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The Heidi Chronicles, Chapter 35: A walk on the wild side with Brandon McMillan

April 6, 2009 |  7:00 am

Heidi blog head shot This is Heidi. Last year, she was "discovered" in the park by a pet talent agency; since then, she has embarked on a one-dog quest to break into the business. This is her Hollywood story as chronicled by Times staff writer Diane Haithman. And this is her “head shot”: That longing look was achieved by placing a biscuit just out of reach.

It must be hard to sit still and talk about house dogs when you've dodged the claws of leopards in Kenya and teased the tentacles of the giant Humboldt squid in the dark Sea of Cortez.

Such has been the recent life of animal trainer and behaviorist Brandon McMillan, 31, in preparing his new TV series, "Night," which premieres Wednesday on the Animal Planet Network. With 20 episodes under his belt to air over the next 10 weeks, McMillan has traveled the world, pairing with local animal experts to witness the behavior of wild animals after dark. McMillan records the animals with night-vision technology, including thermal imagery and infrared beacons. And don't forget the sounds — you don't need your eyes to take in the alarming crunch, crunch, crunch of a leopard devouring the gazelle it has dragged up a tree.

McMillan has trained all kinds of animals, wild and domestic, but says he prefers trekking after the untamed. For the show, "I've switched careers in a sense," he says. "I've always been the adventurer, but unfortunately there was no money in adventure. I feel like I won the lottery."   

Brandon McMillan 1

Not that domestic life was tame for McMillan, who grew up in a family of professional animal trainers. "I thought it was normal, when you were 2 years old and still crawling around the house, to have baby tigers crawling around with you. I thought it was normal, when I was in kindergarten, to bring a tiger in to show-and-tell instead of your choo-choo train or goldfish."

All right, fine. You grew up with tigers, you've got a dangerously exotic new TV show and the Insider website has already dubbed you the "Animal Planet Hunk." What does that have to do with Heidi?

While McMillan was too busy with promoting the new show to do a sit-stay with Heidi to discuss her career, in advance of our telephone conversation I had shipped him a few what I believed to be very attractive photos of Heidi in order for him to offer a first-look evaluation of her Hollywood potential. I asked, with due false modesty, whether a female shepherd pushing 7 years old had a fighting chance. 

Instead of offering the canine compliments I was fishing for, however, McMillan said that, as often as not, Hollywood isn't looking for a beautiful dog. "I've actually started a small side career supplying dogs that look mangy, disease-ridden, rabies-infested," he says. "My own Jack Russell played a dead dog in a short one time — he had to play a dog who was hit by a car, and I had to make him up like a dead dog."

"Everybody wants their dog to be the Petco poster dog, jumping and grabbing a Frisbee in the air. But when it comes down to it, the money is exactly the same."

I always thought that Heidi, trim and angular with a penchant for wearing bandannas, had a sort of androgynous, Kate Hepburn glamour thing going; now here was McMillan, suggesting that, instead of playing the ingenue, my middle-aged shepherd should retire gracefully to character parts — perhaps even consider portraying road kill? 

 I'll try to explain to Heidi that Nicole Kidman never won an Academy Award until she was willing to disguise her beauty with a prosthetic nose to portray Virginia Woolf in the 2002 film "The Hours." The winning nose, as I recall, was not much smaller than Heidi's. 

Next week: More from McMillan on his training program for house dogs, the K9 Mind, and why it only takes him 30 seconds to size up a pet's Hollywood potential.   

Photo: Brandon McMillan, with lion. Credit: Barry Holmes.

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