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03/03/2013 09:19 am ET

Joel Slaven, Animal Trainer & Show Producer, Talks What It Takes To Put On A Show At SeaWorld, Busch Gardens & The Columbus Zoo

Joel Slaven has been working with exotic animals for more than forty years. In 1997, he created Joel Slaven's Professional Animals, Inc., which is now the world's largest producer of domestic animal shows. He employs some 70 trainers and has rescued roughly 400 cats and 350 dogs, among other animals. He is preparing to launch Pets Ahoy!, his latest show, at SeaWorld San Antonio this summer, where the venue will seat 600 guests per show up to six times a day.

Huffington Post Travel caught up with Slaven via phone to discuss what actually goes on behind the scenes of an animal-based show.

HPT: How do you go about staffing a show?
JS: For Pets Ahoy! we visited shelters mostly in Florida and some in Ohio and Texas. We look for animals that are at least a year old, as puppies and kittens are the most adoptable. And if they are one to three years old, we can start working with them immediately. We go to the shelters and test the animals for tactile response and food and ball drive -- i.e. do they love treats? Do they like to play fetch? The perfect candidates are between one and four years old, they eat anything, they like it when you pet them and they play fetch (if they're a dog). We don't look for specific breeds.

HPT: How long does it take for a show to come together?
JS: For shows, we first write a script and we go through it with what behaviors we need or what tricks need to be done. Generally speaking, the less adoptable an animal is to the average family, the more attractive it is to us. It takes about a year for a show to be put together, including six to seven months of training before an animal goes to the park.


HPT: Describe a day in the life of a trainer.

JS: The show is only a small part of their day. For sea mammal trainers, they're responsible for carrying buckets of frozen fish; for other trainers, they're responsible for carrying kennels. The trainers are responsible for exercising with the animals, grooming and trimming them, giving them their medicine and setting up for the show. Trainers works 12 to 13 hours a day, six days a week. Mostly they clean, and weigh every animal every single day for two reasons. One, if an animal gets sick, we need to able to know to alert the vet. Two, it's preventative; that way we'll know if they need to go on a diet or be de-wormed. Our trainers live and work with the animals. They're in charge of taking care of them after they retire or the show keeps the animals until they can find a suitable home for them.

HPT: How many shows do you do a day?
JS: Trainers with our shows -- we have eleven on staff -- do three to six shows per day depending on how many people the venue seats and the time of the year...In outdoor venues, we don't do shows above 90 degrees.

HPT: What's something people might not know about shows?
JS: At the Columbus Zoo we work with a small African primate called a bush baby. What people might not realize is that that animal wears a waistband that has a 20 foot long leash. If one jumped away, the trainers would be able to control them. Also, our animals receive much better veterinary, diet and exercise care than people think. These trainers are with the animals 10 to 12 hours a day; how many people spend that much time with their pets?

HPT: How has animal training changed since you started?
JS: Not a lot of people do what I do anymore. I worked on "Ace Ventura Pet Detective" and trained all the animals, which took a month. But with computers these days, directors can do it all technologically in one day.

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