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GARY WILSON


Moorpark College was in session. Hundreds of students were in classroomsstudying calculus and English literature. Some sat on grassy knolls pouring over theirtextbooks. But a few dozen students were secluded from the rest of the school. Theirclassrooms and labs stand on a ridge overlooking the athletic fields behind high chainlinkfences. These students are majors in the Exotic Animal Training and Management Program,one of only half a dozen similar programs in the entire country.

Gary Wilson is the program’s director and one of its early graduates. Barely forty, with dark brown hair, and a calm and casual demeanor, he seems perfectly suited to dealing with almost 100 students under his direction and a menagerie of more than 150 animals kept at the school.

Besides common animals such as dogs and pigs, Wilson also has several lions, a tiger, a water buffalo, a sea lion, camels, and an assortment of monkeys, snakes, lizards, and birds. His favorite is “Taj,” the tiger he raised from a baby. Several of his charges are celebrities. The baboon, lemur, goat, and lion cub have been on the “Tonight Show.” The water buffalo was in Robin William’s “Good Morning, Vietnam.” And some have done “bit” work on “Dharma and Greg” and in the movie “Babe.”

Many of Gary’s students are aiming for careers in show business as animal trainers and handlers. But others will go on to work in zoos, animal parks, for the military, doing wildlife education, rehabilitation of injured and orphaned animals, or in the pet trade or breeding business.

Gary grew up in Santa Paula. Like a lot of boys, he has his dog. He also had a cat, a hamster, a few snakes, and even an octopus he found in a local tidepool. Obviously, from early on, he was enamored with animals. Initially, he thought about oceanography as a career. But when Moorpark’s exotic animal program opened he turned there with a new interest in training animals. His first job after graduation was with the Navy in Hawaii teaching dolphins to locate mines. I had this image of geysers of water and dolphin bits erupting at sea. Gary assured me that the Navy trained their animals to mark the mines from about ten feet away and not touch them. There were no exploding dolphins.

“Operant conditioning” Wilson explained is the key to training animals. That simply means positive reinforcement of the behaviors you want from the animals. Just as dealing with the human animal is an inexact science, that is no less true with the dumber animals. The llamas spit. The monkeys bite. You have to very careful around the water buffaloes horns. And you must know that no one goes into the tiger’s cage alone.

And there are sexual tensions. “Our older baboon just won’t work for women,” Gary said. “And the coyote doesn’t like men.”

While there are plenty of indoor, “textbook” classes, much of the program is outdoors. On the day I visited, a couple of students were walking a monkey; one was silently communing with a gibbon; another was gently petting the head feathers of a colorfully exotic parrot. And then, of course, there’s a dumpster of animal droppings to collect every day. But whoever said college was easy.