When you watch television, or a movie, and see a monkey folding laundry, a dog leaping a bike, or a horse opening a gate, you're seeing the results of hours of work between the animal and an animal trainer. It's tempting to assume that the animal — or his owner — is earning big bucks because the animal is in a production, but usually this isn't the case. In fact, some animal actors and their trainers earn less than the owners spend, making animal acting more of a hobby.
Just like human actors, animal actors audition for roles, and when they land those roles, work under contract. The terms of each contract varies from production to production. For instance, a small local company shooting a commercial may pay not pay an animal actor anything at all if the company has a tight budget and the owner just wants to get his animal on film. An animal actor starring in a major Hollywood picture, however, can earn several hundred to several thousand a day. John Hall, staff writer for Animal Actors International, reports that animal actors working through AAI earn about $300 a day. It all depends on the budget the company has for the production and whether the owner is savvy enough to detail items like subsidiary rights and coverage of travel, food, water and general care.
The Number of Productions
Animal actors are no different from their human counterparts, in that they usually freelance, working from gig to gig. The more productions an animal actor does, the more money he earns for his owner. However, the problem is that the availability of productions fluctuates. Even when productions are available, there is no guarantee that the casting directors will select a particular animal for a role. Animals who are very unusual are even more restricted, because they do not appear in scripts as often, but rare animals may get more per production because of their scarcity.
Salaries for animal trainers are somewhat dependent on the fame of the animal who performs. In general, animal trainers who have a proven track record of succeeding with animals on large-budget productions are in high demand, and thus are able to negotiate higher pay than those who are just starting out. Production companies often agree to these higher rates because the success of the animal trainer and animal actor translates into the ability to produce a good final and marketable audio file, commercial, television program or film.
Animal trainers who own their animals and who audition the animals for roles, typically make the same amount overall as other animal trainers. The average salary for all animal trainers was $31,110 per year as of 2010, or just under $15 per hour, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
The BLS reports that the annual compensation for animal trainers in the 10th percentile was $17,240, the equivalent of $8.29 per hour, as of 2010. The median salary was $26,580 per year, or $12.78 hourly. Trainers in the 90th percentile made $53,580 annually, which converts to $25.76 hourly.
Income for animal trainers and animal actors tends to be low, in part because animals have to cover many basic expenses, from leashes and cages to working permits. Trainers also have to take the animal to the vet regularly. In some instances, the cost of keeping the animal over time greatly exceeds the income the animal garners for the trainer.