A THOUSAND DAYS OF XENA

Ephiny Ephiny Nikita has an urgent message for any potential dog foster (or permanent) homes in Central Texas

The "Wolves" of Xena

"We received a call from Renaissance Pictures asking if we knew of anyone who had 5 mals living together. At that time we had 4 adults and 2 pups. The head wrangler, Mark Vette, arrived that night to assess our mals.... After 5 minutes Mark said that our guys would do."

In addition to being an avid reader of the various XENA and HERC mailing lists, Clio's dog Ephiny Nikita also belongs to the Malamute mailing list. A few weeks ago one of the posters casually mentioned having worked on XENA with his Malamutes. Ephiny immediately jumped on the chance to learn more about their wonderful dogs, the experience of working on the set, and the challenges of training Malamutes -- the dogs most often chosen to represent wolves on screen. Although Mals tend to be stockier, and, for lack of a better word, cuddlier than wolves, they can be quite impressive, as we saw in some dramatic scenes from Girls Just Wanna Have Fun.

Peter and Josie of Periander Stables were kind enough to answer our questions and add some extra anecdotes!

Visit this page again -- we'll be updating it with photos of the Mals of Xena and more images from Girls Just Wanna Have Fun.

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" One time Gabrielle tripped and fell whilst running along a wooded track. The script called for the 'wolves' to run over her. So Gabrielle (her double) lay spreadeagled on the track, while 5 mals with a total combined weight of over 400 lbs were held back 10 yards up the track. Mark and I stood about 20 yards past her waving the 'bait' and calling the dogs. Action says the director, and the 5 mals were released. They flew down the track to get to Mark and me. Not one put a foot on the actress as they passed over her, but who later admitted to feeling a 'little' nervous"

"The third day's filming was at an indoors set. Here there were a few requirements that most would consider difficult to meet. For instance, Sollek was required to stay stationary as the camera rolled toward and away from him on rails. Not too difficult, you say? Well consider that a burning gas ring surrounded the camera, and Sollek had to stay still, unblinking as this ring of fire advanced toward him. By this time the gang had complete trust in Mark and would do anything he asked of them, and it was done without any problems. "


EphinyHow did you get started raising and training Malamutes?

In 1987 one of our sons bought himself a puppy, yes a Malamute. We liked the dog, and had been talking about getting a big dog, as previously we had had smaller mixed breed pets. So we purchased our first pedigree dog, an Alaskan Malamute. We named him Sollek, from the dog in Jack London's Call of the Wild.

We bought a couple of books on the breed and became absolutely fascinated. The more we read, the more we became Malamute addicts. Josie was very interested in tracing Sollek's family tree, especially after recognising some of his ancestors from his pedigree in the books we read. Eventually, she traced one line back to Rowdy of Nome.

[Rowdy is called "the dog that started it all" for the breed -- born in Nome in 1927 when dogs were being collected for the first Byrd Antarctic expedition, he inspired the quest for recognition of the "wolf dogs of the north" as a breed.]

EphinyAside from their acting careers, Mals were bred over the centuries for pulling freight. Are there weight-pull competitions in NZ?

Sollek achieved renown by his size (29" and 140lbs at the height of his working career [by comparison, Ephiny is considered a large female at 80 pounds]). He was the first mal to weight-pull over 1 ton. For 3 years he was undefeated in any weight pull competition in New Zealand, often still pulling when the available weights were used up. At one demonstration weight pull at a major all breeds show, Sollek, his brother Savik, and his best mate Kirrin, together pulled a truck weighbridge checked at 2 tonnes, over wet soft grass. Over the last few years, Sollek has been a collector for the SPCA. Dressed in a blue cape, with money boxes strapped to his sides, he would patrol shopping malls. He would normally collect at the rate of $100 per hour. His complete acceptance of children made him a prime attraction, together with his size and gentle nature.


EphinyDo you participate in dog shows? Any champions among your mals?

As Sollek was intended purely as a pet, we had him desexed [making him ineligible for showing]. We were asked if we would show a litter brother of his at a couple of dog shows. We were complete novices, but enjoyed the days out, especially as we were handling a dog that took BOB [best of breed] in his first 7 shows.

So we decided on a second mal, this time to show. A son of Am Ch Vermars Main Man had recently been imported into New Zealand, and we purchased a bitch puppy from his first litter, Sasquatch Moonfire (aka Kirrin). She is a sable. Again we had a lot of success with her in the ring, making her a champion on her first birthday. In New Zealand, no dog under the age of 1 can become a champion. You need 8 challenge certificates to become a champion, and Kirrin took her 12th on her first birthday. Kirrin was also the first Mal in NZ to be certified Working Team Dog by the AMCA [Alaskan Malamute Club of America]. Currently over 80% of the mals that regularly compete in freight racing are direct descendants of Kirrin. At least 6 kennels breeding Malamutes in NZ had Kirrin's offspring as their foundation breeding stock.

Kirrin was put to the brother of Sollek whom we had shown, and produced a litter of 4 puppies. One of these, a bitch Idun of Hootalinqua, became the first Malamute in Australasia to be certified Working Lead Dog by the AMCA. Up to the time of her death from cancer, Idun was the most consistent wining Malamute in the NZ show scene. Over a 3 year period she amassed a total of 102 challenge certificates, also taking BOB approximately 70% of the time. Not bad for a bitch.

Kirrin was also the first bitch to receive a NZAOM, our local equivalent of the American ROM. The only difference is that the NZ award requires a certified working title also. She has also been prominent in collecting for the SPCA

Currently living with us we have

  1. The North Sollek, WWPD aka Sollek, now 11 1/2 years old.
  2. Ch Sasquatch Moonfire NZAOM WTD, aka Kirrin 9 1/2 years old
  3. Ch Orion of Hootalinqua WTD SDX aka Griff son of Ch Idun of Hootalinqua WLD SDX 6 years old
  4. Ch Hootalinqua Cracker Jak WLD WTD SD, aka CJ 3 1/2 years old, grandson of Am Ch Taolin Artic Cat, son of Kirrin Ch Hootalinqua Lleks Dream WTD aka Jazz, litter sister to CJ
  5. Seawolf Shiloh Belle WTD aka Shiloh. granddaughter of Idun
  6. Ch Hootalinqua Jazz's Briar WTD aka Briar, daughter of Jazz 2 years old
  7. Ch Hootalinqua Just Laurin aka Laurin, litter sister to Briar

Last week Laurin whelped 2 dogs and 6 bitches.


EphinyCongratulations, Laurin! Who participated in the XENA shoot?

The crew for the Xena episode were Sollek, Griff, Shiloh, CJ and a litter brother of CJ, Gretzki (Ch Hootalinqua Thunda Jak WTD). The particular episode is entitled Girls just Wanna have Fun.

We received a call from Renaissance Pictures asking if we knew of anyone who had 5 mals living together. At that time we had 4 adults and 2 pups. The head wrangler, Mark Vette, arrived that night to assess our mals. Mark is an animal behavioural expert, accepted by the NZ courts as an expert witness in animal behavioural matters. After 5 minutes Mark said that our guys would do.

EphinyEveryone says it's difficult to teach a Malamute to perform on cue -- due to, of course, our high intelligence ... we get so easily bored with doing the same tricks over and over. How did your crew do?

CJ went to an obedience trainer for a couple of days, who reported that she could do nothing with him, but Mark had confidence that the dogs would work for me, and asked if I would handle them on the set. Of course I would!!!

EphinyWhat was the shooting schedule like?

First day we were on the set at 6.30am. The shoot was to take place in a small area of native bush. Breakfast, and then into it. Generally the mals had only to be shown once, and they would then repeat the action for as long as there was a lump of dog sausage as big as your fist at the end of it. The only problem arose if the director wanted a change, then we had a major unteaching the dogs! But we carried on, and generally the dogs required less rehearsals than the actors.

Occasionally we filmed without rehearsal. One time Gabrielle tripped and fell whilst running along a wooded track. The script called for the 'wolves' to run over her. So Gabrielle (her double) lay spreadeagled on the track, while 5 mals with a total combined weight of over 400 lbs were held back 10 yards up the track. Mark and I stood about 20 yards past her waving the 'bait' and calling the dogs. Action says the director, and the 5 mals were released. They flew down the track to get to Mark and me. Not one put a foot on the actress as they passed over her, but who later admitted to feeling a 'little' nervous. On another occasion, the script called for the dogs to face an 18' stockwhip being cracked in their faces. One of the regular wranglers said that she had an obedience champion sibe who would be better. Crack went the whip, and the sibe flew back to the car, and was not coming out again.

"How about the Mals?" asked the director.

"NO problem," says me, tongue in cheek.

Shiloh and Griff were placed about 12" past where the whip would reach. With Mark and I standing beside the camera yelling STAY filming began. Three times the whip cracked, and all that happened was that Griff blinked. Then Shiloh strolled over to the man with the whip and gave him a lick, whilst Griff went to Mark for his reward.

Another shot called for 2 mals to run over the camera. Accordingly the very expensive camera was gently placed on a piece of sheepskin in a hole in the ground. Away went the mals, but Gretski liked the smell of the sheepskin, and grabbed it on the way past. The camera went flying. Needless to say the scene was reshot, one of the few times that this was necessary for the dogs, with a different type of padding under the camera.

Another occasion shows just how smart malls can be. The scene was an actor standing on a rock, with the dogs leaping up at him. Bait was placed all around the top of the rock, and the dogs let loose a few yards up the track. Down they screamed, and began jumping for the bait. The director wanted a different camera angle, so we set the scene up again. As I took CJ back to the start again, we walked around the back of the 'rock' Action is the call, and CJ immediately goes behind the rock and up the ramp the actor climbed and is sitting next to the actor grinning his head off.

EphinyIt sounds fun and exciting, but I know there must have been a lot of harder, more tedious work, too.

The above all happened on the first day's shoot, with the stars present, and dialogue taped. Next day was the hard work. This is done with stand-in actors, and a number of snippets are filmed, time and time again at varying camera speeds. Here I was amazed that the dogs would repeat each filming almost foot perfect. When you realise that some of the scenes were filmed with a moving camera on a railway track, it was paramount that each time the dogs followed exactly the same path.

Before each scene, Mark would discuss with the director what was wanted, often with the cameraman present also. Mark and I would then talk about how we would get the dogs to do what was wanted. Where to place the wranglers calling the dogs, the route we wanted the dogs to take etc. We would then walk the dogs through the scene, and give them a big reward. For the first few scenes, we would then do a full rehearsal and then a take. After a couple of scenes, we did not bother with the rehearsal, as the one walk through was all the dogs needed. Each scene followed the same format. The dogs held with a lead around their necks (no collars permitted) and the reward where they were to finish. On action the leads were released. The dogs would then do their thing, grab the reward as they shot past us, swallow, and go and fool with the crew for a few minutes. Then back to us for the next job. Everything we asked of them, they did with gusto. Except once. The director wanted a shot of a dog snarling. A wire barrier was erected, and a German shepherd who would growl on command placed on the other side of this fence. Griff was led up to the fence, and the shepherd started growling and snarling.

Griff looked at me, and his expression said it all: "I am not going to get a telling off for responding to this." Eventually after a lot of trying, we got Gretzki to respond, and the director was happy.

One shot that required some training was that CJ was to advance to the camera and stop at a predetermined spot. Dialogue was being recorded, so it had to be with hand signals only. Mark told me his technique, and back home I began with CJ. 1/2 hour later he had it perfect. Starting him 30 feet away, I would have him advance, stop, come, stop, come stop as many times as I liked, purely on hand signals. I used this as a party trick at a few mal functions!

The third day's filming was at an indoors set. Here there were a few requirements that most would consider difficult to meet. For instance, Sollek was required to stay stationary as the camera rolled toward and away from him on rails. Not too difficult, you say? Well consider that a burning gas ring surrounded the camera, and Sollek had to stay still, unblinking as this ring of fire advanced toward him. By this time the gang had complete trust in Mark and would do anything he asked of them, and it was done without any problems.

EphinyHave you worked on any other film or televisions projects?

Other films the team has made include a documentary for Television New Zealand, which required some shots of mals working in harness, and a program called Animals are Us, a regular weekly feature detailing various pets. Our dogs working have also appeared twice on primetime television news broadcasts.

EphinyMalamutes originated in Alaska. What is life like for them in New Zealand? Could you tell us a bit about where you live?

New Zealand is situated some 1200 miles west of Australia, and consists of 3 islands stretching about 2000 miles in a North south direction, and about 100 miles wide at its widest point. Total area is about that of England. Population is 3 3/4 million people and 50 million sheep. Primary exports are meat, wool and dairy produce. Climate is temperate in the north, to cold in the south. Tourism is a major industry, as New Zealand has excellent big game fishing, trout fishing, skiing, hunting, and spectacular scenery. we also have a fairly extensive geothermal region. Nuclear energy of any type is banned by law. Electricity is generated primarily by hydros on the many rivers. Nuclear powered or armed ships are banned from NZ waters.

The major city is Auckland, in the Northern region. population is about 1 million, and Auckland covers an area about the size of greater Los Angeles.

We live about a 20 minute drive North of Auckland, in a semi rural area. Daytime temperatures where we live vary from about 10 deg Celsius in winter to about 25 Celsius in summer. Occasionally in spring we will have a frost. Nights will generally be 8 to 10 degrees cooler than the day. The further south you travel, the cooler the climate becomes. The south island has regular snow to fairly low levels, but in the north island the only place you see snow is on the mountains. The mals have acclimatised very well to the conditions here. Sleep in summer, but work pretty well in the winter.

EphinyThank you for giving us that glimpse into life for mals in NZ and life on the XENA set. We hope to see Sollek, CJ, Griff, Shiloh, and Gretzki in future episodes. Maybe they'll get to portray wolves in Rome ... I've always wanted a chance to act with that actor who plays Caesar, Julius Caesar, myself....

Many thanks for this opportunity.

Take care! We'll be sure to link to your web site as soon as it's up and running!

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