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We Talk to Dawn Barkan, Animal Trainer for the Movie "Inside Llewyn Davis"

Remember Jinx the cat flushing the toilet in "Meet the Parents"? That's Dawn's work, and her cat!

 |  Mar 12th 2014  |   9 Contributions


If Dawn Barkan's name doesn’t ring a bell, then you haven’t been reading the reviews for the recent Coen Brothers movie Inside Llewyn Davis, which stars Oscar Isaac as a singer-songwriter saddled with an orange tabby he takes everywhere in New York City. 

Dawn is a big-time animal trainer -- remember Jinx the cat flushing the toilet in Meet the Parents? Upon seeing Inside Llewyn Davis, I knew I had to interview her. But first I had to find her.

Oscar and kitty in the Coen Brothers' "Inside Llewyn Davis."

To say Dawn is hard to track down is like saying it’s hard to pill a cat. She’s virtually non-existent on the Internet, save one photo and a few quotes (quite impressive, she may have missed her true calling as an undercover agent!).   

First, I had a mutual friend hook us up on Facebook. No dice. After writing several pleading (aka pathetic) emails to her agency, I got permission to email her directly. After a few super-sweet, uber-polite emails, I resorted to sending her a photo of my three cats. Lucky for me, it turns out Dawn has three cats, too. The next thing you know, I got a response and an interview time! Booyah!  

Turns out the woman whose last name so appropriately matches her career was headed for a life in advertising. When I asked how she got into animal training, her response? “I slipped and fell into it.” I imagine there are quite a few of us who can relate to that one. 

It seems a few primates ruined her Mad Men fantasies when she decided to work at the zoo for a summer. Her immediate reaction on day one was: “OMG people get paid to work with animals? I’ve been missing out!” And with that, Dawn was on a new job path that led her to work with Birds and Animals Unlimited, a premier supplier of animals for the television and movie industries.

Dawn trains Jinx to flush the toilet in "Meet the Parents." Photo credit: www.rockymounttelegram.com

This was a rather large turn of events for a woman who didn’t have pets growing up. To get her fix back then, she visited the Chicago Zoo to observe the animals. “I really identified with them and always loved them,” she reminisces.

Dawn now shares her home with six dogs, three cats, one pony, and a salt-water tank -- she didn’t mention what was in the tank and I was too afraid to ask. Her cats Peanut and Charlie were adopted from Petfinder and have learned to use the doggie door without Dawn’s assistance. She also has Jinx #4, who starred in Meet The Parents and Meet The Fockers.

When I asked Dawn if there were any animals she refused to work with, I was surprised -- for a woman who works with scorpions -- to hear that up until recently she had a severe phobia of rats. But a good friend asked to work with rats on the set of Ninja Turtles, and Dawn didn’t feel she could turn her down. Now rats are her new best friends.

Recognize Jinx from a starring role in "Meet the Parents"?

I wasn’t, however, expecting to learn that animal trainers suffer from an image problem. According to Dawn, “People think we are weird, uneducated people living with all our animals in a double-wide.” The best part of her job is working with the animals. Her least favorite part? The humans, of course! According to Dawn, “You get on set and people start in with, ‘I have a dog that does x’ or ‘My cat can do z.’ It is one thing to do it once, but to do it on command multiple times is another.” It’s a good thing my cats don’t do anything or I totally would have launched into a similar diatribe. Phew! Saved by my untalented cats. 

Dawn successfully trained Jinx to flush the toilet.

Speaking of cats, it turns out that Dawn works with mostly rescues -- yes, even the purebreds. When asked the best way to motivate a cat to perform, Dawn replied, “Pretty much for cats it's universally food!” No shocker there.

Asked about the biggest challenges Dawn has had in her career, it turns out Inside Llewyn Davis ranks up there, mostly because of the New York street environments the cats had to perform in. Most of you probably know by now that Ulysses the cat was actually played by three animals, each selected for their mellow temperament. 

The cats who played Ulysses in the film listened to subway sounds to desensitize them to the noise before filming.

While the filmmakers took precautions (like waist ties to keep the cats safe), these were not closed sets, and could have been very dangerous without a talented trainer and well-trained cats. It turns out the subway scene was one of the toughest, not only for the noise -- for which she desensitized them in advanced with a subway sounds CD –- but because of the vibrations. 

You might be surprised to learn, as I was, that the cat who was struck by the car at the end of the film was actually played by Dawn’s own Brussels Griffon dog, Finn, with a foxlike tail attached. It seems the filmmakers' intention was to leave it open to interpretation if the animal struck by the car was Ulysses. That would have been useful to know before I started boo-hooing in the theater. Thankfully my Mom was there to remind me it was all just a movie -- not that it stopped me from crying.

In case you were wondering, Dawn is very friendly and down-to-earth. Turns out she lives in New Jersey, which isn’t that far from me. Maybe we can do drinks? But that’s probably pushing it. Maybe if I send her kitten pictures?

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About the author: Tamar Arslanian is a singleton living in New York City with her three cats Kip, Petie, and Haddie. Tamar writes about cats, relationships and life in the Big Apple on her nationally recognized blog, I HAVE CAT. She was recently quoted in People StyleWatch “What’s In What’s Out” about cat toy trends. Her biggest secret? She didn’t grow up with animals (unless you count goldfish and a hamster). When she finally got her first cat she was in her early 30s and it was all thanks to a man she was dating at the time. You can follow Tamar and I HAVE CAT on FacebookTwitter and Pinterest.

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