For most guest authors, I let the author bio speak for itself. My guest today, however, says little in his official bio about the ‘life worth writing about’ that he has led. This is a man I would love to sit down and talk with. I first came across him as, in his youth, Ken worked with the Washoe Project, teaching American Sign Language to chimpanzees. He writes about a wonderful encounter with a playful primate on his blog. He later went on to become an animal trainer and technical advisor in Hollywood, working with Harrison Ford in “Raiders of the Lost Ark” and in Brazil, training the jaguars in John Boorman’s “The Emerald Forest”. He has appeared on many talk shows, including “Late Night with David Letterman.” and received the coveted PATSY Award, given by the American Humane Society for his work as a trainer on the Television Series, “Simon and Simon.” In spite of his expertise, however, it was sometimes the animals who had the last laugh…
Right Turn, Clyde
Many years ago, back in the early 80’s, I worked on a movie with Clint Eastwood called, “Any Which Way You Can.” We filmed on location in Jackson Hole, Wyoming. I was an animal trainer on the show working with an orangutan named Clyde. Yes, for those of a certain age, the famous Clyde.
Clyde was a full grown adult and you had to be very alert when working him as he could ruin your whole day. A full grown orang weighs several hundred pounds and is extremely strong especially in his upper body. While a bite from one can be serious, the real danger comes from the power of their arms. In the forest they use their arms and upper body to swing through the trees. The technical term for this is brachiation. Needless-to-say, their arms have evolved to be very strong. They have been known to pull a man’s arm off his body.
To make matters even more challenging, they are not a very social animal. Hence, they do not have all the gestures and vocalizations of a more social animal like the Chimpanzee. As we say in the business, they are very had to “read.” The aggressive cues of an orangutan are very subtle. You can find yourself in the fight of your life without much warning at all.
Because of their power, strength and intelligence, a trainer is very careful to not let the orangutan know how much stronger they are. In fact, when they are young and cute, there is the temptation to wrestle and play physically with them but in doing so the orang can learn how weak and slow we humans actually are in comparison. So, we are very careful in our play and physical contact when rearing them.
Now, this posed a problem for the movie. The script called for Clyde to hit someone on several different occasions. In fact, the “money’ shot of the movie was at the end were Clint Eastwood says, “Right turn, Clyde” and Clyde knocks out a CHP moto cop. We worked diligently to get Clyde to make this aggressive move. Clyde was clearly confused at first. But, after some time, he would hit on the cue of “Right turn” with great effect. We had changed the rules of our relationship.
I have always said that a trainer must be smarter than the animal he is training. And with Great Apes, that can be very difficult. Clyde was smart and on at least one occasion smarter than me.
We had just finished a scene and had wrapped for the day. We were headed back to Jackson Hole and our condo. Clyde was sitting between me and a driver and we were lost. The driver and I were disagreeing as to which road we should take.
After several wrong turns, I finally said in frustration, “We need to make a ‘right turn’ at the stop.” Upon hearing his cue, Clyde hit me so hard he almost knocked me out. I saw stars for a second. I was so angry I turn to hit him back. But paused when I realized that it cost $80,000 a day to shoot a feature and we had spent the last two months training him to do the very thing I was going to punish him for. We stared at each other for several heart beats before I relented and exhale loudly. I could not punish him. He had won this time.
As though knowing my predicament, he opened his mouth in a full grin and panted a loud and horse laugh, “ha, ha, ha.”
As I said, you have to be smarter than the animal you are training.
About the author
Kenneth L. Decroo truly believes you must live a life worth writing about. Before he became an educator and consultant for universities and school districts, he worked in the world of research and wild animal training in the motion picture industry for many years. He holds advanced degrees in anthropology, instructional technology and education. He lives and writes in the San Bernardino mountains with his wife, Tammy. When not writing and lecturing, he loves to ride his BMW adventure motorcycle down the Baja peninsula to beaches and bays without names. More about his adventures can be found on his blog, http://bajamotoquest.com. His first novel, Almost Human, was published in 2015.
Kenneth L. Decroo
Almost Human is a thriller where creatures with the enormous strength and power of a chimpanzee and the intelligence and size of a human are sought out and discovered in a remote compound in equatorial Africa. The special bond between trainers and their animals is central to the story. Drs. Ken Turner and Fred Savage follow rumors of chimp-human hybrids. The scientists want to study the hybrids but government operatives want to exploit them. The resulting conflicts threaten Turner and Savage’s research and their lives, as well as the lives of many others. Can they stop the murderous onslaught in time?