Tuesday, May 31, 2011


You have all heard of celebrities or rock stars that trash their hotel rooms. They break guitars, smash TV sets and leave big mess behind. And although I do not do anything like that, I have been known to break a few rules when it comes to hotels. My work as an animal actor trainer has occasionally forced me to take drastic measures to keep the animals safe and with me at all times.

We were once hired to train some rats for a television commercial about the plague. We had to train the rats to run up and down a table on a mock pirate ship, nibble food, and well, act like rats.

That part was easy. Rats like to explore new places and they like to nibble on food even more. Getting there was no problem. We were living in South St. Paul, Minnesota at the time and the job was in Cedar Rapids Iowa, only about 250 miles away. We had talked about leaving the rats in the studio but because of a snowstorm, which slowed us down, we didn’t arrive until evening and the studio was closed. I didn’t feel too bad, as I was worried about leaving the rats there overnight anyway. What if they escaped? There would be no finding them in a massive studio with 1000’s of places a rat could hide.

Our big problem was that it was now –15 below and we knew that we could not leave them in the car overnight. We had no choice but to bring them into the hotel.  Kevin, my husband, checked us in and we smuggled the rat’s carriers up the side stairs and into our room. We fed and watered the rats and then I took them out individually to continue their training. Rats are highly intelligent animals and of course, food motivated so they are easy to train. These were friendly domesticated rats with cute little pink noses and long gray tails. 

The next morning using animal safe food dyes and vegetable oil we colored their coats to resemble brown Norway rats, the scourge of all ships at sea.  I have to admit the transformation was amazing. What was once a cute little rat with a soft white coat turned into a grayish brown, somewhat fiendish looking animal that seemed fully capable of carrying diseases that could wipe out an entire population.

Once we were done, I put the rats into the bathtub to dry. I knew they couldn’t climb the slick walls to escape.
We went downstairs to the hotel’s restaurant to have breakfast. We had a nice young man as our server. He was cheerful in spite of the early hour and asked all the usual touristry questions.

“So, where are you folks from?” he asked, smiling broadly as he poured our coffee.
“We are from St. Paul.” I said, smiling back.
“And what brings you to Cedar Rapids?’ he asked.
“We are here shooting a commercial.”
“Wow, really, what for?” he said, intrigued.
“It’s for a pharmaceutical company.”
“And,” he said, nodding, “what is your part in it?”
“Oh we are not in it.” I laughed. “We are the animal trainers, we brought the rats for it.”
“Rats?” he gasped. He then quickly covered his mouth, as he didn’t want to draw the attention of nearby patrons
“Oh yes, rats. A dozen of them,” I smiled again. “They are in the commercial.”
I could see him taking this in and then he leaned conspiratorially over the table and whispered. “They are not in the hotel, are they?”
I paused, thinking about the consequences of my answer. What would they do if the maid found 12 fiendish looking brown rats playing in the bathtub when she went to clean the room? Could be part of a new ad campaign, I mused, perhaps a new slogan for the hotel chain. A Rat in Every Room.

I quickly I came to my senses and laughed heartily “Oh, no, no, no, noooo, of course not. Don’t be ridiculous. The rats are at the studio. We would never bring them into the hotel.” The server gave visible sigh of relief and clutching his coffeepot, made his way back to the kitchen.

Kevin looked at me curiously, as he knows I do not, as a general rule, out and out lie to people.  “I guess we couldn’t tell him.” he said finally. “No, I guess not,” I agreed. I chuckled a little at the thought.

We began to dig into our meals when Kevin asked suddenly. “You did hang the Do Not Disturb sign didn’t you?”
“No,” I said surprised and shocked. “I thought you did….”
 We both jumped up, leaving our breakfast behind as we raced to our room. As we tumbled out of the stair way and onto our floor I could see the maid beginning to swipe the card to our room.
“Stop! Wait!” I called out, as I ran towards her. She pulled back, startled. “Excuse me, maid service,” she said, glancing at her cart. I quickly put myself between her and the door. “Maid service,” she said again. “I am here to clean the room.”
“No, no thank you.” Kevin said calmly, trying to look cool “Please come back later.”
“Yes.” I said too quickly. “We are very clean. We do not need our room done.”

She gave us a look that read, “All right, have it your way” and went on to the next room.

We couldn’t stop laughing as we watched the rats crawl around the tub, wondering what would have happened if we had been caught. We thoroughly scrubbed the bathtub, packed up the rats, and unlike rock stars and celebrities, we hoped we left no evidence of our little rat adventure.

all images © Barbara O'Brien Photography Barbara O'Brien Photography is located in the beautiful rolling hills of western Wisconsin. Images are available for reproduction. Please e-mail or call with intended usage, size of print run, distribution. Barbara O'Brien Photography 612 812 8788 cell 715 448 3456 farm  barbara@barbaraobrienphoto.com

Wednesday, May 4, 2011


I must be famous. How can I tell? Well, I have an entourage.
My entourage is with me morning, noon, and night. They accompany me while I eat and while I work. I am never alone. I am fascinating to them. They love me, they protect me, they compete with each other for my attention. They argue amongst themselves and jockey for the coveted position nearest to me. When I stand up, they stand up. When I sit down, they sit down. If I go upstairs, they come, too. When I come down again, they come down, too. When I go in the bathroom, they come in, too.
This isn’t my first entourage. I am the mother of four boys, after all. But now the two oldest are on their own out in the world and the younger two are teenagers with friends and activities of their own. I had to get a new entourage.
Each member of my entourage has his or her specific role to play.Apple the Aussie cross is my personal assistant. She wakes me in the morning and lets me know when it’s time to do chores. She monitors my health and nutrition: She never fails to remind me of mealtimes.
Liesl the German Shepherd Dog is my bodyguard. Ever vigilant, she keeps constant watch on me. And on everyone around me. When I step outside the farmhouse, she makes a sweep of the perimeter and checks for suspicious activity. Like a true fan, she is devoted only to me. My husband Kevin could fall in the well and Liesl would never say a word. But let a strange car come down the driveway or naughty horses break out of the fence, and Liesl will let me know.
Hawkeye the Border Collie is my fan club. His role is to look adoringly at me to let me know that I am the coolest, most wonderful person on earth. No matter what I wear, or say, or do, Hawkeye gazes at me with admiration in his eyes.
I not only have an entourage, I have groupies, too. To behonest, my groupies are only part-time groupies. They only show up when I sit down to work at my computer and then they’re out of control. They jump on my desk and walk across my keyboard. They block my computer monitor with their bodies, flick their tails across my papers, and say “We love you. We love you…a little bit.” Sometimes I have to shut my groupies outside the office door in order to get any work done.
My entourage and my groupies are not the only proof of my fame. Outside the farmhouse door, the paparazzi lay in wait for me. I have only to step outside and they mob me, all shouting out their questions at the same time. Really, I wonder if the paparazzi have any idea how much they sound like a flock of squawking chickens? Even their camera shutters sound like the flapping of wings.
So, I have the fame, the next step is the fortune. They go together, right?

all images © Barbara O'Brien Photography. We are located at White Robin Farm in the beautiful rolling hills of western Wisconsin. Images are available for reproduction. Please e-mail or call with intended usage, size of print run, distribution. 
Barbara O'Brien Photography 612 812 8788 cell 715 448 3456 home barbara@barbaraobrienphoto.com