Guest Author: Kenneth L. Decroo – Right Turn, Clyde

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…

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Ken and Clyde


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.


Find Ken on his blog, on Facebook, Goodreads and Twitter@KenDecroo


Almost Human

Almost Human

Kenneth L. Decroo

Outskirts Press

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?

Available via Amazon, Barnes and Noble and other booksellers.

About Sue Vincent

Sue Vincent is a Yorkshire-born writer and one of the Directors of The Silent Eye, a modern Mystery School. She has written a number of books, both alone and with Stuart France, exploring ancient myths, the mysterious landscape of Albion and the inner journey of the soul. She is owned by a small dog who also blogs. Follow her at scvincent.com and on Twitter @SCVincent Find her books on Goodreads and follow her on Amazon worldwide to find out about new releases and offers. Email: findme@scvincent.com
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17 Responses to Guest Author: Kenneth L. Decroo – Right Turn, Clyde

  1. Sounds fascinating – thanks for introducing me to a man I really want to investigate further. I have followed quite a bit about chimps and bonobos who communicate through sign language & communication boards (introduced to the topic in a compelling interview with Dr. Stuart Shanker on Ginger Campbell’s Brain Science Podcast) – but these were not animals that were being trained for sho biz.

    In the interview he referenced the work of Sue Savage-Rumbaugh who was, at that point, a primatologist at Georgia State working with bonobos. Although he started out as a skeptic, Sue actually allowed Shanker & a linguist to set up testing sessions where they had a three-year-old little girl and one of Sue’s bonobos, Kanzi, sit beside each other – and found no appreciable difference in their language ability.

    Shanker, the co-author of The First Idea (which proposes that emotions are an intimate part of cognitive development: that emotional signaling is the first step toward the development of language and intelligence) specializes in the development of autistic children.

    He claims:
    “Our science is now at the state where we can identify subtle problems or compromises very early in a child’s life—even before they turn one year old—and begin intervention techniques that are incredibly effective at either mitigating or even preventing a large range of developmental and psychological disorders.”

    It seems, according to Shanker, that we have underestimated our closest “relatives” (especially bonobos who actually can communicate original ideas, it turns out, at level commensurate with a pre-school human child).
    xx,
    mgh
    (Madelyn Griffith-Haynie – ADDandSoMuchMore dot com)
    – ADD Coach Training Field founder; ADD Coaching co-founder –
    “It takes a village to educate a world!”

    Liked by 2 people

    • Sue Vincent says:

      Ken started out with the Washoe Project, that was not for show business. There is a lovely article on his blog that gives a real insight into the imapct that made on him.
      I think we underestimate the emotions and abilities of much of the animal kingdom. It has, perhaps, been convenient over the centuries, but I wonder at what point we will be able to recognise them as fellow beings?

      Liked by 2 people

      • The science crowd is coming around slowly – finally – after decades of marginalizing advocates like the amazing Jaak Panksepp (“the rat tickler”) for his insistence that cruelty-free lab experiments could – and “should” be de rigueur (his are, btw) – for reasons of science AS WELL AS morality.

        I skimmed Ken’s blog quickly so am now already a bit aware of his impressive background. I hope you didn’t think I was disrespecting his film work with animals. I have a 25+ year sho-biz background myself, and understand that those who train and take care of the animals in films (and on stage, like the Radio City Christmas spectacular) are doing important work.

        My intention was simply to distinguish the fact that these were, essentially, lab animals – without having to add to a long comment already to explain and defend their kind and loving treatment.

        xx,
        mgh

        Like

        • Sue Vincent says:

          No, I didn’t think there was any disrespect, Madelyn. I am just amazed it is taking so long to recognise the complex awareness of animals. It is as though we simply cannot admit the validity of an awareness or emotions that are ‘other’ than our own. But then, to do so opens us to guilt for our treatment of them. x

          Liked by 1 person

  2. Rosie Amber says:

    Any Which Way You Can is one of my favourite films and that line “Right Turn Clyde” is just perfect. Thanks for the behind the scenes insight.

    Liked by 2 people

  3. What a story! And Ken writes so well of Clyde, not sugar coating the orangutan’s strength or intelligence, or potential violence. AND showing us the way human and animal can relate, even with humor.

    Liked by 3 people

  4. Pingback: Ken Decroo: Guest Author on Sue Vincent’s The Daily Echo | Baja Moto Quest!

  5. I’ve really enjoyed the discussion that has been going on in these postings. Working animals both in labs and in the film business has taught me an important lesson. It is not all the time you get it right but that one second of inattention in your career that gets you killed. Mosts injuries in this business come from misunderstandings. When you think of training as a form of communication and that the basis of communication is being able to form a relationship of mutual respect, trust and love, it is when this communication breaks down that things go very wrong. A trainers ability to predict behavior before it happens is how you stay alive. This predicting requires you to perceive as the animal you’re working does. Out of all the possible reality that exists, we humans perceive world through a very narrow window and only perceive part of it. When you work with different species, you have the unique privilege of seeing through different windows of perception. When you’re in sync with an animal it as truly a form of meditation. You’re drawn to a different part of reality and you’re changed forever. I’m always suspicious of someone who says they love animals but hate people. If someone is not able to form a relationship with their own species, I suspect they will have difficulty forming one with another. At least that’s been my experience. Sorry for this long rambling! It is obvious that all postings I’ve read are by people who could differently form that rapport of mutual respect, trust and love. Thank you so much sharing your insights!

    Like

    • Sue Vincent says:

      Ramble away, Ken 🙂 It is good to get an insight into how it is possible to work with animals from someone who has done so. Even just living with an animal, a relationship that is, one hopes, always based on love, you begin to learn the subtle, unspoken language of posture and facial expression that leads to a mutual understanding of how to live together in trust and respect…as well as where the boundaries are for both of you. We may vocalise to our animals, but the real communication is other than that. I agree, it is a privilege to learn to see even a glimpse of their reality.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Absolutely, I’ve learned this carries over to human interaction, as well. In my travels around the world, I’ve learned that fluency in a language often did not carry me as far as knowing the culture. The subtleties of the kinesics and proxemics. Training animals helped me read behavior in my own species as me well as when there were teenagers in the house! I’m convinced the teenagers are a fascinating but different species. 🙂

        Like

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