Skip to main content

Animal Stage Trainer Makes Stars Out Of Pound Pups

Animal stage trainer Bill Berloni has 30 years' worth of experience training dogs, pigs, rats, cats and lambs for Broadway productions and Hollywood films.

20:55

Other segments from the episode on September 4, 2009

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, September 4, 2009: Interview with Bill Berloni; Interview with Charles Siebert; Interview with Robert Smigel.

Transcript

*** TRANSCRIPTION COMPANY BOUNDARY ***
..DATE:
20090904
..PGRM:
Fresh Air
..TIME:
12:00-13:00 PM
..NIEL:
N/A
..NTWK:
NPR
..SGMT:
Animal Stage Trainer Makes Stars Out Of Pound Pups

DAVID BIANCULLI, host:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli of TVWorthWatching.com, sitting
in for Terry Gross.

Today is the fifth and final day of Animal Week on FRESH AIR, and we’re
ending with a day devoted to animals in show biz. We’ll listen back to
interviews with journalist Charles Siebert, who wrote a book about where
Hollywood chimps go after they retire from TV and the movies, and with
comedian Robert Smigel, creator and alter-ego of the infamous talking
canine puppet, Triumph the Insult Comic Dog.

We’ll also hear from and start with show-biz dog trainer Bill Berloni.
His specialty is finding dogs and other animals and training them for
roles on Broadway. He walks into animal shelters and walks out with
stars.

Among the scene-stealers he can take credit for are the dog who
originated the role of Sandy in the Broadway hit “Annie,” the Chihuahua
and bulldog in the Broadway adaptation of "Legally Blonde," and the lamb
in the revival of "Gypsy" that starred Bernadette Peters. Bill Berloni
also is an animal behavior consultant for the Humane Society of New
York, and his book, “Broadway Tails,” that’s tales as spelled T-A-I-L-S,
is now out in paperback. I spoke to Bill Berloni in 2008, when his book
came out in hardback.

Bill Berloni, welcome to FRESH AIR.

Mr. BILL BERLONI (Animal Behavior Consultant, Humane Society of New
York; Author, “Broadway Tails”): Thank you. Thank you for having us.

BIANCULLI: Let's talk about "Annie," since that's how you started your
career and your habit of using shelter dogs. How did you back into this
career as an animal trainer?

Mr. BERLONI: When I graduated from high school, I wanted to be an actor,
and I lived near a very famous summer stock theater called The Goodspeed
Opera House in East Haddam, Connecticut. And they're known for reviving
American musicals and introducing new musicals. And I volunteered there
as a young kid to build scenery for free to be around real actors,
professional actors.

And my second season there as a set-building apprentice, they were doing
a new show. And I remember being called into the producer's office, and
he offered me a chance to be in Actor's Equity, which is the actors
union, and a part on stage, and I was bowled over. I thought he
recognized my acting abilities by the way I'd moved scenery for two
years.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BERLONI: And the second part of the equation in my euphoria was: All
you have to do is find and train a dog for us for the new show. And I
left his office accepting the offer, and it took me like a day or two to
realize that what I had agreed to. The new show was “Annie,” and they
couldn't afford a professional dog trainer, and everybody on the paid
staff had threatened to quit if they had to do it. So he was looking for
a sucker.

So I was that wide-eyed kid who'd said: Sure, I could try anything.
Someone said: Oh, well, they have cheap dogs at the dog pound. Well,
being 19 years old, I'd never been to a dog pound. So I took the truck
and a Polaroid camera and went casting.

And I remember being profoundly moved. I had had dogs growing up. I was
a dog lover - and profoundly moved by the situation of these animals in
cages who, many of which were slated to be euthanized. And, well, I did
find the original Sandy the day before he was going to be put to sleep,
and I paid $7 for him. And I trained him as I trained my other pets.

You know, I knew they could do repetitive behaviors or, you know, I knew
they loved the people they worked with and lived with. So I thought if I
can make the theater his home and the actors his family, he might do
what we asked him to. And that positive-reinforcement method of training
was somewhat revolutionary. It was the first time that a dog had played
a character on stage.

"Annie" opened at The Goodspeed and bombed. It was - got terrible
reviews. The producers said to me: What are you going to do with the
dog? I said: Well, I'm moving to New York City. If I'm going to be a
starving actor, I might as well have a starving dog. And I enrolled at
NYU, and in the fall of 1976, Mike Nichols’ office called, the famous
director.

He said: We're producing "Annie" for Broadway with the original company.
Would you be interested? And I said: A chance to work with Mike Nichols?
Of course I'll be a dog trainer, and went into rehearsal. We opened at
the Kennedy Center, and in April of 1977 at the age of 20, "Annie"
became a hit, and I became a famous animal trainer.

BIANCULLI: According to your book, the original Sandy got run over two
weeks before opening night and went on. I mean, it's one of the best
trooper stories I've ever heard, and I was wondering if you embellished
that at all.

Mr. BERLONI: Actually, I did, you know, I was actually kinder to the
situation. I mean, because it was purely accidental. Just so our
listeners know, you know, in that summer, we used to build scenery in a
big barn, literally a big barn. And Sandy would come to the set with us
every - or to the shop with us every day and he would hang out, and then
he would come to the theater with us every night while we were doing
other shows. And as the opening night got closer, they started laying
down the scenery they had built on the floor to paint it.

BIANCULLI: Mm-hmm.

Mr. BERLONI: And I was off doing something else in another part of the
shop, and he stepped on a piece of scenery that was wet, and so, you
know, the painter said: Well, we've got to move him to out back. So they
took him, and they tied him to a tree out back where there was some
shade. But he decided to go under one of the delivery trucks to lay in
the sand.

And the delivery person came to take the truck, not thinking to look for
the dog, and heard this squeal and accidentally ran him over. The
accident dislocated his leg, and the vet we took him to thought it would
take a month for him to heal, and he had to be rested. You know, and, of
course, the producer was noticeably upset. You know, he was like: Now
what are we going to do? We've got to find another dog. You know, if
this dog doesn't make it to opening night, I'm firing everybody who was
involved. And so all of a sudden my colleagues' jobs were at risk, and,
you know, we would never force an animal to perform.

And as Sandy was so enamored by what his life had become that he would
get agitated when he didn't come to the shop, or when he didn't come to
the theater as we were looking for other dogs. And then, you know, the
director, Martin Charnin, saw the bandages on his leg and said: Let's
use it. It's great. He'll, you know.

(Soundbite of laughter)

BIANCULLI: I don't know if that’s…

Mr. BERLONI: And so that's what we did.

BIANCULLI: I don't know if that's cold or warm.

Mr. BERLONI: Oh, well, you know, he was able to walk on stage. And
there's a behavior in "Annie" where at a certain point, he jumps up and
puts his paws on his shoulders and we had - I told Andrea McArdle, who
was the original Annie, not to do that cue and give him the hand signal.
But at that moment he did it anyways, which was just the look, the love.
BIANCULLI: It must have been very powerful dramatically if people
believed the injury.

Mr. BERLONI: But nobody in the audience knew about the injury. And - but
certainly for all of us in that theater last - you know, that night, it
was, like, the power and the loyalty of animals was just, you know,
right there in front of us.

And I feel blessed to be in their company every day, you know, because
they're creatures with the absence of malice, you know. All they want to
do is please. And so it's a wonderful life to have and to see that sort

of loyalty and compassion.

BIANCULLI: Was "Annie" the show for which you developed - I don't know
whether it's called the Berloni drop or the bologna drop?

Mr. BERLONI: Yes. Initially, in "Annie," Annie and Sandy meet, and then
they're separated. And halfway through the first act, they wrote in a
scene, after the show had become successful before we went to Broadway,
where they wanted him wandering the streets of New York looking for her.
And they needed him to sit center stage, look right, look left and then
exit.

And dogs have very poor eyesight. They don't see clearly at, you know,
20 feet. And so while Sandy would come to me, he - I couldn't get him to
stop center stage, because he would come about 10 feet, five feet to the
wings, where he could see me clearly. And then he'd see his hand signal
and sit. So I needed to devise a way to get him to stop center stage.
And so, you know, as I clumsily was rehearsing, I noticed that every
time I dropped a treat, he would stop what he was doing and pick it up.
And so that - aha, the aha moment.

BIANCULLI: Mm-hmm.

Mr. BERLONI: So I thought if I could drop a piece of food, and so we
tried treats, and then the tap dancers would step on them and they'd
crunch all over the place. And being somewhat young and poor, about the
only thing I had in my refrigerator in 1977 was bologna. So we thought,
there you go. It'll stick right to the deck and tasty, and so that's
somehow how that came up.

BIANCULLI: So the tap dancers had to dance over bologna?

Mr. BERLONI: Yes, yes. And if they got it on their foot, it wouldn't,
like, crunch and fall into the tracks, you know. And it's one of those
ironic twists that, you know, my last name is Berloni, so from the time
I was in grade school everybody called me Billy Bologna. And so that's
probably the reason I went into show business, all that teasing. So to
have a famous move named after me is a homage at this point.

BIANCULLI: You've said that the original Sandy acted in "Annie" for
seven years.

Mr. BERLONI: Mm-hmm.

BIANCULLI: What happened to that original Sandy after, you know,
retirement from the stage?

Mr. BERLONI: After the dogs are done with their shows, whether they last
one night or seven years, they're mine forever. And he went into semi-
retirement and, you know, did appearances around the country. And then
as he became older and frailer, you know, I took care of him until he
passed away in his sleep.

And it was just so moving to me, you know. He died when he was 16 years
old, and what I thought was somewhat of a trivial addition to the
entertainment field, they did an obituary for him in The New York Times
with his picture, and it wasn't a joke. It was very serious, you know,
because one of the things we'd do, and we continue to do, is raise
awareness for the plight of homeless animals. And Sandy became that
poster child.

BIANCULLI: Mm-hmm.

Mr. BERLONI: You know, he was really the first dog to, you know, become
famous and say that he was from an animal shelter and not bred from a
line of Lassies or, you know, Benjis or something like that. So I was
quite moved that the entertainment industry got it.

BIANCULLI: Broadway animal trainer Bill Berloni. More after a break.
This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

BIANCULLI: Continuing our final day of Animal Week on FRESH AIR, let’s
get back to my 2008 interview with Broadway animal trainer Bill Berloni.
His book, “Broadway Tails,” is now out in paperback. It’s about his work
rescuing dogs from shelters and training them for roles on stage and
screen.

How many dogs do you have at home?

Mr. BERLONI: What day is today? As of today, we have 20, and 15 to 20
seems to be my magic Broadway number. Today we have 20.

BIANCULLI: Twenty? And you have a young daughter, don't you?

Mr. BERLONI: Yes.

BIANCULLI: So how does she relate to all of these animals?

Mr. BERLONI: I dedicate my - the opening of the book to my wife and my
daughter. And, you know, I believe having an animal in a child's life is
very important because it teaches them altruism. It teaches them that
they're not the center of the universe, that there are other creatures
that need care and respect.

And so if I give nothing else to my daughter, she seems to be very well-
centered in that. You know, she lives with creatures she has to help,
she has to interact with, she has to share her home with, she has to
share this world with. And so there are times where, if she becomes
forgetful and doesn't pick up her toys or stuff, they get destroyed.

So there are many valuable lessons to be learned by having animals, and
certainly, you know, in her 10 years, she's probably seen 10 or 12
creatures that she's lived and loved with passed away. So I mean, many
issues we talk about, and so I think she's okay.

BIANCULLI: What pets did you have as a kid, and what lessons did they
teach you?

Mr. BERLONI: I had an unusual situation. My dad was a horticulturist for
a municipality in Connecticut. So we lived on a farm that had
greenhouses. I was an only child, and although we came from a big
Italian family, my mom stayed home and took care of me, and I had a
collie, a cat and a rabbit.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BERLONI: And we were in an isolated area in Connecticut, a rural
area, so there were no kids around. So until I went to kindergarten, I
was - those were my companions. And when I did get to kindergarten, I
was horribly shy. I didn't know how to interact with other kids because
I’d grown up with these animals.

And so somewhere in that developmental phase, I must have learned how to
communicate nonverbally with other creatures, which ultimately would
come to serve me in my career. And so, you know, it took me a while to -
I was always shy, and I was drawn to the stage because I could be a part
of the drama club, you know, and be the only boy with, like, 10 or 12
girls, and it was a good deal. I wasn't big enough to be a football
player.

BIANCULLI: Mm-hmm.

Mr. BERLONI: But I could be on stage, and people could listen to me, and

I didn't have to talk to people. So my development, both in being raised
with these animals on a farm, I think, led to my career.

BIANCULLI: In addition to "Annie" and "Legally Blonde: The Musical," in
between are a couple of dozen other credits, stage and elsewhere. One
that really surprised me, I would have never expected to find your name
popping up associated with this, it's that famous Richard Avedon photo
of Nastassja Kinski where she's naked except for a giant python wrapped
around her body.

Mr. BERLONI: Mm-hmm.

BIANCULLI: So where were you, and why were you there?

Mr. BERLONI: When "Annie" opened on Broadway, Richard Avedon shot the
characters from "Annie" for Vogue magazine. And I was 20 years old and

went to the studio, and for whatever reason, he was particularly
impressed with this kid who had this dog.

He got my number from the press agent, and he called me and he said: I
have this idea for a photo shoot with a snake. Do you train snakes? So
I'm thinking: Oh, my goodness. I've got a chance to work with this
world-famous photographer. So sure, I train snakes. So what do we have
to do?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BERLONI: Well, we just have to drape it on a model. I said okay. And
he said how much? And I'm thinking: Do I have to pay him? Until I
realized he was asking me how much I would charge him. So back in 1977,
I went - I thought of the highest amount of money I could think of,
which was $250. He went, okay.

So I called a friend of mine at the ASPCA here in New York, who was the
exotic animal consultant, and she knew a snake guy in Brooklyn. So I
called the snake guy and he said: Sure, I got a, you know, a boa. And so
I said look, I'll split the fee with you. I'll give you $125. We'll work
for an hour, you know, easy money. Agreed. So the day of the shoot - I'd
never met him.

We arrive at Mr. Avedon's studio, and this guy comes in with a chest, an
ice cooler. And he's got sort of long hair and straggly beard and he
looks kind of rough around the edges. And, you know, Mr. Avedon comes in
with Nastassja, who's a teenager, wrapped in a blanket, and he said, you
know, we're going to drape the snake on her.

And so it was a very sort of, certainly out-of-worldly experience for
me. And she whispers something in his ear, and he comes over to me and
he goes: You know, she doesn't feel comfortable with that gentleman. Do
you mind handling the snake? And it was one of those defining moments
where I went: Oh my God, I am terrified of snakes.

So do I admit to this world-famous photographer that I'm afraid of
snakes, or do I suck it up and do it? And I went, okay. So I go over,
and the reason you put reptiles on ice is to lower their body
temperature so they become less mobile.

So I pick up the snake, and it is cold, and in my mind slimy, but I pick
it up, and I turn and look at the table and there is a naked woman lying
on it. Now, I'm 19 and a half years old. I had not seen many naked women
in my life.

So there I am with the snake in my hands and a naked woman in front of
me, and I didn't know which frightened me more, especially when I had to
start draping it over her body near her private parts. I was a mess. But
somehow, I got them there, and we stepped back, and he started shooting.

And after about 10 minutes, the snake warmed up and we had to put it
back on ice. Well, after 30 minutes, I was a seasoned snake handler. I
was, like, all over this thing. And, you know, the next thing I know,
this becomes an iconic photograph that has been seen around the world.

BIANCULLI: In "Gypsy," not the current Broadway revival, but the
previous one with Bernadette Peters, you used a lamb. How do you train a
lamb, and how often do you have to replace lambs?

Mr. BERLONI: In "Gypsy," the family, the Hovick family, of which June
Hovick and Gypsy were part of - and Mama Rose - loved animals. They were
vaudevillians who had all sorts of animals, and so that was written into
the script, their love of animals. And how and why a baby lamb was
chosen, I'll never know.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BERLONI: But, you know, when Bernadette was leading this revival,
she wanted me to work on it because she knew that I would make sure that
the animals weren't ever hurt. And whether it's a baby pig or a baby
lamb, you know, you get these creatures when they're five to seven days
old because they grow so quickly.

And when you're handling any infant creature of that age, you have to be
very careful about their stress level, feeding, all that sort of stuff.
And how do you train, you know, those animals? Basically, the lamb had
to be carried on and be quiet for a lullaby.

BIANCULLI: Mm-hmm, and be sung to, and be sung to.

Mr. BERLONI: And I had learned to - and be sung to. And from having
recently had a baby a few years before, I remembered, you know, when I
gave my daughter her bottle, there would be this milk buzz, there would
be this euphoric: Ah, my belly's filled with warm milk. I'll just lay
here. And I thought, well, maybe that works for lambs, too.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BERLONI: And it's exact - it does. You know, it's amazing what a
little warm milk will do for you. So each night before the lamb went on
stage, we would give her, you know, her formula, and she'd go onstage
sucking her little lips, eyes half open, digesting her milk, and then 10
minutes later she'd be up and awake and ready to play. So her feeding
schedules were tied around the performances at the Shubert Theatre every
day.

And they would last 21 days. By the time the lambs were 21 days old, we
would be into the next lamb. I would go up to a farm in upstate New
York, get a baby lamb, bring it back, wash it, diaper it, and we'd
switch it out. And we ended up going through, I think, 23 or 24 lambs
over the run of "Gypsy."

BIANCULLI: Are lambs always available?

Mr. BERLONI: No. That was the other thing. I talked to one of the
original stagehands who worked on the Ethel Merman production, and they
used to go to the meat market - this was in the 1950s - get baby lambs,
use them and then barbecue them after the show was over, when they got
too large, which in the '50s was an accepted practice for meat animals.

Certainly, we weren't going to do that on the current production. So -
and they only - lambs only have babies once a year, and it's in the

spring. So I was not only charged with finding lambs all year ‘round,
but what do we do with them afterwards? And I found a – there is a farm,
world-famous farm that produces sheep milk cheese.

It's one of the gourmet places. It's in upstate New York, and it's all
organic. And they artificially inseminate sheep all year ‘round so that
they're continually lactating, and they keep the female sheep and they
send the boys to the meat markets. So we went - I found this place, and
they generously loaned me baby lambs because I would bring them back,
you know, clean and healthy. So I could say to Bernadette and the
theatrical community, if you want to see any of our lambs, go up to the
farm, and they're grazing up on some beautiful fields.

BIANCULLI: Well, Bill Berloni, thanks very much for being here on FRESH
AIR.

Mr. BERLONI: My pleasure.

BIANCULLI: Animal trainer Bill Berloni. His book, “Broadway Tails,” is
now out on paperback. Here’s the song from the Broadway revival of
“Gypsy,” which was sung to that lamb onstage. We’ll have more guests
with more animal stories in the second half to the show. I’m David
Bianculli, and this is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of song, "Little Lamb")

Ms. SANDRA CHURCH: (Singing) Little lamb, little lamb. My birthday is
here at last. Little lamb, little lamb…
..COST:
$00.00
..INDX:
112511946
*** TRANSCRIPTION COMPANY BOUNDARY ***
..DATE:
20090904
..PGRM:
Fresh Air
..TIME:
12:00-13:00 PM
..NIEL:
N/A
..NTWK:
NPR
..SGMT:
Off Baja California, Whales Show A Curious Streak

DAVE BIANCULLI, host:

This is FRESH AIR. I’m David Bianculli sitting in for Terry Gross.

Our FRESH AIR Animal Week continues with Terry's interview with
journalist Charles Siebert, who wrote a book about where chimpanzee
performers go when they're through acting in circuses, movies, TV shows
and commercials. A lot of them, it turns out, go to a kind of retirement
home called the Center for Great Apes on the outskirts of Wauchula in
South Central, Florida. Siebert's book is called the "The Wauchula Woods
Accord: Toward a New Understanding of Animals." Terry spoke with him in
July.

TERRY GROSS, host:

Let's start with just a roll call of famous chimps living in retirement
now.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. CHARLES SIEBERT (Journalist; Author, “The Wauchula Woods Accord:
Toward a New Understanding of Animals"): Well, I guess we'd have to
start with Bubbles, Michael Jackson's chimp, who lived in the very
retirement home for chimp entertainers where I lived for a time. There's
Cheetah, of course, of the Tarzan movies. He's out on a West Coast
retirement home in Palm Springs, of course.

There are all the chimps - do you know the careerbuilder.com commercials
that were so popular during the Super Bowl, where one of the chimps -
the chimps run amok in an office. They're all dressed in suits, and one
of them pulls down his pants and sits on the office copy machine. All
those chimps were at the Center for Great Apes, where Roger and Bubbles
are. There's the orangutan from a movie called "Dunston Checks In,"
something with Jason Alexander, which I've never seen. Roger, my - star
of my book, he was a cellist in an all-chimp orchestra...

GROSS: Oh gosh.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SIEBERT: ...at Ringling Brothers.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SIEBERT: So it goes on and on. And when you visit this place, it's
just so, it's so ridiculous because you walk in and, you know, Patty
Reagan, who owns it, will just introduce you to each of them and it’s,
you know, you're just looking at these stars with their dossiers. And,
of course, the sadness involved is that, as people don't realize, they
have viability as actors for about five or six years, and then they get
too big and strong and end up living 50 more years in captivity. So...

GROSS: Well, let me - we'll get back to that in a second. But let me
Just ask you: Does Roger, the former circus cellist, still played cello?
Do the circus stars still do the things that they were trained to do?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SIEBERT: It's funny you should say. Just the moment prior to meeting
Roger and locking eyes with him for the first time, Patty was
introducing me to these chimps in an enclosure opposite Roger's. And one
of the chimps there is named Butch. And Butch came walking out of his
back quarters towards the front of the enclosure in an eerily upright
sort of position. And he came right up to the front, and Patty went, and
that's Butch. And I went, hi, Butch. And Patty put her hand over mouth
like, oh, no, you shouldn't have done that. And Butch immediately went
into...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SIEBERT: ...a classic stand-up ta-dah pose with his hands straight
in the air.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SIEBERT: And this was his old shtick, which was prompted whenever
anyone said hello to him.

GROSS: Now, as I said, you know, chimpanzees can only work till a
certain age - what, about five or six - and then what happens?

Mr. SIEBERT: Well, as we sometimes see in horrible circumstances with
pet chimps, they get big and strong. An adult chimp is about five times
stronger than the strongest human and very rambunctious in their teenage
years especially, just like human beings. So they become willful and
very aggressive. And they are, after all, wild animals, all of our, you
know, distortions of them notwithstanding.

And because a lot of them have gone through traumas of captivity - being
separated too early from their mothers, not growing up with other chimps
- they have pathologies. They have neuroses. They have trauma. And
sometimes the littlest thing, as with humans, can upset the scar tissue
- the trauma in their brain - and set them off, as we saw with this
incident in Stamford, Connecticut, not too long ago, where Travis mauled
that woman so horribly.

GROSS: You know, when Michael Jackson gave away his chimp, Bubbles, gave
him to a sanctuary, he said that Bubbles had become too aggressive. But
apparently that's the typical problem after a certain age for people or
circuses or...

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: ...TV trainers with chimps.

Mr. SIEBERT: Absolutely. I mean, when that Travis incident happened, I
wrote a piece, an op-ed piece for The Times about it. I mean, it was
literally a chapter out of my book, because they're about - any number
of similar stories. People just, you know, we have this cartoonish
notion of chimps. We know them in their baby-stage, when they - we dress
them up in cute little suits and they pedal around on bicycles. And yet
time and again, once they get too old, we hear these stories of - Quincy
Jones, as I read the other day, was remembering Bubbles and how Bubbles
bit his own kid's hand when he visited Michael. I mean, these chimps can
be very willful and aggressive.

GROSS: Some of these chimps are research chimps, too. I mean, isn't
there one facility you visited where there's all the NASA chimps - all
the chimps who were the chimps in the space research - are retired?

Mr. SIEBERT: Most of them were research lab chimps for medical purposes
like finding cures for malaria or hepatitis, or, they thought, HIV. So
we, the country bred an unbelievable number of chimps when AIDS first
broke out, thinking that they would be an obvious model for finding a
vaccine. And it proved to be not true because it looks like AIDS morphed
originally from a chimp - a simian virus. So that did, so we had all
these surplus chimps.

But yes, also, chimps who were used in the space program way back and
went through all those flight tests. And they ended up at this facility
in Shreveport - outside of Shreveport, Louisiana - and this was the
result of the Bill Clinton’s last act in his presidency called the CHIMP
Act, where the government, rather than, you know, had all these surplus
chimps. And they thought geez, for, you know, for all the effort they’ve
- and sacrifice they’ve made for us, we can’t just put down all these
chimps. So we built a retirement home for them. And I must tell you,
when I visited it, I was thinking...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SIEBERT: ...I don’t think I’m going to do as well in retirement out
here.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SIEBERT: We’re talking very nice rooms with skylights and television

sets and...

GROSS: No, television sets?

Mr. SIEBERT: Television sets. Chimps love TV. They love very dramatic,
violent shows. It should be no surprise. Nature shows...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SIEBERT: They - this one really got to me. One of their - they love
soap operas, and their favorite is - the research lab chimps’ favorite
is “General Hospital"…

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SIEBERT: ...because they’re so used to people in white coats.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SIEBERT: So it’s just remarkable, their level of sentience and
awareness.

GROSS: When you talk about chimps in retirement homes, I'm also
picturing like chimps on walkers. But I guess not. No?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SIEBERT: Well, it’s getting pretty close. I mean, you know, the,
this is what I, why I was so envious. Right down the hall, they had
their house dentist. They had a doctor. You know, I mean, they had their
little patios outside that then gives on to a fenced-in patch of forest
where they swing. I mean, you know, it’s the best we can do to extend
the paradox of trying to dignify an animal in captivity. But it is
pretty well done. I mean, they’re still in captivity, but it’s the best
life we can afford them after all they’ve been through.

GROSS: Well, particularly, I - gosh, I mean, like, the research chimps,
like we’ve used them for our own good. We’ve put them in harm’s way for
our own good. So we owe them a good, a good retirement, which is going
to be a lot longer than the life they spent doing the research.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SIEBERT: Exactly. And a lot longer than the chimp would live in the
wild, because, you know, in the wild, there are so many more threats to
a chimp. Whereas in captivity, you know, they’re protected. So they
live. Some of them live up to 60, 70 years old.

GROSS: Well, you ask a really, kind of profound question in the book,
which is what does it mean, now that we have this whole population of
chimps who were raised in captivity, who lived around humans more than
around other chimpanzees, they were taught to perform for humans or to
do research for humans. And you can’t return them to the wild because
they never lived in the wild in the first place. They wouldn’t know what
to do there. It’s kind of like me when I go camping, but worse.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: And so you can’t return them to the wild. And so who are they?
Are they humans, are they chimpanzees? Or as you put it, are they
humanzees? Like, what are they now?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SIEBERT: Yeah. Yeah, they’re stranded. They’re being stranded
between their former selves and what we’ve tried to coax them into
being, or what we’ve been suggesting to them. And a lot of them stay
stranded. They can’t go back. I mean, Roger so captivated me among the
chimps at that retirement home in Wauchula because, at least when I met
him, things have changed, but he was the only chimp there who lived
alone because whereas others began to learn to socialize with other
chimps - by the way, zoos refuse to take these actor chimps because
they’re so asocial and clumsy and don’t get along with other chimps at
the beginning.

GROSS: They get along with people, but not with other chimps?

Mr. SIEBERT: Exactly. But Patty's been very successful in sort of re-
socializing a lot of these chimps. So they make friends and at least
have the company. But Roger was so adamant about his, sort of his
loneliness. He wanted to be with people. And it seemed to me that he
wanted to be with me when I first got there. He had, there was this very
strong reaction that he had, as almost as though he recognized me from
some prior encounter. But no, you’re right. These beings can’t be wild
chimps again. But so they’re just caught. They’re forever stranded
between what they were and what we suggest to them. So I call them
humanzees or chewmans or manpanzees, all these words for these hybrids
that we’ve made.

BIANCULLI: Journalist Charles Siebert speaking with Terry Gross in July.
More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

BIANCULLI: Let's get back to Terry's interview from July with journalist
Charles Siebert. His recently published book about the retirement home
for chimps is called “The Wauchula Woods Accord.”

GROSS: How do you think your encounters with whales and chimpanzees and
other animals that you’ve written about over the years have affected
your sense of what it means to be human?

Mr. SIEBERT: I think it underscores my, I guess, my humanness. And it
seems like a contradiction, but I love being reminded of my animality
and don’t feel, as I think a lot of humans do, debased by that. But I
feel deeply liberated by and ennobled by the reminders of my
connectivity with all other biology and biological life forms. And, you
know - and I’m going past even the ones that shock us with their
incredible humanness, like the chimps or the elephants.

I mean, I was so moved by that experience because, I mean, elephants,
like whales, and we now know chimps, I mean, they have culture. We can
now use that word. They have self-reflection. They have tool use. They
wound. They have trauma. To know that there are, you know, it used to
be, science told us we couldn’t anthropomorphize. Now, of all things,
science allows, or at least obviates the scene of anthropomorphism
because the question isn’t anymore, you know, oh, we can’t know what a
whale day is or a chimp day or a dolphin.

You know, now we know through science that they have days, parallel days
that are equally as intricate and woundable as our own days. And, I
don’t know. There comes - it’s wonderful to know that one. It’s the
sense of, you know how we often ask that question: Are we alone? And we
ask that about extraterrestrials. Well, you know, when you meet a whale
or an elephant eye to eye like that, you feel like you’re making contact
with another being, a foreign being, but another being. And you don’t
feel alone anymore. So the very encounter we seek, mythically and
through fiction, you know, is available to us through these other very
sophisticated animals.

GROSS: Do you have pets?

Mr. SIEBERT: Yeah...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SIEBERT: ...two dogs. And I have had dogs all along. Yeah.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: And, and...

Mr. SIEBERT: Spent a lot of my days talking nonsensically to my dogs.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: So, do you feel a different sense of connection with your dogs
than you do say with chimpanzees or with whales? Do the chimpanzees and
whales seem more different from you, more far away than your dogs do
or...

Mr. SIEBERT: Hmm. I guess the encounter with the chimps and the
elephants and the whales are more fraught because of the clear
complexity going on behind those eyes. Whereas...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SIEBERT: ...you can be, as I was just alluding to you, you can be
sort of shameless with your dogs in terms of what you’ll say and do and
project upon them, not that they're blank by any means. But clearly, one
knows that there's not as much going on the sort of, neuronal level that
there is with some of these other creatures. I mean these brain studies
that have been done now - that's what I meant about science liberating
us to make conjectures about these creatures. I mean, when you look at a
whale brain, as a scientist up at Mount Sinai School of Medicine has
done in a chimpanzee brain and a dolphin, they’re finding the exact same
structures in the neocortex that we evolved in our own brain and the
very neurons that we used to say, the cells that make us human. Well now
we found for example, whales not only have more of those cells than we
do, they developed them millions of years before we did in a whole
different environment. So stuff like that just, I don’t know, just makes
my head spin. It’s just amazing.

GROSS: In the acknowledgments to your book about chimpanzees, you thank
a few doctors for saving your heart, when sudden illness struck. May I
ask what happened?

Mr. SIEBERT: Yeah, about a year and half ago, in the midst of trying to
get this book finished, I was walking to a restaurant one night with my
wife and I found myself short of breath. And for no particular reason, I
couldn't explain it. And I was sitting up at night sort of, you know,
wheezing and I just didn’t know what was going on. And I went to a
doctor and thought that it might be pneumonia and it turned out that a
virus had attacked my heart and reduced its function to a critically low
level. So I was just really knocked for a loop there and I also had no
health insurance. Um...

GROSS: Hmm.

Mr. SIEBERT: ...so the whole picture was not a pretty one. I was saved
by, literally by a guardian angel that I mentioned, guardian angels,
that I mentioned in my acknowledgment. Neil Epstein a heart,
cardiologist, who I wrote about in my previous book “A Man After His Own
Heart.” I’ve long been obsessed with the heart because my father had an
incurable kind of heart failure. Thus, the deep irony of someone who’s
been, you know, as obsessed with the heart and sometimes paranoid about
the heart as myself to be felled by this virus.

And I was given thousands and thousands and thousands of dollars of care
because I was put in part of a research protocol at the NIH. And it
literally saved my life and my heart’s rebounded since. And I’m on
medication to help that process along. But it was that kind of nip and
tuck there for a while. So…

GROSS: You know how in some hospitals they have therapy animals that
they bring for the patients, so patients can pet them and it’s supposed
to kind of relieve stress and just be the generally all around pleasant
experience to spend a few minutes with an animal. Did you have animals,
in addition to your dogs to help you during your time of recovery, or
were you supposed to stay away from animals because of possible
infection?

Mr. SIEBERT: Huh, interesting. You know, I – that’s one of the things I
want to find out about in this - in my pursuit of knowing that what
happened with this virus. Was I infectious to other people? But to
answer your question, in the immediate, no, I didn’t have - when I was
at the NIH, I had no contact with animals. But, you know, funny you
should say, to help me get past this, I also became suddenly diabetic
out of nowhere, which is, there’s no history for it in my family. So,
this, whatever this virus was, it knocked me - everything in my system
for a loop.

And I was having to inject myself with insulin, having to take these
pills. And at one point, I looked at my wife and, you know, I needed to
finish this book. And I said, you know what, I just can’t be here. I
just can’t be around you and be injecting myself. I almost - I needed to
be alone, so I took my two dogs - and this same heart doctor, who saved
my life, offered me his cabin in the Blue Ridge Mountains. And I went
and lived there in this remote cabin by myself with the two dogs.

And it just helped me to overcome the whole setback physically, and
helped me to focus on the book and get it all done. But I have to say,
those two dogs saved, you know, also saved my life because, you know, I
had that companionship, which is, you know, invaluable.

GROSS: Well, thank you so much for talking with us.

Mr. SIEBERT: Oh, it’s my pleasure. Thanks for having me.

BIANCULLI: Journalist Charles Siebert speaking to Terry Gross in July.
His book about a retired home for chimps is called “The Wauchula Woods
Accord.” Coming up, Robert Smigel the creator and alter ego Triumph: The
Insult Comic Dog on what makes dogs, especially talking dogs, so funny.
This is FRESH AIR.
..COST:
$00.00
..INDX:
112522990
*** TRANSCRIPTION COMPANY BOUNDARY ***
..DATE:
20090904
..PGRM:
Fresh Air
..TIME:
12:00-13:00 PM
..NIEL:
N/A
..NTWK:
NPR
..SGMT:
The Man Behind Triumph, The Insult Comic Dog.

DAVID BIANCULLI, host:

To wrap up our special animal week. We’re going to listen back to an
interview Terry conducted with Robert Smigel. Smigel is best known as
the voice and hand puppeteer of Triumph, The Insult Comic Dog. But he’s
also is the creator of the Fun with real audio, and Ambiguously Gay Duo
cartoons on “Saturday Night Live” and the animal puppets or Anipals who
starred on Smigels cult Comedy Central series “TV Funhouse.” Terry spoke
with Robert Smigel in the year 2000. They talked about why dogs were
funny and he told her about the inspiration for one of his puppets, a
real dog named Xabu.

Mr. ROBERT SMIGEL (Comedian): It was my wife’s dog. It was a German
Shepard mix and I believe part wolf and they took him to an obedience
school. And after two sessions, the teacher said, you know what, he’s a
beautiful dog and you should just enjoy him. He’s beautiful. Take him
home.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SMIGEL: He was that stupid. And one of the reasons my wife and I get
along so well is because we can both laugh for a half hour just watching
a dog that stupid chase its tail, which is what we used to do. The dog
had this incredible rage, it seemed, towards his tail. But there’s just
- there are few things funnier than watching a really dumb animal
passionately go after his tail. He had this way of chasing it and I
guess - I’ve seen this with other dogs but not to this effect - he could
go 90 miles an hour in a circle and then just stop on a dime, and
completely freeze, and then go 90 miles back on a dime as if he was
trying to - he didn’t look like he was catching his breath. He actually
looked like he thought he would trick his tail this way. You know, I’ll
turn and turn and turn and then stop. And the tail will have no idea
what’s going on. He’ll be totally frozen, you know. And then, boom, I’m
back at the tail. Of course, it never worked.

GROSS: So that’s your voice that the dog does?

Mr. SMIGEL: Yeah, I have this stubborn insistence on making all the dog
sound like eastern European immigrants, you know.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SMIGEL: And some of the - I’ve noticed that some people have
criticized, you know - they’ve watched the show and they’ve said, why do
all the dogs sound like Triumph, you know? Why do they have the same
accent? It’s lame. Can’t he come up with another voice? And, well, yeah,
I could. You know, I realize there are more accents in the world than
eastern European. But in my head, that’s how dogs talk.

They have, for years, since I was 10 years old I used to, you know, give
dogs that voice when I would look at dogs. I think it’s because my
grandparents are eastern - they’re Russian immigrants and I grew up with
that voice. And I think I make an unconscious connection in this - let
me finish the thought because it could sound rude - but between dogs and
immigrants just off the boat, because they both have a certain element
of wide-eyed wonder. As if to say like, oh, look at all of this. I
cannot believe this. And, you know, eventually European immigrants catch
up and become jaded, but dogs never do. That’s why I can laugh at dogs
forever.

GROSS: One of the things I think you’re doing on “TV Funhouse” with all
your use of the Anipals, the puppet animals, is having them do the kind
of things that animals really do in public, but that people only do
behind closed doors. Such as…

Mr. SMIGEL: Right.

GROSS: …having sex, defecating.

Mr. SMIGEL: Right.

GROSS: I mean, I know like, as a kid, there’s things you learn that
people don’t do in front of other people, period.

Mr. SMIGEL: Right.

GROSS: But you see animals doing it all the time in the street.

Mr. SMIGEL: That’s right.

GROSS: And it’s very confusing sometimes as a kid. Like how come they
let animals do that in the street?

Mr. SMIGEL: Yeah…

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SMIGEL: I know. We can learn a lot from animals.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: That’s the whole point…

Mr. SMIGEL: That’s the whole point.

GROSS: …of the books that your parents give you, so you can learn a lot
from animals.

Mr. SMIGEL: Right. And now this is an adult show that’s trying to have
animals teach people how to behave properly. No, there is something, you
know, it’s fun doing a show that has characters that don’t have the
ambitions that humans do. And that can talk casually about things like
pooping on the street or having sex as if it’s just a regular animal
need, you know. I try to explain to people that when I write about sex
or I write about defecation that, you know, I’m going to look like an
idiot trying to explain why I think this stuff is funny beyond, you
know…

GROSS: Cheap, crude laughs.

Mr. SMIGEL: …going for cheap laughs, yeah. I mean, to me, it’s all about
the way our dignity is compromised. You know, sex has always cracked me
up because it makes people do crazy things, you know, like working out.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SMIGEL: I mean can you imagine - anyway.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SMIGEL: But, you know, that’s the funniest thing about it. That we
are--you know, I remember years ago, we were at “Saturday Night Live”
and I was hanging out with Conan O’Brian, who, you know, I met there as
a writer, and Rob Lowe was hosting and so everybody was passing around
the Rob Lowe sex tape and it was just, you know, something that you
don’t get to see that often is just a real-life porn like that.

And, you know, just a lot of it was really boring and - but all of this
fuss was being made over something that was, you know, quite common. And
I don’t know, I just remember Conan laughing and just saying, We’re just
all animals, it’s hilarious.

GROSS: Did you have a lot of pets when you were a kid?

Mr. SMIGEL: I had a cat when I was four years old. My parents gave me a
cat and the cat just sat on the foot of my bed and did nothing all day
long. Just grew and sort of developed that mashed-potato body that cats
get, just sort of spread on the carpet as the years went by. But I just
adored it. It had no interest in anything but I just like, oh, pretty
kitty.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SMIGEL: I just loved it. Loved it like nothing else. And then later
on, after the cat died, my sister - who didn’t really like the cat -
suddenly - I’ve noticed this too. It’s the sibling who didn’t like the
animal that suddenly is, like, gets all emotional about the animal when
it dies and wants to replace it immediately. And that’s what happened.

And then we got a little tiny Bichon. And all I could do all day was
talk to the Bichon, in it’s own voice and it was very similar to
Triumph’s voice, just a higher pitch, you know, because it was such a
fruffy(ph) little thing. And it was just very spoiled, I want to eat now
please.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: Did you talk to it a lot?

Mr. SMIGEL: I used to drive my sister crazy. Just, you know, she would,
like, walk into the room and would say hi and the dog would run up to
her and I would be like, hello, hello, I’ve waited all day for you.
Where the hell have you been?

(Soundbite of laughter)

BIANCULLI: Robert Smigel speaking to Terry Gross in 2000. His “TV
Funhouse” cult series has been released on DVD. And that concludes
animal week here at FRESH AIR. No animals were harmed in the making of
this week’s programs. You can download podcasts of our show at
freshair.npr.org.
..COST:
$00.00
..INDX:
112554250
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

You May Also like

Did you know you can create a shareable playlist?

Advertisement

Recently on Fresh Air Available to Play on NPR

32:42

In 'Heaven, My Home' Attica Locke Shows A Part Of Texas We Don't Usually See

Locke says her new novel "was about place before it was about a character." The story follows a black ranger who patrols East Texas searching for the missing son of an Aryan Brotherhood leader.

50:30

Ronan Farrow: 'Catch And Kill' Tactics Protected Both Weinstein And Trump

Ronan Farrow's 2017 exposé of the sexual misconduct allegations against film producer Harvey Weinstein in The New Yorker earned him a Pulitzer Prize and helped usher in the #MeToo movement. Now, in his new book, Catch and Kill, Farrow writes about the extreme tactics Weinstein allegedly took in an attempt to keep him from reporting the story.

There are more than 22,000 Fresh Air segments.

Let us help you find exactly what you want to hear.

Playing

Just play me something
Your Queue

Would you like to make a playlist based on your queue?

Generate & Share View/Edit Your Queue