Band of animals
Former Chico punk rocker has new gig training wild-animal actors
For much of the ’90s, Jeff Lee was one of the pillars of Chico’s music community. In addition to being a tireless advocate for local music—putting on countless shows and organizing the famed Chico Alchemy local-music compilations—Lee was the front man for the very busy and popular (and normally shirtless) apocalyptic metal/punk crew Trench. He also played in a string of other noteworthy Chico bands—Murder Girls, Rookie 13, The Experts, plus stints in two of famed Paradise singer/songwriter Danny Cohen’s bands: Near Death Experience and Rigor Mortis on the Ridge
Then, in 1997, Lee abruptly pulled up stakes, moved to Southern California and began working for his uncle Steve Martin’s Working Wildlife company (not that Steve Martin). Overnight, Lee was out of Chico’s intimate music scene and living on an animal compound on the edge of the Los Padres National Forest north of Los Angeles, training wild animals to work in the world of film, television and advertising.
His list of credits includes The Surreal Life, The Tonight Show, Animal Planet and Discovery Channel programs, Beverly Hills Chihuahua and HBO’s True Blood. He even appeared in an infamous Jimmy Kimmel Show spoof (look it up on YouTube), where he brings in a giant fake rattlesnake that “bites” Kimmel during taping, fooling the studio audience (and especially those at home and online) until Kimmel arrives by ambulance at the hospital to be treated by the stars of Grey’s Anatomy.
This week, Lee makes a second return to Chico (he was here last weekend to enjoy the 28th Day reunion show at Duffy’s Tavern). He’s here to play a pair of solo acoustic shows (Sept. 8 at Cosmic Grounds Café, and Sept. 9 at Café Flo), and in anticipation I chatted with him by phone about what he’s been up to.
Have you played much music since moving to SoCal?
I put out a CD called Dear Enemy about five years ago—alternative pop. … This is sort of a one-time thing that I’m doing [in Chico]. I do not play out regularly. Occasionally I get invited to play in S.F. or L.A. with friends, but it’s extremely rare.
There’s been a metal resurgence in Chico in recent years, much of it a cross-pollination between metal and other heavy genres—hardcore, etc. It reminds me a lot of how Trench used to approach things.
Metal has really evolved. You can’t just be a stupid metalhead now. We didn’t wanna be just another stupid metal band. We just wanted to deliver our message as intensely as possible.
One of my favorite things about Trench is you guys would play shows with anyone—pop bands, hippie bands …
All I cared about was the vitality of the entire music scene of Chico. We all got along surprisingly well.
How’d you get into animal training?
I put the word in [to my uncle]. He called me from Australia and tried to talk me out of it. Then I got a call. They had a job for me taking care of an alligator exhibit [in Las Vegas]. The guy who was doing it had a heart attack. I did that job for 3 1/2 months then moved [to L.A.].
That’s quite a transition, from Chico’s little music scene to training animals for movies.
It was very hard. I struggled the first five years with it. I went from such a social situation to almost total isolation. In a way I’ve had to learn to contend with solitude. It’s been healthy for me.
When I went to the 28th Day show, I hadn’t realized how much I missed everyone. I sincerely miss Chico.
Did you have any experience with animal training?
Nope. Didn’t have any. I was absolutely terrified.
So, you had to learn on the fly.
The first thing Steve and [his wife] Donna asked me to do was start an outreach program to schools. I had to immediately start researching. I found other companies that did outreach and spent time with them. [The outreach] is the main source of income for me. I’ll bring monkeys, bearcats, pythons … I bring nothing over 60 pounds, if it is a predator, around the general public. Ninja [the bearcat] is the biggest animal I take to schools.
The main source of my knowledge is just being around animals. Just knowing their behavior is a lot more important than book smarts.
Do you consider the animals your pets?
Not in any way, shape or form. I think of them kind of like my children, but I don’t think about them as pets. Wild animals are not domesticatable. We very much discourage people to raise wild animals as pets.
Any memorable on-the-job stories?
I was told to take these chickens we had to a dry lake about an hour out of Palmdale. When I got there I went to catering for breakfast only to see Tom Waits walk out of one of the star wagons. That in itself almost freaked me out until I discovered that he was the actor I would be working with. … It took a lot of nerve for me to ask him anything that didn’t pertain to the job/film. What I asked his was: Is your bass player Greg Cohen? And he said, “Why, yes, he is. Why do you ask? “Well, I played music with his brother Danny Cohen in Chico.” And he just lit up. “Oh, Danny! You know Danny! Great guy, great guy. I see him every Thanksgiving. I listen to his tapes all the time, love his music, love the guy. He’s a real renaissance man.”
How did the Kimmel Show thing come about?
I agreed to do it because a I thought it was funny and I thought I could easily pass as one of those animal guys. It really did leave people with the impression that this was a legitimate animal segment. The crowd finally started laughing when they put Jimmy in the ambulance and the whole band piled in.
That was kind of right up my ally—punk-rock animal training.
What do they have you doing with the wolves for True Blood ?
For the most part what they need were runs. They need [the wolves] to go to marks. And they needed a lot of snarling. You’re just giving the illusion of aggression. What you do is, just below frame, you put a bone with meat on it. You put a mark beside it. The wolf goes to the mark and eats on the bone. Off camera we act like we’re grabbing for it. … They behave almost just like dogs.
Is the work gratifying?
Absolutely. [It’s] a relationship that requires mutual respect. Anything less is going to get you hurt. One of my stock answers to people is you’re not working with a thing, you’re working with a someone. [The animals] have a personality all their own.
When you teach animals behavior, especially wild animals, it’s an art form. It’s not just techniques, it’s relationships. If I can establish a relationship with them, then I can start training.