Joe McCarter's job takes him to exotic places, allows him to hobnob with movie stars and, occasionally, fills his cupboards with dog food.

A professional animal trainer for 25 years, McCarter has a knack for coaxing animals, large and small, to do what his clients want. But instead of working for people who want a more obedient pet, the Victor free-lancer works for Hollywood companies that make movies, television shows and commercials.

He just returned from a four-month job in Malaysia working with five orangutans for a Visa International commercial starring Catherine Zeta-Jones. And although he's usually not away from home for that long, such an exotic assignment is not unusual.

"In Hollywood there's probably 20 or 30 animal companies that rent out animals to movie companies," he said. "And while each company has its own trainers, any one of them might call me if they need a more experienced trainer."

On his most recent job, he coordinated training the apes, which came from a Malaysian zoo, for an Australian production company. His many years of experience, as well as the fact that he'd worked with orangutans before, likely landed him the job, he said.

"Since Catherine Zeta-Jones would be working with these potentially dangerous animals," he said, "they wanted to make sure the animals were well trained."

Just completed, the commercial was made for the Asian market, he said, so he might not have the opportunity to see it.

Over the years, McCarter said, he has worked with a variety of fauna, including dogs, birds, small monkeys and cats. And while he's trained animals for dozens of movies and television shows, most of his work has been for commercials - and much of it has been in foreign countries.

"We work all over the world," he said, "because it's cheaper to send a crew to New Zealand than it is to film in California."

While he's trained dozens of different animal species, he most commonly works with cats, he said.

"Cats, compared with dogs, are more sensitive to their environment," he said, "and are definitely more difficult than dogs. Basically cats are working for food."

An example of a typical workday for McCarter is a commercial he recently did for Iams pet food.

"I took two cats and had eight days to prep them," he said. "I'm paid to train for specific behavior, and in this commercial they wanted a cat to stick its head through beaded curtains, then walk seductively across the room to a bowl of Iams and eat it."

All movie animal training is treat-oriented, he said, but often working with the animal is not the hardest part of the job.

"Directors don't always know how to work with animals, so that can present a problem," he said. "And sometimes dealing with the personalities of the actors is the most challenging part of the job. That's where experience comes in. Sometimes you've just got to say 'Hey, do what you're paid to do - act.'"

Two actors who are very fun to work with, he said, are Adam Sandler and Annette Benning. McCarter has worked with Sandler on a number of films, the most recent being "50 First Dates," in which he trained penguins.

A native of Portland, Ore., McCarter said he has always been an animal lover, but began training dogs and later hawks when he started hunting in his teens. Later he attended Moor Park College in California and studied exotic animal training and management.

While enrolled in the EATM program, he met his wife Cathy, who for years worked with her husband on a number of animal training jobs.

McCarter's first job after college found him doing live animal shows at Universal Studios.

"We did six shows a day at the tour center," he recalled. "I worked with Fred the cockatoo from 'Baretta' and Bandit from 'Little House on the Prairie.'"

More recently, he worked on a daytime soap opera called "Passions," a sitcom called "Scrubs" and the "Jim Carey Show."

About ten years ago, Joe and Cathy worked together on a series of commercials filmed in Vancouver, Canada, for Scotts Tissue that featured a lovable 8-week-old golden lab puppy. In one of the most famous of the commercials, the puppy ran from a barn across a pasture to retrieve a roll of toilet paper for his master. On the way back, the toilet paper unrolled in the pasture as the puppy tried its best to honor its master's request.

"After the commercial, we were so taken by the puppy, we decided to keep him," Cathy said. "We named him Junior and that's him laying out there in the sun."

"He's done a lot of Iams commercials," Joe said. "And a few years ago he was in "City of Angels" with Nicholas Cage and Meg Ryan."

Cathy, who breeds Andalusian horses from the couple's 10-acre ranch near Victor, said her husband has appeared in several films in which he's worked.

"He was in "Deeds" with Adam Sandler," she said. "He jumps out of a man hole with a cat in his hand. He was also in the movie "Link" but you wouldn't recognize him."

By Montana standards, McCarter said, he makes very good money when he's training animals for a film or commercial, but the high wages are balanced out by the infrequency of the work and by the fact that he has to be away from his family for so long.

"While you're actually working you get good money, but you're not working all the time," he said. "It's a 24/7 job but it might only be for eight or nine days a month."

But money's not everything, and Cathy laughed at some of the fringe benefits of her husband's job.

"We got a year's supply of Kibbles and Bits one time," she said. "It took us forever to get rid of it."

Reporter Rod Daniel can be reached at 363-3300 or rdaniel@ravallirepublic.com

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