industry news

The Latest Industry News for the Exciting World of Production.

Creative Handbook puts together a bi-monthly newsletter featuring up-to-date information on events, news and industry changes.

The Doolittle Touch

By: Francine Parnes | August 1, 2012

The Doolittle Touch

''Chickens make great pets,'' Ruth Manecke said in her White Plains kitchen, warming up to Suki, a fluffy white fuzz ball of a rooster that she identified as a Japanese silkie, with a penchant for settling in her lap. ''He loves having his feathers smooshed. He goes to my cocktail parties and stands and waits until you give him hors d'oeuvres.''

The rave review was not unexpected, coming from Ms. Manecke, an animal talent agent for whom home was once a place to bottle-feed lion cubs, give medicine to an orangutan and provide room and board to an assortment of gorillas, raccoons and baby lambs.

''He's my boy,'' she added. ''He thinks he's a person, probably because I raised him. Animal behaviorists know that the first things that animals see are imprinted on their brains.''

She would know.

Ms. Manecke, a zoologist, spent 30 years as the animal supplier on the ''Captain Kangaroo'' show. And since 1956, she has run an agency now called All Creatures Great & Small, based in White Plains, which supplies professionally trained animals, whether dogs and cats, farm animals or more exotic creatures like camels, elephants and tigers, for television shows, movies, advertising, theater and special events. (Its Web site is

Ms. Manecke has dusted pink powder on a sheep for a bed linens advertisement, learned to put diapers on an active chimpanzee and dashed to a grocery for grapes for a hungry honey bear about to appear on a television show. For a movie, her agency once trained its leading cat to move his eyes back and forth, but not his head. Later, when the film director decided the reverse, they taught him that, too.

In earlier days, the job often entailed taking her work -- the animals -- home with her.
''Many of the animals on 'Captain Kangaroo' were raised in my home, in Purchase,'' Ms. Manecke said. ''It wasn't illegal then.''

She conceded, however, that people did talk about the neighbor lady who was raising lion cubs and baby gorillas.

''The laws have changed and now I can't raise the animals in my home,'' she added. ''So now I am strictly an agent. I know where to get elephants, camels, llamas, petting zoos.''

Though her Purchase home had a separate building with built-in cages, she has entertained a lion that slept in the bedroom and a baby owl that perched overnight in her Christmas tree. Typically she kept a lion cub only until it was 6 months old. ''It then became a wild animal that you'd have to give up,'' she said. ''But on the show they were cute, tame animals.''

Cathryn Long, one of Ms. Manecke's two daughters, lives in Katonah and is vice president of their agency, where her many duties include coordinating the animal talent with the client. She described her mother, who is divorced, as a combination of Dr. Doolittle and Noah, and recalled rescue efforts for a displaced baby bird or squirrel, ideally to return it to the wild.
''It didn't really dawn on me why all my friends wanted to come over to my house,'' said Ms. Long. ''Growing up with an in-home menagerie, I didn't know anything different. Having a lion cub in the living room, an orangutan in the kitchen or a great horned owl in the garage was nothing unusual for me.''

Ms. Manecke's other daughter, Mary Beth Gruber, has a pet-sitting service in Ridgefield, Conn.
A childhood love and respect for animals was likewise instilled in Ms. Manecke. She said that her grandfather, Philipp Manecke Sr., a surgeon, kept a small private zoo at his Brooklyn home in the 1930's, a refuge for parrots, monkeys and mongooses. She would sit there for hours, she said, just watching the animals.

Later, with her father, Philipp Manecke Jr., a surgeon and naturalist, she took nature walks in Searington and was taught to care for animals while growing up there. She learned to handle everything from snakes to pet hawks.

After studying zoology at Connecticut College, she worked in the Bronx Zoo's education department, lecturing at schools and hospitals and showing animals to young audiences. She would encourage children to have a pet, to learn responsibility and companionship. She also imparted practical advice, like how to pick up Benjamin Bunny: ''Never by the ears.''

In the 1950's, the fledgling television industry asked Ms. Manecke to appear on shows with her animals. As Miss Ruth the Pet Shop Lady, she was the host of her own live show on ABC, ''Animal Fun Time,'' five nights a week for 13 weeks.

Soon she was making many local headlines. A 1954 article in The Daily Argus of Mount Vernon said she was known to most Westchester schoolchildren as ''the Zoo Lady.''
In 1955, when ''Captain Kangaroo'' had its debut, Ms. Manecke became, at age 25, its supplier of live animals. The Manhattan studio was originally on the second floor with no elevator so donkeys and llamas were coaxed up and down the stairs.

''It was a little precarious, depending on the animal we had,'' said Bob Keeshan, who played Captain Kangaroo. Now 75, he lives in central Vermont. ''When we got to larger animals such as baby elephants, it's a habit that does not come naturally to them.''

Ms. Manecke won two Emmys, both for her work on ''Captain Kangaroo.''

The path also opened for Ms. Manecke to create an agency. ''People began to call me. 'Can you get me a dog for a television commercial or an elephant for a show or print ad?' That's when the business started,'' she said.

Of all her animals, Ms. Manecke's biggest love was Bobo, a red-haired orangutan. with whom the strawberry blonde Ms. Manecke made a striking duo. In her home, where he lived until age 5, Bobo, received bottle feedings and baths and watched his favorite television shows, wrestling and westerns.

Bobo had his own car seat, for trips into Manhattan. ''When traveling to the studio, he liked to reach out and imitate the behavior he had seen before, the handing of a coin to the toll taker,'' Mr. Keeshan said. ''Because of the early-morning rush hour, very rarely did the toll takers notice the hairy arm.''

''When we started 'Captain,' it was perfectly natural to ask Ruth because I liked her attitude toward animals,'' Mr. Keeshan said. ''I was very wary of animals that were mistreated, and there were many animals that were part of acts in the circus and other exhibits that had been trained with a whip and prod. Ruth was very much the opposite. We liked animals to be just themselves, and we exhibited them just sitting there if they wanted to, or walking away. We wanted the child at home to see the animal as it was.''

Ms. Manecke, like Ms. Long and Mr. Keeshan, stressed the importance of respect for animals and concern for their humane care. The agency works with many rescued and rehabilitated animals, Ms. Long said, adding that its top performing canine troupe consists entirely of rescued dogs.

Ms. Long said she was often asked, ''How do I get my animal into show biz?'' For starters, she asks people what type of training they have done with their pet. ''Unfortunately being cute is wonderful,'' she said, ''but does not count for a lot when we are waiting around and working on a set for hours.'' What is the most difficult animal to work with? The answer, she says, is not what most people expect, not the king of the jungle or a jumbo elephant. ''In reality it is probably the domestic house cat,'' she said. ''Cats are smart and independent-minded, and when they don't want to do something, they won't. Other than a few cats in our portfolio, I almost always bring understudies.''

No Comments