Bonnie Judd provides ‘talent’ for the big and small screens, and loves every minute

Lynne McNamara
Vancouver Sun

Monday, August 23, 2004

Bonnie Judd Animal Handler with Mayhem & TroubleBonnie Judd’s family still can’t believe she quit her secure job at B.C. Tel to work with animals, even though her company, Canine Co-stars of Canada, is now one of the most successful in the country.

Her critters have been seen on the big screen in Air Bud III & IV, Good Boy!, Cats and Dogs, The Pledge, Police Academy, on the small screen in Da Vinci’s Inquest, Millennium, Stargate SG-1, Outer Limits, as well as the upcoming Robson Arms, and in commercials for Dodge Caravan, Pampers and the infamous Superbowl 2004 Bud Light crotch-ripping spot.

The sign on the closed gate of her huge compound in Aldergrove reads, “Honk, dogs running free.”

Judd, who moved there 15 years ago, opens it up and leads me out to meet her friends. Within moments I am covered in saliva. Have you ever been licked to death by an arctic wolf or a coyote?

This is a woman who truly loves her animals — and they know it.

To Yodi, the, big-eyed coyote, she coos, “Good boy, cutie patootie,” over the din of the kennel cleaners’ rock music blaring in the background.

Wolves Piper, Raffi, Iona, Sniper and Merlin are also very sweet — who knew? No baring of fangs, all soulful eyes and wiggly back ends. Yes, there are fences between us, but the animals have lots of room to run and hide.

“I really believe if they have their own space and time, they’ll work better when they’re with you.”

“Hi honey,” she whispers to one, “you’re my favourite.”

“Exposure is the big thing with these guys,” says Judd.

At our feet, running free, are several stunningly beautiful, rare, white, blue-eyed border collies, chewing on Judd’s latest concoction, frozen patties of raw chicken and veggies.

Then I meet the exotic lemur — you’ll see him being carried by the King in the miniseries Earthsea when it airs next year.

He lets me scratch under one arm, then holds up the other for same.

Next we visit the goats, a prairie dog, several standoff-ish cats, a couple of bristly pigs cooling off in the dirt, and some exquisite bunnies whose population is somehow getting out of control, but never mind.

Next, Scrabble shows up to say hi — he’s the wiry little Superbowl crotch biter — along with Judd’s personal pet, Mayhem, a huge hairy briard. (He was Cousin It’s pet on The New Addams Family and Jonathan Taylor Thomas’ dog in I’ll Be Home For Christmas. Judd is now developing a movie called Mayhem in LA as a star vehicle for her pooch.)

Inside her personal living quarters, in huge cages, Judd keeps her two, beloved capuchin monkeys — Buster and Hollywood.

Hollywood takes one look at this writer and jumps back, bares his teeth and shakes his head, as if to erase the hideous vision.”He doesn’t like women,” explains Judd.

But he still reaches out his soft little hand to hold mine.

Judd started her career breeding and training German shepherds. One day, movie animal wrangler Debbie Coe came by to rent a puppy for a commercial, and was impressed by its behaviour.

“Good dogs are born, and great dogs are made by people who do all the right things,” says Judd, who was surprised to learn that in movies and commercials at that time, animals were categorized as props.

“I saw this vast gaping hole,” she says. “People who supplied them, but didn’t know how to train or control them.”

Judd spent the next few years working with Coe, finding animals for the industry, training them, and learning her movie ropes on shows like The X-Files, Millennium, Outer Limits, and Air Bud I and II.

Her fascination with animals began as a kid in Delta.

“I was one of those children that drove everybody crazy ’cause I brought everything home — pigeons, baby birds, crows, puppies. I think I gave my mom and dad plenty of gray hair over the years.

“I didn’t play so much with kids — I was odd man out. I’d be in the back yard digging up whatever I could — salamanders, shrews — I was constantly trying to mother them, bring them back to health.”

She also bartered a poodle for doing cleanup work for a local breeder, and learned animal grooming.

“But I was more into the way they think, like what makes them do things and why do they do it and how do I get them to do weird things. I was always trying to teach animals to do silly things. When it clicks over, that’s what really gives me a high. Some people drink and smoke drugs — I get that same high when I see Buster or Hollywood put their hands on their heads (she’s teaching them sign language), understand that if I do this and you this then there’s a reward.”

And one of her training adventures as a kid later turned into cold, hard cash.One summer holiday she and her girlfriend taught their dogs to play soccer.

“The dogs were goalies,” she recalls. “In September, everybody laughed at me when I told them what I’d done.”

But recently, she got the last laugh, when Keystone Entertainment and Miramax hired her to teach dogs how to play soccer for Air Bud III. “I’ve been teaching dogs to do that since I was seven,” she giggles. “People used to laugh at me, but now they give me gobs of money for doing it.”

Not understanding much about finance, Judd, who is dyslexic and left school after Grade 8, recently went to Women in Film to take some business courses. There she met accountants and lawyers, and has since hired “a really awesome bookkeeper”.

As an animal co-ordinator/trainer in the movies, she might start planning a year in advance of the shoot start, searching worldwide for creature/actors.

“We’re on payroll from that time, and it’s big, lots of phone calls, ads in newspaper, hitting every contact. Do they want boxers in different colours, cropped, not cropped, docked, not docked?”

Email photos and videos go out, then the dogs and the producers all meet in one spot for the “audition.”

The movie Cats and Dogs, which shot here a few years ago, was rumoured to have an animal contract of $4 million. “In the U.S., that’s about average,” says Judd.”There can be a lot of money in it, but it’s a really long haul to get to where I am. You need to love animals, and be a really hard worker, ’cause it’s not fun wheeling wheelbarrows through three feet of snow. There are no days off.

“By our standards in Canada, I’m really sort of the top of the top at this point. The company is healthy,” she admits.”We’ve come a long way in the business in the last seven years, I’ve really seen the business change, and that’s really helping us because we’re looking much more — I want to say grown up — because we’re conducting our business a lot better than what we used to.

“I’d say two years ago it was a lot better — we’re talking over a million dollars a year. It’s come down a bit, but all of the movie industry has come down a bit at this point and I don’t think that we’re bottoming out and going away. I really just think it’s a slow down and it’s going to pick up again.”

© The Vancouver Sun 2004