Animal magic: Meet Des Jordan, the man bringing performing pets to the British stage
If theatremakers need an animal for the stage, they ask Des Jordan, founder of Performing Pets. He tells Fergus Morgan how almost anything can be trained, which creatures require paramedics in the wings and how a corgi was fired from a role opposite Helen Mirren
Des Jordan has made a career in entertainment by ignoring one of its oldest clichés – that of never working with animals. He is the man who has brought some of the wilder stars to the stage and screen in recent years, from the goose in Jez Butterworth’s The Ferryman at the Royal Court, to the corgis in Peter Morgan’s West End hit The Audience and the eponymous waterfowl in Robert Icke’s The Wild Duck at the Almeida.
Jordan runs Performing Pets, a business that sources, prepares and organises animals for private functions, therapy sessions, photoshoots, films and theatre. When audiences went gaga for the herd of haedine in Liwaa Yazji’s Goats at the Royal Court, they had Jordan to thank.
It was a job he discovered almost by accident. “I was brought up around animals,” he says. “I was born in Enfield in 1971, and my mum and dad were quite young when they had me, so I ended up living with my grandad until I was a teenager. He always had animals in the back garden. Chickens, rabbits, horses, goats. I used to help with them as a young lad.”
It wasn’t until he had left school and opened his own pet shop in Edmonton, though, that an out-of-the-blue phone call made Jordan realise he could make a living by preparing animals to perform.
“I bought my pet shop from a friend,” he says. “It was quite bland and basic, but I could see there was potential. I put everything into it and turned it into a mini-zoo. We even had a little resident monkey that used to bring people in.”
“I was breeding British Bulldogs at the time, really expensive dogs, and this bloke rang up and said he’d like to borrow one,” he continues. “I thought he was crazy, but he turned up a few days later, we took the dogs to Camden and did a photoshoot. They looked after me, gave me tea, coffee and sandwiches, and the dogs had fun, and I got a couple of hundred quid.”
The same agency rang back a week later, he says. “And then again, and again, and again. And through my contacts at the pet shop, I’d always be able to get hold of what they needed: a cat, rabbit, dog, chicken, rat. Anything.”
At first, Jordan was mainly supplying domestic pets for photoshoots. After he’d given up the pet shop in 2003, though, the theatre world came calling. “Rose Tattoo with Zoe Wanamaker at the National Theatre in 2007 was the first theatre job I did,” he says. “We supplied a goat. Bruce the Goat.”
It was an exciting time, Jordan remembers. “We rehearsed,” he says. “We went through it a million and one times to make sure the animal was comfortable. It had to stand on special sticky stuff in the end – those little chunks of toffee ballet dancers use – just to make sure it didn’t slip over. There’s a million little tricks like that.”
Today, Performing Pets has expanded. Jordan moved from a sole trader to a limited company in 2016, and now rents a six-acre island near Enfield where he keeps a smallholding that he and his family run together.
He’s not the only one providing performing animals. “There are quite a few of us,” he says. “But because the theatre world is very small, once you do a job right, and you get on with people, and they like you, you can excel from that. I think that’s basically what’s happened with me.”
Jordan has specialised to stand out. “Farm animals are my thing,” he says. “We have a few goats, a few sheep, a few pigs, a few reindeer, a couple of horses, a donkey, a few cows, some bees. Ninety percent of them have performed at some point, in adverts, or photo shoots, or theatre shows.”
Even if Performing Pets is asked to provide an animal it doesn’t have, Jordan can get hold of it. “We have lots of contacts. I could get hold of any animal. Even big cats are on the menu, because I know some wildlife parks, but what you can do with them is very limited.”
“Once, I needed to find a Dalmatian, but didn’t know anyone that had one,” Jordan continues. “I remembered seeing a guy at the sports centre in Edmonton walking one quite regularly, so I thought I’d hang around there for a few hours in care I might see him. I had no luck on the first day, but on the second, I saw him and he was keen.”
There is a lot of work involved to use an animal in a stage show, even before the rehearsals start. “I need to know where every animal comes from,” Jordan says. “It can’t just be nicked from a zoo or caught in the wild.”
The company needs extensive insurance and vet certificates for every animal. “They’re all microchipped. We have a performing animals licence. We’ve got a CPH number that says we can keep and transport animals. We work very closely with the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, with Trading Standards and the RSPCA.”
For dangerous animals, the company needs extra protection. Jordan says: “We’ve worked with baboon spiders and black mamba snakes, and if they bite you, you’re in real trouble, so we need paramedics with the antidote ready.”
Once the paperwork is organised, it’s a case of getting the animal ready to perform on stage. “Anything can be trained to a degree,” says Jordan. “You can’t train a spider, or a snake, obviously, but most things that are domesticated can be trained. Always remember the three ‘F’s – food, fuss and fun. If you get all those right, you should get results. You’re not going to get a cow to juggle, but you can get it to stop, stay, and move around for a bucket of food.”
Animal welfare is always at the forefront of Jordan’s mind, whenever he takes on a project. “The animal has to be happy and comfortable,” he says. “If the animal is happy, the show can go ahead, the client is happy and I’m happy. If the animal has any problems, the project isn’t going anywhere and you’re wasting everyone’s time.”
He says it is crucial to get the animals used to the environment: “The lights, the sound, the smells. When we rehearse, we do it with an audience of some sort, even if it’s just a few people shouting, screaming and popping balloons, to make sure the animal can handle it.
“If they’re working closely with an actor, too, we make sure that actor spends a bit of time getting to know them and finding out what they like,” he continues. “They’ve got to work together for a while, after all, and everyone goes a bit gooey around animals.”
Even with all that preparation, though, things can still go wrong. One of the corgis Jordan supplied for The Audience had to be replaced as it pooed on stage in front of Helen Mirren in a dress rehearsal in protest.
Because of the risks involved, Jordan gets stage fright at every show. “We can rehearse a hundred times, but I still get butterflies,” he says. “So much can go wrong. The animal can crap on stage, they can wee on stage, they can not walk in the right place, they can make it awkward for the actor.”
When it goes right, though, that makes it all worthwhile. “It’s amazing when the audience reacts to an animal,” Jordan says. “I go: ‘Yes’ backstage, because it’s almost me performing. I’m there for the animal. I speak for the animal, I think for the animal, I act for the animal.”