Boone’s Animals for Hollywood, based in Castiac, Calif., is a world-renowned training center for Hollywood animals, including cats. Mark Harden, one of the senior trainers, has trained more than 100 cats for movies and commercials. His cat actors include Snowball, from “Stuart Little” and “Stuart Little 2,” and Midnight, the exotic Egyptian Mau appearing in the 2004 film “Catwoman.”
You can also click this link to read a quick glimpse of some of his cat training secrets.
CatChannel: Can you explain how someone would train a cat to do a few simple tricks?
Mark Harden: There is a lot of finesse in training a cat. The basic tenets of Operant Conditioning are employed while training cats. The idea is to reward (with a treat) the desired behavior when you see it. You reward it several times until the frequency increases. Then you add a cue — for instance “stand.” By lightly touching the cat at the base of the tail, you increase the odds of the cat standing, and then you pay it.
CC: Do cats respond to training in the same way dogs do? For example, do cats respond to toys and/or treat rewards?
Harden: Yes and no. They respond to food rewards as dogs do, but more so. Dogs have a desire to please whereas cats like to please themselves. With dogs you teach them what pleases you; with cats, you teach them to be pleased by the things you ask them to do. Toys are great to get some action on a film set, however treats and repetition is what really gets the job done.
CC: What is the main difference between training dogs and training cats?
Harden: Besides the above, dogs tend to be more stable-minded. Once trained, a dog tends to trust his trainer more and tolerates strange things more readily. A cat is more wary in a strange environment.
On the other hand, a cat is, believe it or not, less judgmental. A person is a person to most cats. They tend not to look at individuals or form opinions about them. Whereas a dog may make arbitrary judgments about a person based upon how they look at them or move or even speak. Dogs are more sensitive to a trainer’s mood, facial expression, vocal inflections, or hand gestures. Psychologically, cats are less complicated. If you put the time into a working cat and have successfully acclimated him, you will get the work back. Dogs have more psychological baggage and perfect training can be undone by some unseen drama.
CC: Are there limits to what you can train a cat?
Harden: Your imagination and expectation are the basic limits of what you can teach a cat. We teach cats to sit, stay, lie down, stand, hit marks, retrieve, go with, touch with paws and nose to name a few things.
CC: What is the weirdest thing you have had to train a cat to do for a movie?
Harden: Drive a car? Carry a fake mouse up a tree? Wear a Chinese take-out food container with noodles on its head?
CC: What is the biggest challenge with working with cats in Hollywood?
Harden: Once you’ve mastered the secrets of cat training, it’s pretty easy — time consuming but easy. The difficult part is getting them to perform on set. The set is such an alien environment. A great majority of our training involves acclimation. It is important to expose our cats to as many foreign stimuli as possible. I have taken a rescue cat from a Have-A-Heart trap — extremely scared — and got them working dependably on a film set within four months.
Most of our cats come from shelters and have lived on the streets. They are usually wary of us and their new home. The trick is to limit their ability to hide from their problems. Next, we do not shy from the madness. We try to recreate as much of the set environment as possible in their living space. We hang flags and balloons and lights and etc. all over our training space. We have music playing with occasional sound effects popping up. This is where we feed them and spend countless hours getting them accustomed to us and their new life. It takes longer to get the initial tricks on them, but once we do, they are ready for the set.
CC: I know you are on location filming right now. What project are you working on?
Harden: Boone and I are currently working on a new incarnation of “The Lone Ranger.” That’s about all we can say about it. [Ed Note: This will be the Disney adaptation starring Johnny Depp.]
CC: Do you have a favorite cat actor?
Harden: I loved training the Chinchilla Persians in the “Stuart Little” films, however, I think the greatest cat breeds I have ever worked with — perhaps the best cats ever in the movie business — are our Egyptian Mau cats whom I trained for the part of Midnight in “Catwoman.” They have been in “The Spirit,” “Horrible Bosses” and many other movies, TV shows and commercials. They are incredible. They love to work and love to learn. They really think and respond to training incredibly.
CC: Do you own any cats? Tell us about them.
Harden: As a pet, I have a British Blue [British Shorthair]. He was a reject from the first “Stuart Little” movie. He was one of a team of cats who played the character Smokey. He hated the work, so when the film was done, I brought him home to my children. My children are now gone, but our beloved Boomer is still with us. He is the classic dog/cat. Seriously, he is the first one to the door when the bell rings. He hangs out with us and is and endless ball of joy in our home.