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Q&A with world renowned animal trainer Dawn Barkan

My dear floofs,

I am truly honoured to share with you my Q&A with the fabulous Dawn Barkan! Dawn is one of the biggest names in animal training. If you watch TV or film then chances are you have seen several examples of Dawn's work. Her resume is so impressive and includes work on films such as the "Meet the Parents" Trilogy, "Ace Ventura", "Snow Dogs", "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles" and "Night at the Museum" to name but just a few! Check out her Imdb here! Also, if any of you are Disney fans you will want to read on for sure to find out what Dawn is currently working on...

Pictured: Dawn Barkan with Crsytal the Monkey (Night at the Museum)

Dawn, thank you so much for taking the time from what is surely an extremely busy schedule to talk to us here at Nacho HQ. We truly admire you and are humbled to get the chance to hear from you. We hope you are safe and well at this time!

Please tell us a little about yourself?

I currently live in New Jersey on a small farm with my six dogs, three cats, welsh pony, mini donkey, one lovely daughter and my husband who also works in the film industry as a stunt coordinator and director on The Blacklist.  I own and operate Dawn Barkan Animals which supplies trained animals for film and TV projects in and around the New York area. I have been working with animals for over 30 years in many capacities from dolphin training to training great apes and various other species of animals for live shows and film work. 

Have you always had animals in your life growing up?

I grew up in the city of Chicago. I had a dog growing up but developed my true love of animals at the Lincoln Park Zoo where I spent a lot of time both as a child and then later on as a zookeeper. 

When and how did you become a professional animal trainer? 

I tripped and fell into my current position as an animal trainer. I was working at the Miami Zoo in my early twenties and met a woman who worked for a company called Birds and Animals Unlimited. She said her boss was looking for people to help open a show at the new Universal Studios in Orlando Florida.  I had no idea it was the largest film animal training company in the world. I was hired and it took off from there. 

With your career history, it is not surprising that you have worked on some huge films with big name celebrities. Given that everyone has to start somewhere, how did you get your first big break?

After learning how to train from the more experienced trainers I worked with and gaining a feeling for the craft, I went on my first job at Disney where I worked a pigeon that had to sit on Bette Midler’s head in a short film called the Lottery. 

You have a very impressive resume and have worked with some major motion pictures. Which ones stand out to you the most as career highlights?

The movie that I most enjoyed working on was Meet the Parents. Everything about working on the film was magical. It was a great crew, cast and Director. A close second was The Other Woman for the same reasons. 

Pictured: Meet the Parents promotional picture

Which films were the most challenging for you and why?

The most challenging film by far was Inside Llewyn Davis. Working cats on the streets and subways of New York was nerve wrecking and posed many challenges. The directors were very creative but very demanding to work for.

Pictured: Oscar Issac as llewyn Davis with his cat companion "Ulysses" (Inside Llewyn Davis)

When it comes to cats and dogs, who are the biggest divas on set?

Dogs love to please and I really never get too much attitude from them. Cats definitely have a more "what’s in it for me" attitude. However, they are a lot of fun to train. 

Us cats do what we want, when we want. So getting cats to perform on command must be very tricky. Either that or your bribes are too good to resist. We don't want you giving away all of your trade secrets but can you give us an example of how you train a cat to perform for the camera? 

You cats are not as mysterious as you’d like to seem. Let’s face it , it all comes down to finding that one irresistible thing that you just can’t say no to. I use positive reinforcement with my cats. I ask for what I want and when they respond correctly I "pay" them with one of their favorite treats. I then build on what I’m asking of them until I get the completed behaviour. I use a clicker as a bridge which lets them know they did what I wanted and a treat will follow. 

We recently watched "Inside Llewyn Davis" and were very impressed with the cat(s) who starred in it. Please tell us about the cat actor(s) who starred in it?

I had three cats in ILD.  Tigger the holding cat and Jerry and Daryl were my action cats. All three did a stellar job for me!

Pictured: Oscar Issac as Llewyn Davis and "Ulysses"

Us cats are notoriously tricky to catch once we take a run outside. Were the outdoor scenes a challenge for you?

The outside scenes were tricky because we had to make sure the cats were safe at all times. There was noise and traffic and conditions that we had no control over. Being a cat you understand that all of the above are not exactly loved by felines. 

What other types of animals have you worked with besides cats and dogs?

I have worked with all types of animals. Literally from ants to zebras. Great apes and small exotics were some of my favorites. I used to bring my Red Fox and African Serval cat home on weekends. I once had river Otters swimming in my bathtub. It’s a crazy life!

Are there any types of animal you would like to work with but have not yet had the chance?

My dream is to work with a Cheetah. They are my absolute favorite animal. I met one once but never had the opportunity to train one. 

Everybody knows the legend that is "Mr Jinx". He is a hero to us floofs as is his superstar on screen owner Jack Byrnes (Robert De Niro). Please tell us who played Mr Jinx in the Meet the Parents Trilogy?

I had several cats that played Mr Jinx. In the first film Misha was my hero cat backed up by Chewy and Stella. Because cats can be cats you always work them as a team. So if one feels like they just don’t feel like it you have back ups.  In the second film I used Misha, Peanut and Diamond. Peanut was the star in the second instalment. Finally it was Peanut and Charlie in the third film.

Pictured: Mr Jinx escapes! (Meet the Parents)

Prior to the films release, did you have any idea just how iconic the Meet the Parents universe and "Mr Jinx" would become?

I had no idea how popular the character would become. He’s still popular today. Charlie is a big hit at our parties. People are always asking to take a photo with him. 

What breed of cat is Mr Jinx?

Jinx is a seal point Himalayan. 

The bathroom scene is iconic. We all know Jinxy can't operate a toilet seat due to his lack of opposable thumbs however, Jack Byrnes does tell Gaylord that he trained Jinx by placing a kitty litter inside of the toilet and then removing it once the cat was used to it. Did Jack Byrnes reveal to us exactly how to train a cat to use the toilet or did you use a different technique?

I did not have to actually train the cat to use the toilet but if you wanted to the litter box in the toilet is the proper method. I trained them to sit in the toilet which was much easier. 

Pictured: Jack Byrne (Robert De Niro) defends Mr Jinx after his attack on the Focker's dog, Moses (Meet the Fockers)

It's hard to believe that Meet the Parents dates back to 2000. That would make the original Mr Jinx rather old! What ever happened to the cats who played Mr Jinx? Are any of the cat actors who played him still with us?

Misha , Peanut and Diamond sadly passed many years ago. They had a good life. Charlie is the last cat standing. 

If you wanna learn a trick, click here for a clip from Woman's Day of Dawn and Peanut teaching you how to get your cat to high five!

Robert De Niro and Mr Jinx spend a lot of screen time together over the course of the three films. Ben Stiller gets a few quality scenes with Mr Jinx too. How do you best introduce the animal actors to the human actors and is it a slow process for a relationship to be formed?

Animals need to watch the trainer so they know what to do next. They are not really working for the actors so having them bond really isn’t necessary unless you have an actor that’s not comfortable with a certain animal. Then you want to let them spend time together so the actor looks comfortable. 

A scene that we never grow tired of is actually during the end credits of "Little Fockers" when Jack Byrne is watching the video remix of Gaylord's speech at the medical expo, where he uses Jack as the basis of his talk. Who played Mr Jinx and famously hisses during this scene?

Charlie was the cat who hisses in the final scene. He didn’t like one of my other cats, so we’d show him that cat and he’d hiss to make sure the other cat was clear on who was the boss. It was safe and stress free which is why I did it that way. They actually lived together at my house. 

I actually laughed out loud at this and a hairball came out!

Pictured: Mr Jinx (Charlie) strikes a pose (Little Fockers)

Without giving any names away, have there even been times where an animal actor would just not get along with the human actors?  

I did have a dog that did not like the actress that he was supposed to belong to but to be fair no one on set liked her either. You know animals are a great judge of character. 

We cats can throw tantrums just as well, if not better than the human movie stars. Has an animal actor ever received their "termination of employment" due to bad behaviour?

I have had to terminate several cats on different projects do to lack of "talent" for the positions they were vying for. Like people some animals just aren’t cut out for the job. 

Are you working on any new projects?

Currently I am working on Hocus Pocus 2 , The Netflix show The Watcher, Law and Order and I just finished Clerks 3. There are other projects in the works. 

Let's talk about the legend that is Charlie!

What age is Charlie?

Charlie is 13-15 years of age. He was a stray wondering the streets of Canada before I got him , so we are not really sure of his age. 

Pictured: Superstar Charlie posing for a quick photo

What are Charlie's favourite foods?

Charlie’s favorite food is anything I’m eating. He’s very spoiled and is positive if what’s mine is his. Seriously, he will eat anything. 

What are Charlie's favourite toys?

Charlie likes it when you hide around the corner and run your finger up and down the wall so he can attack you. So I guess I’m his favorite toy. 

How is Charlie spending his retirement?

Charlie spends his days sunning himself, eating and generally being spoiled. 

Pictured: Charlie enjoying a relaxing retirement and living with Dawn Barkan.

I am curious to hear your answer to this situation. My hooman's can't get me to do anything they want. I will come inside when I feel like it and not when I am called. I will hiss and meowl when I am getting brushed. I will chew their coursework and post. I hiss at other cats that come near my house but don't follow me on Instagram and I occupy the best seats in the house. Do you reckon you could train me and if so how would you deal with me? 😹

It really does take a certain type of personality to work in film. The animals need to be relaxed and good with environmental changes and an influx of stimuli. Now Nacho, if we can get you a little less shall we say independent you might have a shot. You are very handsome as far as felines go. 

Pictured: Nacho the untrainable?

Thank you so much for giving us an insight into who you are and what you do. It was a delight to get this opportunity and we can honestly say we have enjoyed a lot of your work long before we knew it was you behind it!  We laughed at some of those great answers and we have spent our days wondering who that actress was that the animals didn't like! I'm guessing client confidentiality means we will never find out? Also, this is the first we heard of a Hocus Pocus 2 being in the works and we are super excited about this and all the more so knowing you are working on it! We wish you all the very best in the future with your animals. Please give Charlie a little pet from us!

Right my dear furrriends,

I am knackered after all that work preparing for the Q&A and am off take a snooze! I really hope you enjoyed it and I wish each and everyone of my followers and interviewees a wonderful Christmas and a fabulous new year!


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