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Sunday, November 23, 2003 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Behind the Scenes

Animal handlers Tim Hart and Nik Croft

Seattle Times staff reporter

Who they are: Tim Hart and Nik Croft, animal handlers for the "Radio City Christmas Spectacular," featuring the legendary Rockettes. The holiday show plays through Dec. 7 at the Paramount Theatre.

What they do: Train and care for camels, sheep and a donkeys, among other animals, as employees of Hedrick's Exotic Animal Farm in Nickerson, Kan., the farm that provides the animals for the touring production of the holiday revue.

As animal handlers, Hart and Croft feed, groom and transport two camels (Amber and Laverne), four sheep (Betty, Bobby, Billy and Bonnie) and a donkey (Black Jack) from their makeshift home, which resembles a mini-circus tent, next to the Paramount Theatre a short way down Pine Street to the theater. The animals appear in the show's finale, the "Living Nativity" tableau. At 7 and 8 feet tall, respectively, Amber and Laverne require some tricky maneuvering to get them inside the theater and on stage in time for their big number. Their handlers can't just walk them backstage. Instead, Croft and Hart must navigate them into and out of a freight elevator that takes them up to the stage, all while in costume.

How they got started: Hart began working with the Radio City touring company seven years ago, and Croft joined the production this year. For both Croft and Hart, it's a dream job.

"I've always had a special bond with animals," said Hart, 28. "I like to work with animals and travel, and I get paid to do both."

Radio City uses Hedrick's animals in eight cities, including Seattle. The animals currently on stage at the Paramount will next appear in Phoenix, their final stop on the holiday tour. The animals travel from city to city by trailer, which is driven by Croft and Hart, who care for the animals around the clock. Radio City and Hedrick's Exotic Animal Farm are licensed and governed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which has a list of regulations and conditions the companies abide by.

Working with the animals keeps the men on their toes. Croft, 25, primarily trains and cares for the camels, which he finds interesting and intelligent creatures.

"Camels are pretty independent in what they do," Croft said. "It's kind of like working with a child. They get bored easily, demand your attention. It's fun to work with them."

Not your typical 9 to 5: By 8 a.m., Croft and Hart are preparing the animals for their close-up. After checking with the stage manager for any possible changes to the show, Croft and Hart feed the animals, then clean and brush their coats, and "make sure they smell good," Hart said, before outfitting them in their costumes.

The handlers get to share the spotlight with their furry counterparts. While members of the ensemble lead the sheep and donkey onto the stage for the nativity scene, Croft and Hart, as part of the shepherds' contingent, are in charge of walking the camels across the stage — in full costume — and staying with them until the denouement of the show.

Which animals are the easiest to train?: The camels, without question. The animals' good nature and intelligence make them a quick study, Croft said, plus most begin training when they're very young. Donkeys, on the other hand, take the longest to train. "They are very stubborn," he said, and tend to have a more difficult time adjusting to their surroundings.

The show must go on: Accidents — of the bathroom variety — are bound to happen when working with animals in a live format. While such occurrences are infrequent, Hart recalls one of the most memorable incidents, when the sheep, as they were being led across the stage during a very serious scene, decided to do their business on the spot. Because of the potential hazard it presented for dancers, the stage manager imposed an impromptu blackout, which allowed enough time for the crew to push a dust broom across the stage and clean up.

Most rewarding part of the job: The reaction from children and adults who ooh and ahh over the animals and, in many cases, want to learn more. "It's really rewarding to see the glow from people who don't see something like this very often," Hart said. "It makes you feel good."

What it's like to work on the "Radio City Christmas Spectacular": "It feels pretty good to know how much people enjoy the show," Croft said. "It's a really good experience."

Hart added, "I feel like I'm a lucky individual to work with Radio City and the beautiful Rockettes."

Tina Potterf: 206-464-8214 or tpotterf@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2003 The Seattle Times Company

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