A Guide to Working with Animals

You’re working on a project. It features a scene involving an animal. What do you do next? Ask around friends and family to see if you could borrow one? Visit a pet shop?

We spoke to Gerry Cott, founder and head trainer from A-Z Animals, about what you need to consider when using an animal on screen.

Cott has overseen the casting, training and supervision of animals for some 150 feature films, 600 TV commercials and many more productions – including theatre and special events. It’s therefore fair to say he knows a thing or two about working with them.

So, if you’re thinking about using an animal in your film, TV show or commercial, it’s worth taking a look at what he has to say before you go visit that pet shop…

What’s the first thing you should do when planning to feature an animal in your production?

The first thing you need to is identify what the specific scripted action is for the animal(s) in question. You should decide whether the animal is to be filmed within a studio, location interior, or an exterior location.

Then you take into consideration any other factors that may impact the animal's performance or suitability for the specific assignment. For example, is it a public place, is there traffic, will you be using SFX, will there be children interacting with the animal – all issues that can affect the animals performance.

Who can help me with the actual animal?

After you created this list of necessities you search for an experienced professional animal trainer (also known as wranglers or handlers) with whom you should discuss all the above.

Make sure the trainer you approach is trusted by the production industry as an expert in their field and is an expert working with the type of animal you require (there’s a big difference between working with snakes and working with cats).

You should always ask to see previous examples of their work so that you can be assured of their relevant knowledge and expertise, which will be necessary to achieve the ‘effect’ you are looking for.

Are there any laws you need to abide by?

There are several laws that you need to abide by when working with animals. Though these vary per country, in the UK these are:

• Animal Welfare Act 2006

• Countryside and Wildlife Act 1981

• Dangerous Wild Animals Act 1976

• Performing Animals Act 1925

Which animals should you avoid working with (if at all possible)?

Animals that are unsuited to the scripted filming concept in terms of species, temperament or unpreparedness are best avoided but obviously this varies based on your needs.

Producers should always verify all of these issues with the wrangler at the pre-production stage.

A few good examples of the above are as follows:

1. A bull that has never ever been off his home farm and is now being asked to film on a sound stage at Pinewood Studios. Clearly, he is totally unprepared and indeed is quite likely to demolish the place - so, that's a tick in the ‘unsuitable temperament’ box.

2. Another might be using a fully venom loaded King Cobra snake for a snake dancing sequence in a film - death from a bite can be expected within 10 minutes - so that's a tick in the ‘unsuitable species’ box.

3. So the director says: "I like the dog to jump out the window, land in the car as it drives by, jump out of the car when it stops at the traffic lights, chase the robber down the street, jump on his back and bring him to the ground, grab the bag with the money in it and give it to the policeman standing on the corner - got that?" Stunned silence… Dog handler responds to the director: "Nobody told me about this bit.” So that's the ‘unpreparedness’ box ticked then.

Though these might sound like a given, you can never be too careful in checking and rechecking before you bring an (expensive) animal and its handler on set.

Are there some animals that don’t work well with others?

Natural predators working together should be avoided at all times. It’s also strongly advisable not to mix predators with prey – for example a Boa Constrictor in close proximity with a rabbit is not a good idea, for obvious reasons!

In addition, animals that temperamentally are unsuited to either the filming environment or action should also be avoided

What are the best animals to work with?

Animals that are, in their individual personality, confident, outgoing and which have been very well prepared for the filming environment and scripted action are the best to use.

A cow that goes to all the agricultural shows in the summer months and wins all the 1st prize rosettes will always be my first choice for that Butter TV commercial – simple as really.

What are the main challenges when it comes to working with animals?

With proper training and preparation, there should be no particular challenges. That said, it’s really important to work with a good animal trainer.

When working with animals in production, experience and expertise are fundamental to success. It’s one thing for a production professional to ask questions regarding the animal content scripted, but it is quite another thing to know all the right questions to ask.

An animal handler should be able to guide their client through all the issues to be addressed in the pre-production stage - right through to completion of the project. 

What about the paperwork and insurance requirements?

A full animal risk assessment and method statement specific to your script for the animals must be provided to the production company prior to filming by the trainer.

It must be attached to all call sheets so that the cast and crew are aware of the animals on set and the safety protocols to be followed during production.

The handler must also carry full PLI cover for the animals working with cast and crew in addition to the production company's PLI for the shoot.

A copy of the trainer's public liability insurance (PLI) cover, specific to the provision and supervision of the animals working with cast and crew, must then be provided to the production company.

What do you need to consider when on location or at a studio?

Adequate parking facilities for vehicles carrying animals must be provided at the location or studio as close as possible to the set.

You also need to make sure there is access to water and an exercise area suitable for the type of animal you are filming with should also be provided.

If you plan to be filming at night then safety working lights must be provided at all times.
You also need to ensure that access to the studio is direct, safe and secure. In addition, all floor surfaces should be non-slip.

Are there any animals to avoid in certain environments?

There is no general rule about this other than what has been established as safe, secure and practicable during the pre-production discussions with the animal handler.

The risk assessment and method statement will dictate what safety measures need to be taken to assure a safe, secure and successful shoot.

What do you need to consider when transporting the animal to and from a location?

The animal trainer must transport the animals in vehicles that are both fit for purpose and compliant with all current Animal Transportation Regulations. Due consideration needs to be given to travelling times which should be compliant with animal transportation regulations, health and safety, and best professional practice.

Are there restrictions in hours an animal can work?

Unlike working with children, there are no specific restrictions in hours when you are filming animals. That said, given that the welfare of the animals and health and safety is paramount, a set amount of time should be agreed upon between the animal wrangler and the production company prior to filming.

Nowadays there is also normally a vet in attendance who will further monitor and assure the welfare of the animals on site. As long as you adhere to having the professionals around and listen to their advice you can’t go wrong.

Is there any advice you have to give to crew or actors on set when an animal is present?

Prior to filming, everyone should read the animal risk assessment and method statement (attached to the call sheet) which will provide all the information they require to safety interact or work alongside the animals on set.

Where actors have to interact or work very closely with the animal(s), due consideration and discussion and perhaps a rehearsal should take place prior to filming.

Close communication between the 1st AD, floor manager and the animal trainer on set needs to be maintained at all times during the rehearsal and filming process. And of course, animal welfare and health and safety standards should be maintained throughout the entire rehearsal and filming process.

Does the animal have to have any specific vaccines?

All vaccinations, statutory animal health, welfare and transportation requirements are the responsibility of the animal wrangler. However, it is down to the production company to enquire and confirm that all of these issues have been successfully addressed by the trainer.

If something goes wrong on a production to an animal, who is ultimately responsible?

This is a very good question because you would assume it's always someone’s fault, right? But that’s not necessarily the case.

Imagine if the animal company provides a horse. On the film shoot the horse rears and the actor falls off and breaks his leg. So whose fault was that then? Let see the options:

1. The animal company insists they provided a very calm, well experienced ‘filming’ horse - so it can't be there fault, can it?

2. The film company exercised great caution around the filming of the actor on the horse and contrary to popular belief they didn't set off Olympic scale pyrotechnics as the actor rode by.

3. Of course the actor was an expert rider, and in fact took part in the Grand National only last week. Or so he says!

4. Who could have foreseen that the biggest thunder and lighting storm to hit London in a hundred years would let rip just as the 1st Ad screamed “Action!”.

So, there you go - it was what you can call an act of God.

Attributing blame after something goes wrong is normally the preserve of the lawyers and it certainly would be in this case. Filming with animals in my experience is reasonably predictable if, that is, all departments do their homework, talk to each other all during pre-production and are all working off the same page on the shoot.

I was once told by a very experienced and successful feature film director - "that's how the grown-ups do it."

To find out more about Gerry and his work, please visit A-Z Animal's profile on The Knowledge

To get a glimpse into what it was like working with animals on the ITV show Wild at Heart, head over to our international website, KFTV.