Quote Unquote: Sue Chipperton is Among Hollywood’s Top Requested Animal Trainers

Kailua resident Sue Chipperton knows a thing or two about making feathers and fur work for her. As one of Hollywood’s most in-demand animal trainers, she’s responsible for training some of the animals in the upcoming Jurassic World movie (shot mostly here in the Islands), for getting us to coo and fawn over the puppy who made friends with the famous Budweiser Clydesdale horses in those Super Bowl commercials, and for making the Aflac insurance duck one of the most recognizable company mascots on television.


Photo: David Croxford

I didn’t actually plan to move here. I worked on Six Days Seven Nights here years ago, and I’ve vacationed here many times, and every time I was here I would think: How can I move here? What can I do? Then someone on the set of Godzilla suggested that I move here and start my own company because there was no one here who trains on-set animals. There are people who supply the animals, but no one who actually does the training. And so I laughed and walked away. But then I thought more about it. After doing this in LA for 20 years, I needed a change.


I started as a marine mammal trainer in Florida when I was 19. I hadn’t really entertained the idea of being a trainer for studios because I didn’t even know that existed, which is weird because my whole family in England worked for the BBC and I would go on set and see the animals, but I never put two and two together.


Someone told me about a school in California for studio animal trainers. At the time, I think I was making $7 an hour, and the studio trainers I met were making $20 an hour. I thought, sign me up! So I packed up my life in Florida and moved to California.


In LA, there are companies with big ranches and compounds where they keep all the trained studio animals. The animal company I work with there has about 70 dogs and 80 cats, and we’re constantly training. Here it’s different because there’s not as much work, so it wouldn’t make sense to have that huge overhead, so here I will recruit people’s pets, train them for movie work and then add them to a database. If that dog gets movie work, then the owner gets a check. It’s a win-win for everyone.


I don’t really train exotic animals—the lions, bears, chimps—there are people who are specifically trained to work with those. I mainly do domestic animals. I love working with puppies. When I got the Budweiser commercial, I was ecstatic.


The Aflac duck is actually 10 or 12 ducks. Ducks can do quite a lot—come, stop, stay, follow simple commands. Just about any animal can be trained. You just have to find what motivates them.


I was rammed by a ram once. We were shooting a Capital One commercial and there were all these barnyard animals that we were training, and this ram got spooked and did what rams do and started ramming. I happened to be walking away from him and he rammed me and I was literally airborne. I hit the side of the barn and slid down the length of the wall.


I would never work with spiders. I’m not bothered by snakes and other bugs, but spiders? No. They could tell me I would be on payroll for six months making extraordinarily large amounts of money and I would have to turn it down. And I know there are spiders here. I’ve seen them. Let’s not talk about it.


Did you know? In addition to training animals, Chipperton also offers a courier service, Check the Gate, a business that escorts pets from California to Hawai‘i.


Read More Stories by Kawehi Haug