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Monkey business on ‘Animal Practice’

By Joe Flint, Los Angeles Times –

Crystal nibbles on some yogurt and nuts as her eyes dart around the room. A wardrobe person comes by with an outfit to wear in the next scene but it is too big to fit her slim figure and Crystal seems less than thrilled.

“She has no shoulders,” the wardrobe person is told by a member of Crystal’s entourage.

On set, Crystal is aloof. She typically ignores the other actors and producers and will take direction only from her manager. Between scenes, while the rest of the cast and crew make small talk and crack jokes with each other, Crystal is hustled to her own private area where she waits for someone to bring her yet another costume and, of course, has another bite to eat.

Normally, such diva-like behavior would lead to a tense set, but Crystal is a Capuchin monkey and a star of NBC’s new sitcom “Animal Practice.”

Crystal is a veteran of movies and TV with an enviable IMDB credit list that includes “The Hangover Part II,” “Dr. Dolittle” and “Community,” and “Animal Practice” is her first gig as a TV series regular. She plays Dr. Rizzo, the custom-car driving, ever-present sidekick to Justin Kirk’s sarcastic and troublemaking George Coleman, an animal-loving veterinarian who hates people.

Mammals on television shows are nothing new, but with the exception of Lassie, Flipper and Rin Tin Tin, most are relegated to bit parts or small supporting roles, particularly as a series ages. The last breakout star on television was probably Moose, a Jack Russell terrier who played Eddie on “Frasier.”

On “Animal Practice,” though, creatures large and small are on center stage most of the time. Besides Crystal, the show has had not only the usual assortment of dogs and cats but also a snake, a tiger, a skunk, a chinchilla and a black bear.

For every animal actor there is a trainer behind the scenes coaching the stunts and often complex interplay with their human counterparts. During one recent day of shooting, Tom Gunderson, who has been with Crystal for 16 years, was directing her to jump out of bed, turn off the alarm clock and then enthusiastically yawn.

When the director yelled, “Action,” Gunderson would motion to Crystal to get out of her little bed and then the two would literally do the scene together. She got it in three takes.

Gunderson and Crystal are more than co-workers. Crystal lives with Gunderson and his family, which in the world of animal training is not unusual.

“She becomes very insecure when we’re separated,” Gunderson said as Crystal sat on his shoulders. “We’ve developed trust. I had to prove to her that I’m going to look out for her and am not going to hurt her.”

Watching over Crystal and the cast and crew of “Animal Practice” is the American Humane Association, which issues the all-important stamp of approval for viewers: “No Animals Were Harmed.” The AHA scrutinizes not only the scripts but also clears wardrobes, food, special effects and stunts to ensure animal safety. Everything an animal does in rehearsals and on camera is documented and later submitted in a report to the AHA, which will then determine whether the animals have been treated properly.

Earlier this month, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals lashed out at the AHA, accusing the organization of being too cozy with Hollywood and not doing enough to protect animals on movie and TV sets. AHA has denied the accusations.

PETA has also taken aim at “Animal Practice,” specifically.

“The cheap laughs that ‘Animal Practice’ gets from putting a monkey in a lab coat come at a heavy cost for animals, who spend their lives deprived of everything that is natural and important to them,” said PETA Senior Vice President Lisa Lange.

Crystal’s owner, Birds & Animals Unlimited, disagrees.

“PETA is a fringe group that gets a lot of media attention,” said Jennifer Henderson, operations manager for Birds & Animals, which is the largest supplier of animals to Hollywood. “We are first and foremost animal people … we work closely with AHA, and I’m fully confident that our trainers will always make the right decision.”

Crystal and her furry colleagues don’t work cheap. Although Henderson wouldn’t say exactly what it costs to hire Crystal, it can easily run north of $500 an hour, while Gunderson can get as much as $400.

Despite all the special treatment and big paycheck, Crystal’s costars aren’t jealous. In fact, Kirk said Crystal is more reliable than some of his other two-legged costars.

“Crystal’s always on the set on time, that’s never an issue,” he said.

The track record for Capuchin monkeys in prime time isn’t great. The last one was Marcel on “Friends” (played by two different monkeys), who ended up doing only eight episodes and was let go after cast complaints about hygiene.

But even having to watch Crystal get her diaper changed on set wasn’t enough to sour Kirk on his hairy little costar.

“With all the amazing things Crystal can do,” he said, “I’m going to cut her some slack and let her poop whenever she wants.”

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