“I have two sea lion bites, I have been thrown across a barn with enormous velocity by a ram (who knew?), and hit in the face by dolphins.”
Sue Chipperton is a Hollywood star maker, but not in the way you’d expect. The 40licious animal trainer has made a career by helping her four-legged (and sometimes two-finned) friends steal the small and silver screens, most notably Gidget, the Taco Bell chihuahua. Chipperton’s new book, A Famous Dog’s Life: The Story of Gidget, America’s Most Beloved Chihuahua, with co-author Rennie Dyball, is fresh from the press. I had a few questions about what appears to be the most fun job ever.
1. If you love animals, it seems like being a trainer is a dream job. How did you get into that line of work?
I started as a marine mammal trainer. I had moved to Florida from England when I was 19. I managed to get a job as an assistant trainer at a small park in Fort Lauderdale called Ocean World. This is where I learned the basics of training.
However, after doing this wonderful job for quite a few years I felt it was time to move on. I moved to California with the hopes of getting a job training studio animals. After a few false starts I started working as an intern at Studio Animal Services in Los Angeles in 1994. It was here I learned the ropes of being on set, training animals for television, breaking down scripts and storyboards with animal action and developing my own style of training all kinds of animals to do all kinds of crazy things!!
2. Why are pets important?
Well, I strongly believe that pets are important as long as you have the means and the financial capability to take care of them, in sickness and in health!! I don’t think its everyone’s right to have a dog or a cat, or a rabbit or a goldfish. The same way as I think some people should not have children. People may disagree with me on that. But if you get a dog and then abandon it to your back yard or worse – there is really no reason for you to have a dog. A dog should be a part of the family. It should have everything that you or I would expect, love, food, shelter and medical care when needed. Responsible spaying or neutering your pet is another factor. Having a litter of puppies just so your children can experience the wonder of the “joy of birth” is ridiculous and irresponsible. Rent a National Geographic DVD for that. So, pets ARE an important part of our lives when you have the means to take care of a pet. In return you will get unconditional love and companionship beyond your wildest dreams. You will have a snuggler to cuddle up with to watch a movie on a cold and rainy night. An athlete to keep up with you on your hikes in the canyons and woods. A buddy to take on the road with you for work or travels. A protector when you are feeling insecure or unsafe. A swimmer for all those boat trips and beach days – the list is endless. Matching your pet to your personality is vital for a happy union!!
3. Was there ever a time you wanted to quit, or thought you’d want to do something else?
Yes. Being a studio animal trainer is a diverse and hugely rewarding job. However it is a job. And you still have days when you are standing on set with a director yelling at you and you have no idea why you are there, and why you could not be happy working in a bank!!
Also, as I get older I am looking to branch out and do other things. My job is very physical and sadly when I look at trainers older than I, the majority of them have broken bodies. I do not want to do this until I retire. My body has already taken a beating over the years. I have a torn labrum in my shoulder (basically shredded cartilage). Spondylosis, while not a result of my work, it sure does hinder me in some ways. And numerous scars, from cats to dogs, I have two sea lion bites, I have been thrown across a barn with enormous velocity by a ram (who knew?), hit in the face by dolphins. Falling, missteps while jogging backwards on set to get out of the shot while working…The list goes on.
4. What business advice would you give someone in her 40s who wants to work with animals?
Ha ha. See above!! There are plenty of studio animal trainers working that are over 40. However, when you look at how and when they started, I would say universally they all started young. Our job requires a long internship. You have a lot to learn in this job. You do not start making a decent living until years down the road and even then you do not have a guarantee of a paycheck each week. In fact in today’s economy there are a lot of starving studio animal trainers out there. Trainers who would normally be making a very good living. People who come and intern for us are usually fresh out of school, maybe they still live with their parents, or as many younger people do – they live in a home with 3 or 4 room mates. Not something someone over forty is usually willing to do. However, there are plenty of jobs out there working with animals that are rewarding and not structured like a studio animal trainer. I always said that when I retire (or become independently wealthy and no longer have to work!) I would train one or two dogs (my pets) for search and rescue – which is all volunteer work.
5. Anything else you’d like to tell us about your life or your work?
I have a blog that I started just over a year ago. It is a mishmash of things from my life as animal trainer, to my search for the perfect cup cake (so far, Bristol Farms “Black Forest” cupcake) with a few rants and raves thrown in for good measure.
My life has been a very rewarding one. I have never lasted in a job that I did not enjoy. Before I was an animal trainer I was a children’s nanny for three kids and traveled the world, I worked as crew on a luxury motor yacht for over a year, I was a make up/beauty consultant for Ultima II before I moved to the States and years later went to school to learn special effects for film makeup. There was a three to four year stint as a production coordinator/talent scout for Chippendales (Yes! THAT Chippendales) where I basically looked for men to hire and was assistant to the owner. I’ve worked in vet offices and retail and have never looked back, always forward. Today I have many thoughts for the future. Photography is a huge passion. I have some inventions that I would like to see take off, and who knows, maybe another book!