The animal wrangler: Jamie Stimach on why raccoons make great costars

"I’ve built a database of more than 5,000 animals across the country. I know who to go to for what animal and what skill."

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Animal wrangler Jamie Stimach
Jamie Stimach created a database of 5,000 animal actors to cast in specific roles.

Photograph by The Sintoses

Atlantans is a first-person account of the familiar strangers who make the city tick. This month’s is Jamie Stimach, of Universal Animals, as told to Thomas Wheatley.

Never work with kids or animals. I hear it every day. That’s why we have wranglers.

I’m originally from Seattle. My dad, who works with me, and I moved here in 2015 to be closer to the film-production industry growing in Georgia. We started our own company, Universal Animals, the following year. My boyfriend is a stuntman and also an animal wrangler with us.

I call myself an animal casting director. We’ve done well over 100 projects, maybe close to 200, over the past four years. Commercial, print, events, TV, film. I’m also a walker on The Walking Dead. I’ve probably been a walker 40 times, including being what is called a “hero walker,” where you get the full prosthetic makeup.

I always wanted to work with animals. I only had dogs and cats [growing up], but my grandparents had a farm in Washington with chickens and goats. I went to school for animal science. I wanted to work at zoos. In between my classes, I started as an animal trainer on set. Then, I started doing my own casting and sourcing animals.

How would I typically cast an animal? I got a call for a commercial in Nashville that needs a dog that can grab blankets off a bed or nose around in them. I’ve built a database of more than 5,000 animals across the country. I know who to go to for what animal and what skill. There are animal superstars, like Crystal the Monkey, who’s been in The Hangover and Pirates of the Caribbean, and the orange tabby from Captain Marvel. A day rate for an animal actor would be maybe $300 to $500.

We work with farm animals and exotics like squirrels and foxes. Right now, we’re casting and prepping vultures and wolves. Personally, for on-set handling, I specialize in reptiles. I’m trained and certified to handle venomous snakes. I took a course through the Amphibian Foundation, which works with endangered species, here in Atlanta.

I was terrified of snakes growing up. When I started learning about them and doing these classes, I fell in love with them. I have a thing for animals that people are afraid of, like snakes and sharks. I really like working with them because most people do not. I like showing people they’re not going to hurt you.

Every day is different. I currently am trying to cast six dogs for a commercial. The other day, we had a frog on set that had to wear a Christmas costume, including special antlers. We had an Air Bud-type movie with more than 10 outfits for the dog. We had pajamas and sports outfits. We milked a rattlesnake’s venom on set during MacGyver. I had to take a Eurasian eagle owl to a commercial in Alabama, and it had to sleep in my room. We formed a really good bond, so I took it out of its cage.

We do all kinds of visual effects. Once, for a shoot with a pack of wolves, we had to create a fake deer carcass that they’re all eating. Props made an animal-safe structure (we work with the Humane Society on every set) that looked like bones, and we took raw meat and tied it everywhere on the “ribs.” We released the wolves, and they started tearing it apart.

I love working with raccoons. They use their hands like us. They wash their hands in water. They have cute personalities. I had a bond with one named Rocky. Squirrels, too! Hugh Jackman was really great with two dogs. Gerard Butler was excellent with dogs. Sometimes, you notice a change when the animals come on set; the cast gets excited because animals bring joy.

You have to work with animals. You have to gain their trust. It takes time, especially for birds of prey like owls, ravens, and hawks. One little thing on set can turn the animal off for the entire day. Everything can go wrong, and we have to make it work. On set, we always have a bait bag, a clicker, a whistle, and a laser. And a squeaker.

I love that animals are—I don’t want to say innocent—but they’re so loving. They don’t judge humans. They don’t expect much from us, and we can please them. I don’t know how I got so lucky. I work with my dad and animals. I’m my own boss. I get to travel a lot. I don’t like calling it a job. It’s the best thing that’s ever happened to me.

This article appears in our August 2021 issue.

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