As New Zealand’s first professional animal trainer for film, Caroline Girdlestone has always put the animals she works with first. With decades of experience in the screen industry, her understanding of the different gears in the moviemaking machine has made her a sought after figure.

Girdlestone grew up in Wellington suburbia, with her love for animals being clear from a young age. At age five, she won her first horse riding competition, and was running dog shows for the Upper Hutt RSPCA by the time she was 11. In search of a new challenge, she left home to work as a photography assistant in Wellington, before moving into shooting stills for advertising. With the small number of people working in the industry in the early 80s, she followed her small work family between projects — moving from advertising into set dressing, before landing in the art department for various feature films around the region.

Working on film sets in the early 1980s, Girdlestone discovered that crew members generally didn’t know what to do with animals — often mishandling them, even with the best of intentions. “People would turn up with horses which wouldn’t behave properly. Each time, I could see what the problem was, but no one else could. Finally I plucked up enough courage to tell them what they should do, and it worked.”

Her keen understanding of both animals and film proved itself on the set of Robin Hyde TV biopic Iris (1983), where a scene required the title character to be thrown from her horse. Knowing she could make the fall look more realistic, Girdlestone set about re-choreographing the whole sequence – setting up a new cross country course and carefully positioning the cameras around it. The final fall looked much more professional, and was used in the final cut.

Two years later, after hiring out her farmhouse and some of her livestock for the making of 1920s era movie The Lie of the Land, TVNZ started calling on her for small training jobs. The scale of these jobs continued to grow — at one point she dealt with 130 animals for a wharf scene on Kiwi settler series Legacy. Girdlestone decided to take the leap, and move exclusively into animal training.

With no other trainers in the country, she flew to Hollywood to learn from the veterans of the business. Girdlestone spent six weeks in Los Angeles, meeting with animal trainers who’d worked on Ben HurOut of Africa, and the Benji film series. In a video interview with fellow commercials veteran Brian Kassler, she compared the trip to a university experience, taking photos and meticulous notes of everything she could.

After touring around animal training facilities in the States, Girdlestone returned to New Zealand and set up her own training compound in a run-down boys camp in Waikanae. Rather than keeping a wide range of animals cooped up in cages (as she’d seen overseas), she opted to bring in animals to train and send home to their owners, once the shoot was done. “If animals are comfortable in their environment, they’ll act naturally.”

Upon returning, she became involved with the ratification of the animal welfare codes for New Zealand – a process which took 12 years to complete. Drawing from her experience and knowledge from overseas, a set of guidelines designed specifically for the NZ industry was built, introducing working animal doubles and improving animal care on film and TV sets nationwide.

In 1991 Girdlestone was called on for a high profile campaign promoting TV One. Wonderful World saw her doing 14-16 hour days over three weeks across Aotearoa, after finding beloved sydney silky poodle star Toby through a newspaper advertisement. Girdlestone appears in the final promo, as the woman who rescues the wandering dog from the snow. 

In 1995, Girdlestone began working on animal training for Babe, the Australian hit about a sheep-herding pig. As part of a team of nearly 60 animal trainers and wranglers from around the world, Girdlestone was the head of the department training the nearly 550 sheep needed for the project. The challenge of choreographing so many animals was helped by the thorough storyboarding of director George Miller (Mad Max). “You knew exactly where the animal was coming in, exactly where it had to stop… We could rehearse that to a T.” Three years later, she returned to the franchise with Babe: Pig in the City, training all of the farmyard animals featured in the film.

In the same year, she also worked on Fiona Samuel short film Bitch, about a woman recalling a trio of relationships. Lucy, the dog in the film, was trained by Girdlestone and her company Hero Animals, and was one of the five main characters.

In 2004, Girdlestone was head animal trainer for American movie Racing Stripes, about a zebra who wants to be a racehorse. Alongside many other animals, Girdlestone had to train a giant African pelican to fly from one point to another on cue, scoop up lake water in its beak, and seemingly take apart a motorbike. Although she taught the bird to scoop up the water without problem (training it to retrieve a padlock from a pan of water), her plan faltered on set when the pelican was scared by minnows in the lake.

Since then, Girdlestone has worked on hundreds of screen projects in New Zealand and overseas – including training sheep for the award-winning 2006 comedy horror Black Sheep. Although digital effects and animatronics from Weta Workshop were used in the film, real sheep feature in a number of scenes. Director Jonathan King said the sheep were impressively trained: “they’ll come when called, stop on a mark, follow limited direction — all for little snacks.”

Having worked in the art department for Peter Jackson's debut feature Bad Taste, Girdlestone returned to train animals for the Costa Botes/Peter Jackson mockumentary Forgotten Silver in 1995. She has since worked on several of Jackson’s films, working with the animals for The Lovely Bones, as well as in The Hobbit trilogy.

For the well-received ‘Lucky Dog’ Lotto advertisement, Girdlestone trained five different dogs to play the main role of Wilson – the fox terrier who travels the globe to get a Lotto ticket back to his owner. With the global scale of the production and the differing personalities of each dog, each was given a different role in the ad. Other commercials have seen her working with cows, rooks, and 300 sheep in downtown Wellington. Meanwhile quirky short film Birdsong (2013) featured several dogs that go missing under mysterious circumstances.

With several blockbuster titles under her belt  – training animals for Ghost in the Shell, Taika Waititi’s Thor: Ragnarok and Krampus – Girdlestone is far from slowing down. She and her husband, fellow animal trainer James Delaney, continue to work from the same 300-acre Waikanae farm where her business first started. Their two children were raised on the farm, and on film sets around the world. Even more than 30 years after beginning, Girdlestone is still one of the most well-recognised and requested animal trainers in the New Zealand screen industry.

Profile written by Joseph Hendren

Sources include
Caroline Girdlestone
Brian Kassler, ‘The Showtools Sessions: Caroline Girdlestone - Animal Trainer’ (Video Interview) (Broken link). Loaded 30 August 2016. Accessed 12 October 2016
John Drinnan, 'A Star in the Making' (Interview) - The Dominion Sunday Times, 15 September 1991, page 1
David Fisher, ‘Millionaire slumdog left in India’ - The NZ Herald, 19 December 2010
Philip Wakefield, ‘Animal Academy’(Interview) - Onfilm, December 1988, page 8 (Volume 6 no 1)
Philip Wakefield, ‘A Hedgehog, A Horse, and A Wrangler’ (Interview) - The Evening Post, 28 January 1989, page 29
Black Sheep Press Kit