Teaching big cats to perform and behave is not child’s play
Monty Cox says he is the best big-animal trainer in the business. “The rest of them all stink; that’s just the way it is.” Few people argue about this or anything else with the aggressively self-assured Cox—except Suzy Backlinie, the live-aboard lady on his 52-foot yacht. She is his partner in the animal-training business, and when the two of them fight, she says, “The electricity in the air is unreal.”
The disagreements tend to be personal, not professional. Their company, called The Lion, is in fact prospering. They lease animals to TV and movies and supervise them on the set. For Apocalypse Now, it was a tiger; for Day of the Animals and The Incredible Hulk, a whole menagerie; for the Lincoln-Mercury commercials, a cougar. Monty and Suzy charge $18 an hour, plus $400 an animal per day, and the fee is well earned, he insists: “A lion may not have to do anything but walk, stop, stand next to a model and maybe snarl. But he’s a lion, he likes to eat things, and it’s dangerous.”
Their refuge from such risky work—Monty calls animal training “a brain trip, not a macho trip”—is La Volpe (The Vixen), moored at Ventura Marina north of L.A. Monty is not only skipper, Suzy says, “he’s the boss.” Though hardly fond of other children, he’s made a pet of Suzy’s daughter, Dina, 11, from a previous marriage. He affectionately calls her “rodent” or “fly face” and threatens to feed her to Masai, the family lion. “I have to train animals all day,” he grumbles, “and then come home and train her.” At moments like this, Suzy sighs: “Monty was hatched at 25, he was never a kid.”
In truth, Monty was born 39 years ago in Huntington, Ind. to a pair of Arthur Murray dance instructors. Brought up in Reno, a “tough town” where he learned to be “a mean kid,” he developed a curious fascination for jungle animals. After reading many books on the subject, Monty befriended a cougar at the local zoo. One day, to his surprise, “the animal tried to get me. I had been a nice guy to this cat, fed it grass, and all of a sudden he tried to get me. So I grabbed his tail and jerked it up against the cage.” By 19 the impetuous Monty was a sky diver, trying with only limited success to break into movie stunt work. He found his real calling when he answered a newspaper ad to work with lions on the TV series Daktari. Even though the trainer he worked with was “rotten and didn’t know what to do,” Monty learned by experience. “I’d push the animals,” he recalls, “really drive them hard to make them angry and find out what the results would be. I’ve gotten bit by just about everything there is to get bitten by.”
Suzy, 32, was raised by her mother in West Palm Beach, Fla. after her parents split. A competitive swimmer in high school, she put her skill to use as a stunt woman, achieving minor fame as the great white shark’s first victim in Jaws. She quit nursing school, got married at 20 and was on the brink of divorce when Dina was born. Shortly afterward she went to work as a secretary at Homosassa Springs, a Florida park featuring a fish observatory. Monty, whose 10-year marriage was also crumbling, passed through Homosassa as head animal trainer with Ivan Tors Studios (Gentle Ben, Flipper). He started dating Suzy because “he said I was the best thing in that hick town.” He trained her to work with animals, and six months later Suzy went on a cross-country tour with Monty and, among others, Clarence the Cross-Eyed Lion.
After Monty’s next employer, Africa U.S.A., a wild animal compound, dissolved in 1973, he bought the company lion for a dollar and went into business with Suzy. “There we were,” she recalls, “with a lion and a van and no money. We’d sit and stare at the phone and say, ‘Ring! Ring!’ It was five years before we could start picking the jobs we wanted.”
In addition to the lion, their company today owns a tiger, a black panther, a cougar and a bear named Pooh, all of whom live in a compound in Saugus, Calif. Some days Monty and Suzy will drive the 75 miles just to visit them. “I have to be able to put my arms around them and give them a big hug,” says Monty. “If I don’t get that, I’m missing out on part of my emotional psyche.”
Monty and Suzy train their animals with food and “positive reinforcement.” “I don’t really believe you have to hit them,” he says. Instead, he tries to figure out “where I think I’ll have the most control. If I’m working with the king lion, I have to be the king lion over him.” With baboons, Monty and Suzy immediately bite them on the shoulder to establish their dominance. “It tastes like hell,” Monty says.
When animals bite back, he says, “there’s a distinct popping sound of fangs going through skin.” Shudders Suzy: “When a cat looks at you and its eyes have dilated so much that you’re seeing the green, you know he wants to kill you. It’s the most terrifying feeling I’ve ever had in my life.” When a lioness bit Suzy in the leg recently, Monty jumped on its back and beat it with a stick. Would-be lotharios on the set don’t need quite that much discouragement. “I don’t have to worry,” she says. “Somebody always points me out and says, ‘That’s Monty’s girl.’ ”
Monty and Suzy seldom spend more than four days apart. “We just cannot go opposite ways most of the year and make it,” she says. (When they travel, Dina stays with a babysitter.) Early on, Monty was more of a loner. “He used to sleep in the car once a week, just to prove his independence. Now he feels I should always be tagging along. It took many years to train that into him.”
Although cautious, neither of them is obsessed with the dangers of the job. “I couldn’t care less about dying,” Monty brags. “When you’re dead, you’re dead.” Says Suzy: “I feel I’m 10 times as safe training animals as someone who’s in a car on the freeway. Why should I worry about something where everybody is being very, very careful?”
Monty and Suzy are unconcerned, too, about legalizing their 10-year relationship or about the future. They don’t have health or life insurance, although Monty is investing in real estate to finance a year’s sail. He has no further professional ambition. “In my own mind, I’ve reached the pinnacle,” he says. Suzy wishes he’d slow down as he gets older. “He’s still perfect, but he’s lost a tenth of a second of his timing.” Monty scoffs at early retirement. “I am enthralled to be working with an animal like a lion that lets me do what I do to him. We both get an emotional trip out of it.”