Animal Connection was born.