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The First Tapir Movie Star?
Zoo León's Baird's Tapir Scooter and his experience on the filmset of Apocalypto

Not since a brief opening scene in Stanley Kubrik's 1968 film 2001: A Space Odyssey, has a tapir made a memorable screen appearance, albeit brief--if you blink, you miss it. An unprecedented opportunity presented itself with Mel Gibson's film Apocalypto, an epic and action-packed film which depicts a moment in Mexico's Mayan cultural history. Scooter, an agreeable and charismatic male Baird's tapir from Zoo León in León, Guanajuato, México may just become the (animal) star of this film. Zoo León General Curator Richard Sheffield and veterinarian Jesus Barroso describe how their zoo's beloved tapir became a cast member of this much anticipated movie. To learn more about the film, visit the Apocalypto website, and go see it in December 2006 to catch Scooter!

Scooter the Zoo León tapir and animal movie star. More photos.

When did the film crew contact you?
We were originally contacted by the director of Africam Safari in Puebla. They do not have tapirs and knew that we did. Gibson’s representatives contacted us in September of ’05.

What were the filming dates?
For Scooter’s participation, (filming took place) the 2nd and 3rd weeks of November ’05 in the jungles of the southern Mexican state of Veracruz.

Did you read the script to Apocalypto? How does a tapir factor into the plot?
No, we didn't read the script. But apparently the tribe needs to hunt and kill a tapir and eat its testicles for fertility purposes. (No real animals were harmed during the filming--an animatronic tapir was built with help from staff at the Los Angeles Zoo who measured their Baird's tapir for the production company.)

Whom did you work with from the film crew?
We worked at first directly with Airborne Productions, Inc., represented here in Mexico by Claudia Porter. This organization specializes in supplying animals for film work. Once on the filming site, we worked with two assistant directors and at times directly with Gibson.

Apocalytpo photo from IMDb.com

How did they describe what they needed from the tapir/actor?
One day before filming, Barroso would meet with one of the assistant directors to go over the storyboard and from that came the needs for the next day.

Were there other animals and animal handlers on the set?
Other than the other tapir and small donkeys, not while we were on the set. I did see a black panther in the trailer for the movie.

Were those animals specially trained or also from zoos in the area?
There were additional animals and handlers supplied by Airborne Productions, but their personnel did not have sufficient experience with wild animals, and therefore were not involved with Scooter’s scenes. A second tapir from another zoo was on the set, but was not used. There was also an animatronics tapir that was used for the scene in which the tapir was killed.

Scooter and Jesus demonstrate positive reinforcement training. More photos.

Describe the work you did with Scooter to prep him for his role.
This depended on the demands of any particular scene. We used two training methods when Scooter had to run: for one method we had a trainer about fifteen feet in front of Scooter, and for the other we had Scooter running from point A to point B. For both methods we simply used positive reinforcement (a method this tapir is very responsive to): Scooter was enticed to cooperate by offering him his favorite treat which was a large succulent and ripe banana alternated with cantaloupe or whole wheat slices of bread.

Before each scene was filmed, we took Scooter to the area where the filming was to take place in order to familiarize with that area and walked him several times through the exact sectors where he would be filmed. After walking him, we then did the same but had him run through the sector using the same training methods.


Describe your typical day on the set.
A typical day: We took Scooter to the filming areas in a trailer. In each one of these filming areas, there was fenced holding area for Scooter in which he was placed. We then waited for a signal that they were ready to film. Each scene lasted about 30 seconds and filmed by 2 to 8 cameras. At the end of each scene there was a cut, and then Gibson along with the assistant director and the head cameraman reviewed what was filmed. This intermediate period of review lasted about 30 minutes. During this time they “babied” the “star” with food treats, massages and a good brushing. If the crew liked what they had on film, they went on to the next scene, and if not, then it was refilmed until Gibson got what he wanted. The same scene was re-filmed as often as four times. Barroso told the film crew that four tries of the same scene would be the maximum during one period of filming as to minimize the stress affecting Scooter.

How many days did Scooter's scenes take to film?
Four days. We don’t really know how many scenes; when the movie comes out, we’ll see (bad memory).

How many takes did Scooter need to achieve the desired moment on film?
Four max.

Describe any funny moments on the set with Scooter.
The funniest thing that happened was on the occasion that Scooter had to run up a small hill escaping from the hunters. Barroso was in the lead running outside of camera’s* sight. When he got to the top of the hill, he had to quickly move to one side of Scooter’s trajectory in order not to be filmed. The idea was that Scooter was supposed to continue in a straight path, but Scooter had his own ideas. When Barroso jumped to one side and hid in the bushes, Scooter stopped dead in his tracts and went after Barroso, sniffing and nudging him with his nose to get him back on his feet and go where Scooter thought he was supposed to go. That got a big laugh from all the crew.

How did Scooter interact with the other actors?
Actually there wasn’t much interaction with the actors other than those who were supposedly chasing and hunting him.

Scooter with veterinarian Jesus Barroso and director Mel Gibson. More photos.

What did they think of him? Did any actors take an interest in the tapir?
Everybody was interested in the taper, but the principal individual who was fascinated with Scooter, was Mel Gibson. One of the media in Mexico interviewed Mel Gibson and when they asked him who was the star of the movie he said the tapir!

Did Mel Gibson help Scooter prepare for his screen time?
Not directly. He explained what he wanted in the scene about to be filmed, but left everything else up to us.

What was Gibson like as a director?
He was a really great guy. He always asked if Scooter was OK to do another scene, and if we said no, then he accepted our decision with no qualms.

I noticed that the TSG logo appears in some of the pieces of plywood you're holding in pictures--did you discuss TSG with the filmmakers, or tapir conservation with them?
Not really, as the opportunity did not present itself.

How did you use the pieces of plywood--were they used to help Scooter with this scenes?
They were used at times to keep Scooter away from some of the heavy equipment being used on or near the set. Scooter was quite curious about things around him and moving the plywood sheets about, kept his interest confined to the immediate things at hand.

Did you or your zoo give the filmmakers any insight into tapir use by Aztec and Mayan tribes or tribal use of tapirs from ancient times?
No, actually they had done all their homework.

Describe what the filmmakers did for your zoo--how they compensated Zoo León for Jesus' time and Scooter's expert "tapirness"?
They paid the travel and lodging expenses, and donated sufficient funds to build Scooter a new and beautiful exhibit.

Interview conducted by Gilia Angell. All photos and material supplied by Richard Sheffield, Jesus Barroso, and Zoo León. Additional info from Alberto Mendoza, TSG Houston Zoo, and Mike Dee, TSG Los Angeles Zoo. Movie poster courtesy of IMDb.com.