Not since the "Dr. Doolittle" movies with Eddie Murphy has a guinea pig been so prominently featured in a theatrical release.
On Christmas Day, "Bedtime Stories" -- the film from Walt Disney Studios starring Adam Sandler and Keri Russell -- opens. The flick is an adventure comedy, in which Sandler finds the bedtime stories he tells his niece and nephew start to mysteriously come true in real life. However, the adventures really begin when the kids start adding their own fantastical contributions to his stories.
One of Sandler's co-stars -- and by far the cutest in our book -- is Bugsy the guinea pig. Walt Disney Studios was kind enough to contact us here at the rescue and share Bugsy's story and an interview with his trainer.
Originally, the movie was supposed to feature a hamster, but Steve Berens, a veteran animal trainer with Animals of Distinction, persuaded the filmmakers to consider another furry actor. “Hamsters don’t really like being handled a lot,” he said in an interview. “Guinea pigs are more laid back and easy going.”
[Berens is a cool guy in our book.]
With the change in casting accomplished, Berens -- having never personally trained guinea pigs -- realized he had to make sure that guinea pigs could even be trained, so he started prepping some resident guinea pigs. “While rats are smart, guinea pigs aren’t as bright,” he said in an interview.
[HEY -- we object! We argue that it has less to do with guinea pigs being or not being bright, and more to do with self-awareness. They know what they're born to do -- and are perplexed by humans' determination to make them into something they're not.]
Eventually, though, Berens determined guinea pigs could be trained for the role in the movie. And so he cast Stitches and Thimbles, and found them their own understudies. Using positive training techniques, and a whole lot of treats (we know how guinea pigs love their treats), he and Stitches and Thimbles got down to the business of learning their roles.
One of the learned behaviors had Bugsy running on a makeshift treadmill fashioned from an overturned sander. “Guinea pigs aren’t known for speed and agility,” Berens said. “But we were able to get them running on that treadmill. You get a little bit of movement and pay that off and eventually they understand.” The treadmill scene took three weeks of training to pull off.
[COMMON SENSE DISCLAIMER: Do not try this treadmill stunt at home with your own guinea pigs -- and make sure your kids don't either. Berens is a highly trained, highly qualified animal trainer. The rest of us are not.]
Another trick was a bedtime routine that took Berens and the guinea pigs twice as long to master. It involved Bugsy ringing a bell at bedtime and then tucking himself into bed. First, Berens held a treat at the bell -- including carrots -- to draw the piggies to the desired spot; when they grabbed the rope to ring the bell, they were rewarded.
“From there, we taught the guinea pig to run up into his bed, stick his nose in and crawl under the sheet,” says Berens. “It’s great to show people that these animals can do these things themselves.” Lest you think Bugsy's performance is all smoke, mirrors, and CGI (computer-generated images), Berens says that the only thing that's computer-generated is Bugsy's overly large eyes.
The movie opens this Thursday. If you haven't already seen the trailers, you can view them online with Windows Media Player in high-resolution and low-resolution video. If you see the movie during your Christmas vacation, be sure to come back here and tell us all what you thought of it!!