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Wrangling snakes, rats, flies and bugs

When he was a child, Jim Lovisek ordered an armadillo from the back of a comic book.

When he was a child, Jim Lovisek ordered an armadillo from the back of a comic book.

Hey, it was the ’60s.

His bedroom was something of a zoo with various snakes, an injured hawk, and numerous other animals. His parents got used to it.

In university, he studied zoology at the University of Calgary, briefly did some research in the Amazon jungle on caimans (a type of alligator) and came back to his hometown, Toronto, and worked part time with the reptile exhibits at the Royal Ontario Museum.

He got to know people in the film industry at that time and started doing animal handling for movies and commercials. Eventually, he quit his day job and got into film work full time.

Lovisek, now 60, has handled rats for the movie Hairspray, snakes for Cold Creek Manor and all sorts of creatures for Telus through his company, Toronto Nature Centre.

He used to keep his own animals, but now he just buys, borrows or rents what he needs for a shoot, tapping into his network of breeders and people who rent exotic animals.

Lovisek’s job is to make an animal do a very specific task. Once, he had to make a ladybug walk a straight line, walk up the side of a candle and then back down again. (The digital effects people put the flame in later.)

“It’s always challenging to figure out how to get an animal to do something that doesn’t hurt the animal.”

Lovisek made a path of foam core for the ladybug to walk on and placed cardboard covered with a slippery spray beside the path — the bug avoided that and stayed on course. Ladybugs like to walk up, so it went up the candle no problem. At the top, he put a daub of Vick’s VapoRub, which animals hate, so it came back down.

He sometimes uses food or water to motivate animals. For insects, he fashions tiny harnesses with fine line. A quick blast of carbon dioxide will put a fly or bug to sleep for a few minutes so he can tie it on.

Acquiring animals, figuring out a scene and training birds or dogs takes time, so Lovisek needs plenty of notice from filmmakers.

To stay on top of his work, Lovisek reads recent animal studies, plus he never stops observing animal behaviour.

“What you learn is there’s a lot to learn. You discover you are scratching the surface.”

 
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