Two Sussex County women train rats for Hollywood debut

Posted by Big Rat on Campus on Apr 21, 2013 in Rat Answers | Subscribe

By BRUCE A. SCRUTON

bscruton@njherald.com

GREEN — Blessed with natural curiosity, the rat ignored the maze in front of her and froze, sniffing the air and looking around her strange surroundings.

After several starts and stops with the rat in the maze, Dawn Barkan concluded there were a couple of reasons Bean wasn’t her usual self.

“I think she’s a little heavy,” Barkan said, referring to a training technique where animals are kept a little hungry so they will seek out the snack/reward when they finish.

Barkan also concluded that it was the first time the maze had been set up on the dining room table, and Bean — and Penelope, who followed — were just looking around, somewhat shy with strangers and cameras looking down at them.

But the two female rats and their six cousins will have to get used to “lights, camera, action,” since they will be starring in the movie “Ninja Turtles,” which will begin filming in a few weeks and is scheduled, at least for now, for release in June 2014.

Based on the popular “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” franchise, which has produced several films, television series and comic book stories, the basic story line is how a New York City sewer rat comes upon four baby turtles in the bowels of the city and raises them to save the world.

Just how — and who — the rat, named Splinter, is treated in this new movie, and how the mutation of the five lead characters occurs is kept under wraps.

In past renditions, alien ooze or radioactive glop or something from somewhere caused the turtles and rat to mutate.

There are also variations of Splinter, with one version saying he was the pet rat of a ninja master and another that the ninja master was changed into a rat.

Barkan, who has been training animals for 25 years and has more than a dozen movie credits and countless television and commercial spots to her credit, is closed-mouthed about the script.

She even declined to describe some of the stunts she is training the rats to do since it might give away part of the story line.

“We are teaching them to be held and go through a maze and get from Point A to Point B,” she said. “The other things are secret.”

A native of Chicago, Barkan was a teenager when she volunteered for the Franklin Park Zoo and got hooked on working with animals. She majored in behavioral psychology in college, “but I was more interested in working with animals than strange human behavior.”

In college she got a part-time job as a zookeeper and kept with her dream of a career training and showing killer whales.

“But I couldn’t swim, so I ended up working with dolphins, sea lions and otters,” she said.

After college, a friend introduced her to Gary Gero, who not only owned Birds Animals Unlimited, which trains animals for the movies, but was head of animal training at Universal Studios theme parks.

Barkan got a job working with the great apes at Universal while also training animals for various movie roles.

She trained Mr. Jinx, the cat who flushes the toilet in the movie “Meet the Parents,” and she worked with the later generation of cats on the two sequels.

One of those sequel cats wandered into the room after the rats were finished with their training and returned to their cages in an upstairs playroom.

“The cats were rescued from shelters,” Barkan said, referring to the Mr. Jinx line.

She said the rats, all a special Russian blue color, are destined for adoptive homes after the movie shoot is over.

The reason for so many rats is the stunts they have to perform — specialization even in movie roles — as well as learning the animals’ personalities.

“With some, they don’t mind being held. Others are faster,” she said.

As an example, she said some of the rats love raisins, but others will spit them “right back at you.”

Even the treats waiting at the end of the maze can be different. While most are graham crackers, the flavors matter.

Barkan said she moved to New York City about a dozen years ago to set up an office of Birds Animals Unlimited in New York. She decided to take a break from animal training and moved to Green, but after a year, got back into the trade.

The rats are not her only project. Barkan is working with a pair of Great Danes for the movie “The Other Woman.” While the dogs are not main characters in the film, they are more than just extras.

And she also revealed a secret.

“In my entire career, I had never worked with rats. I was scared of them, believed the stories about rats. I had all the preconceived notions people have about them,” she said.

When she agreed to take the job, she turned to another Sussex County resident, Tara Pellegrino, who is an animal abuse investigator.

“She was going to be the one to handle them,” Barkan said. “But I found out they aren’t at all what you imagine. Rats are sweet, they’re clean, they’re friendly and they’re smart. I’m getting very attached to them.”

While the rats were a little skittish late this past week, they passed their training audition in New York on Tuesday.

“Oh, yeah, they were ready,” Pellegrino said. “They did everything they had to.”

And, Barkan said, the two women are also working on the ninja turtles, too.

“You can’t really train a turtle,” she said. “They’re reptiles. All you can do is manipulate them, make it look like they’re doing things on their own.”

But with Splinter — or Bean or Penelope — as their leader, maybe turtles can be taught to save the world.

If only we didn’t have to wait a year to find out from whose evil clutches they are saving the world.

Article source: http://www.njherald.com/story/22033520/2013/04/20/two-sussex-county-women-train-rats-for-hollywood-debut

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