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The woman who trained Harry Potter owls, 101 Dalmations

Filed on March 10, 2018
Julie Tottman speaks at the Emirates Literature Festival

Over 25 years, Julie Tottman has trained animals for Hollywood movies and TV series like Game of Thrones

Animal characters in moves are not an uncommon sight. We saw owls delivering letters in Harry Potter films and puppies playing their characters flawlessly in live-action 101 Dalmatians.

But few know that these animals' appearances on screen are thanks to at least four months of hard work for Julie Tottman. She is the animal trainer behind a whole host of major Hollywood and television blockbusters, from the Harry Potter franchise to Game of Thrones, Casino Royale, The Dark Knight, Sherlock Holmes and Finding Neverland among many more.

Over the last 25 years, Tottman has trained dogs, cats, ravens, foxes, deer, cows, parrots, geese, chicken and even rats.

Speaking on the sidelines of the Emirates Airline Festival of Literature, Tottman, 47, told Khaleej Times that the best part of her job is getting to know the different animal personalities. "To train an animal, you have to take time to understand their different personalities and ensure they are enjoying the experience, or it won't be a success," said Tottman.

The usual average for her is four months, to train an animal for its on-set appearance. But it took Tottman six months to teach the Harry Potter owls to pick up letters. "It was challenging, and I had to work with 15 owls," said Tottman, of the mega franchise that had her train owls, dogs, cats, crows, ravens and rats.

Training animals made her a better person, she said. And she follows the same principle for them as raising children: reinforcing their positive behaviour with rewards and ignoring poor behaviour. "You never expect too much; you learn to always be in a positive mood to make them happy and it makes you a good mother!" she laughed. "I feel blessed."

Animal whisperer

Her passion for animals started at age 11, when she got her first dog. Every day after school, she worked as a dog hairdresser until her friend's father, an art director, asked her to work on dogs for a film job.

Thrilled about the opportunity, Totmman spent the next years researching animal training and working on film sets for free, until her 1995 breakthrough of 101 Dalmatians. On that hit movie, she got to work with at least 250 puppies, throughout the six-month filming.

"The most we ever had at one time was 30. We used many puppies over the filming period, because they grow so fast," said Tottman, of the puppies who took two weeks to train, while dogs took four months.

The 2000 sequel 102 Dalmatians film is her all-time favourite. "I was paid for six months just to play with puppies! It was puppy heaven for me."

Tottman recently published two illustrated books, Superstar Cats and Superstar Dogs, to share easy tricks to teach pets, for animal owners.

As for her upcoming work, you can spot Tottman-trained ravens in the upcoming season of Game of Thrones, besides other animals in Mary Poppins Returns, Dumbo, and Show Dogs.

A highlight in Tottman's career, she said, is training rescues and moving them to film sets. She recalled a rescued Yorkshire Terrier used in What a Girl Wants. "She was in an appalling condition. To get her healthy for a film and establishing a bond of love and trust was such a reward. On the first day of filming, she was almost smiling," said Tottman.

The dog actors that portray Hagrid's pet dog, Fang, in Harry Potter were all rescues. Tottman said that Hollywood casts use as many rescues as possible.

sherouk@khaleejtimes.com

author

Sherouk Zakaria

"Born and raised in UAE, Sherouk Zakaria is a Senior Correspondent at Khaleej Times. Joined since May 2016, she covers Dubai Municipality, Dubai Electricity and Water Authority (DEWA), special events and humanitarian issues. Her choice of journalism as a career stems from her passion of telling people's stories and writing to inspire or make a difference. In her free time, she's an occasional theater and film actress. Sherouk received her BA in Mass Communications from the American University in Sharjah in 2013. Before joining Khaleej Times, she was a senior lifestyle/entertainment editor for a magazine in Dubai."


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