Katy Perry's got nothing on me. The prurient pop music princess achieved worldwide fame and fortune with her hit song "I Kissed a Girl (And I Liked It)." Well, guess what, Katy Poo: I kissed a 600 pound grizzly bear named Bam Bam with a marshmallow between my lips and I liked it!
Plus, I did it four times in quick succession with the cameras rolling!
Was I scared out of my wits? Was it the coolest thing I've ever done? Did I almost run away screaming? The answers are -- yes, yes, and no, no, no!
I owe this once in a lifetime experience -- and the fact that I survived it -- to Eric Weld, co-owner and head trainer at Hollywood Animals, an outfit that supplies over 60 wild animals on demand to film and television productions. We're talking lions and tigers and bears, oh, my!
"You've got to be a little crazy to do this kind of thing," Eric confided when I arrived at his ranch north of Los Angeles.
Oh, really? Eric, age 36, is a former advertising executive who hails from a family that includes numerous prominent alumni of Harvard University. Determined to make his own way, he attended Brown University, and answered the call of the wild kingdom eleven years ago on something of a lark when Hollywood Animals was under prior management.
"I came here for a one-day introductory animal trainer program," he recalled. "It was the most intoxicating experience I'd ever had."
Along with shepherding wild animals on movie and TV sets, Eric offers the general public a chance to sample that same intoxicating if not totally terrifying experience of being an animal trainer for a day to people over age 16.
Before we got to Bam Bam the grizzly bear, Eric introduced me to a 350 pound Bengal tiger named Kismet. Happily, Kismet proved to be interested mainly in the chunks of raw meat I fed her from the end of a four foot long plastic stick as "payment" for her performance of a series of rudimentary sit, stay, and release commands. I must report that despite my spiking anxiety, I found Kismet to be one of the stunningly beautiful creatures I've ever seen with her gold, black, and white furred face and her gleaming yellowish eyes.
"Call my agent, we'll have lunch," I told her as I exited the tiger enclosure, "as long as my agent and I aren't on the menu."
Bam Bam turned out to be a proverbial honey bear. Unlike the carnivorous Kismet, he had an insatiable sweet tooth; among his favorite treats were marshmallows and, I kid you not, Gummy Bear candies. Under Eric's supervision, I wedged a marsh mellow between my teeth and sidled toward Bam Bam's perch on a stool beneath a pepper tree.
"Once you lean forward, there's no turning back," Eric warned. "If you pull away at the last second, Bam Bam will claw at the marshmallow -- and your mouth."
What happened next -- and then thrice more -- was miraculous to put it mildly. I leaned toward Bam Bam with marshmallows in mouth. He leaned toward me with blackened lips hiding molars twice as long as my index fingers. And each time Bam Bam snatched the marsh mellow without puncturing or even bruising my lips.
"Bam Bam is our most people-friendly bear," Eric told me. "It's almost as if he's a man in a bear's suit."
Almost, but not quite. As Eric hastened to add, wild animals are just that -- wild. They can revert to their untamed selves at any time. Veteran trainers like Eric are always on the look out for early warning signs that an animal is getting agitated, and they know when to back off before it's too late.
So kids, do not -- repeat, DO NOT -- try this at home. But if you ever get the chance to sample the trainer for a day experience at Hollywood Animals, go for it. And tell Katy Perry to eat her heart out!
Do you really, really love animals?
Many zoos offer a behind-the-scenes tour that gets you up close and personal with their wildlife.
Here are a few to try: