Can You Make a Wolf Shake Hands? Bill Brisby Teaches a College Course on the Subject
This is going to come as a shock to Sabu, Sheena, Tarzan and the rest of the leopard-skin set but wild animal trainers are made, not born. Bill Brisby, who teaches the subject at Moorpark College near Los Angeles, says: “There is an art to good training. Trainers can inspire animals just as good teachers inspire students.”
Brisby, 51, began teaching an animal behavior class five years ago and gradually expanded the curriculum until now the college offers a 2½-year major in E.A.T.M., exotic animal training and management. Its courses include animal biology and behavior and basic veterinary techniques, along with such showbiz electives as voice training, set construction and script writing. E.A.T.M. has proved so popular that Brisby receives five times as many applications as he has room for. One reason is that California amusement centers, like Busch Gardens, Marineland and Sea World, which feature animals quickly began recruiting handlers out of Brisby’s classes. (He stresses that most of his students are only beginners; it will probably take years before they can train newly captured wild animals.)
The 35 students in the present class range in age from 17 to 42 and come from backgrounds as diverse as training attack dogs and nude dancing. Around 70 percent of the students are women. “Men,” Brisby says, “often try to overpower the animals. Girls are not on such an ego trip.”
Brisby grew up in southern California, more at home with animals, he recalls, than people. “As a kid, I used to take my dog and wander into the hills. Everyone brought their animals to me.” In his menagerie of boyhood pets were dogs, raccoons, miscellaneous reptiles, birds, an occasional lion cub, mice, hamsters and a baby sea lion. “My father,” Brisby says, “was afraid I would never meet any human beings.”
Brisby planned to study veterinary medicine at Colorado State University but decided he wanted to work with people after all and switched to education. He taught high school biology for 19 years before joining the Moorpark faculty.
His approach to animals stresses consistency and discipline. “The student must be dominant,” he says. “He must make the animal do something before he leaves it, even if it’s as simple as commanding its attention.” Using food as a reward is fine for the meat eaters because they’re frequently hungry, but horses need an occasional “little sharp pain with a whip,” he says.
Brisby’s classes work with a cougar, a black bear, a camel, a wolf and an eland—all of which are unnamed on Brisby’s orders. “We don’t want to think of them as pets.” The rule does not apply to his St. Bernard, Carlos, who moved to the college animal compound when Brisby was divorced in 1974 after 25 years of marriage and three children. He cannot keep pets in his bachelor apartment.
Brisby says the same principles apply to training both domestic and wild animals “with one exception. Animals not bred around humans are flighty and become violent more quickly. A wolf, for example, may appear to be very gentle but you never know what will set him off. A lion is docile in terms of training but he is a lion, not a house cat; you can never trust him too far.”
Among the wild animals that are the most intelligent and thus submit to training best are elephants, chimps and porpoises. But Brisby uses none of these in a favorite test for his class. Each student is required to teach an animal 10 tricks, and in the past these have included a high dive from a platform (onto a sponge), pushing a cart, raising a flag, jumping hurdles and driving a boat around a pool. The obliging creature is the white rat.