Jungle Stage Left
All the really big stars live at Vision Quest Ranch.
Thursday, October 24, 2002
Photo by Randy Tunnell; Photo: Animal Magnetism: Charlie Sammut with Josef, above, and other denizens of Wild Things.
The 500-lb African lion walks calmly over, muscles rippling beneath a dark mane that extends down to his stomach. Josef is on a chain-link leash, but it is tethered to a man less than half Josef''s weight. Effectively, the chain does not exist.
You''d think the fight or flight instinct that they always talk about on "National Geographic" would have kicked in for this journalist by now. But the flight is unsettlingly quiet, considering the fight part stands no chance.
Josef takes a casual glance over his broad shoulder, plops down, rolls on his back and makes the lion equivalent of a meow.
"Josef is our biggest star," Charlie Sammut says, squatting to scratch his pal''s belly. "Good African male lions are very rare. A lot of them get tough in their old age."
On the 51-acre Vision Quest Ranch at the foot of the Santa Lucia Mountains, Sammut presides over a clan of nearly 120 model/actor animals, including lions, tigers, leopards, elephants and members of some 50 other species. Sammut''s animal family has amassed hundreds of film and photo credits. They''ve played roles in George of the Jungle, Mighty Joe Young, "National Geographic Explorer," "The Drew Carey Show," Cadbury''s Easter lion commercial and even a Fabio calendar. And that''s just a few.
Filming animals, even with pros like Josef, is always complicated. In George of the Jungle, beautiful Ursula wanders off into the jungle and finds herself face-to-face with a hungry lion. George swings in, hits a tree, regains his senses, and then rescues Ursula, who eventually captures his heart. Josef and his stunt double, Kalib, were both used for the attack sequence.
"Josef had all the basic training on him-the behaviors-that we needed: a-to-b, stop, look, look left, look right, snarl, jump over camera," Sammut recalls. "Kalib was a young cat that had no formal training, but he liked to knock me down. So we used the two cats to put together the attack sequence. You see Josef circling, running toward camera, leaping up at the camera, cut to Kalib coming up on top of me, knocking me down to the ground, me flipping him over on his back, jumping off of him, and then cut to Josef running back into the jungle. It''s several different pieces all placed together seamlessly. All attack sequences are that way."
Most of the time the animals perform as they are trained. Sometimes, however, the unexpected occurs, like during the filming of the documentary "MGM: When the Lion Roars," narrated by Patrick Stewart, "Star Trek"''s Captain Picard and X-Men''s Professor Xavier.
"There was just one sequence where Josef and I were on camera together," Stewart recalls. "It was planned that we should walk side-by-side towards the camera and at a certain point Josef would walk up a ramp to an elevated position while I walked ahead and came to a stop immediately underneath Josef. All went well when Josef did it with the trainer, but when it was my turn, instead of going up the ramp, Josef leaned against my side and continued to walk forward on the floor with me. The trainer said it was an indication of how comfortable Josef felt with me. I was flattered, but the weight of that creature against my legs was a little different from one of my cats rubbing against my ankle."
"I got incredibly lucky with Josef," Sammut says. "I happened to stumble into a cub that turned into a one-in-a-million personality. Our relationship is just a typical solid friendship. We have good days. We have bad days. If I get mad at him, I feel bad. If he gets mad at me, he feels bad."
Sammut and Josef seem fated for their lifelong friendship. The first big cat Sammut tried to acquire was a tiger cub, but a mix-up put Josef on the doorstep instead. The tiger cub came shortly after.
But just because an animal is raised by humans from birth doesn''t mean it will be safe to handle as an adult. Eventually the tiger tried to eat Sammut.
"We raised him just like Josef, in the house, on the bed, but no matter what we did, when we put a leash on him and took him out of the cage, he came after me," says Sammut. "Animals are different, just like humans are different."
To become performers, animals must learn to learn, and their minds must always be stimulated. Treats don''t hurt, either. "It''s a matter of getting the animal in the position you want and getting it to understand that for being in that position it gets a reward," Sammut says. "It''s incredible how much they can learn. Bears, elephants, and primates especially. Cats are a little more difficult. They don''t learn as much. They are very stubborn. And when they get big they get very temperamental, so you just adjust the training accordingly."
Some of Wild Things'' most notable achievements did not even feature its animals, at least not directly. For the animated movies The Lion King, Aladdin, and Tarzan, residents of Wild Things served as live action models. Animators studied Josef for three months to get the movements right for King Mufasa, Simba, and the other lions in The Lion King. "He stood and walked in front of the artists," says Sammut. "Everything he did they drew so they could take their studies back and create as realistic an animated feature as possible."
Wild Things started as an educational program that stemmed from Sammut''s love of animals. "Education and ecology is the place we want to be," he says. "We''re taking elephants into schools. I think the kids in our area benefit tremendously from our programs because they might not ever have the opportunity to see these animals up close." Sammut also belongs to the Elephants of Africa Rescue Society, E.A.R.S., which strives to protect elephants in the wild and captivity from the worst of what humanity has to offer.
Josef''s beauty, combined with Sammut''s passion, has brought everlasting images of distant worlds and exotic creatures into countless homes. "We like to think that the end product of a film piece will stimulate people to feel that the animals are worth saving."
Wild Things offers Halloween flashlight tours this Friday and Saturday at 7pm. Weekend flashlight tours continue through December. 400 River Rd, Salinas. $12/adults, $10 kids. 455-1901 or www.wildthingsinc.com.