Her Pet Project Is a Howling Success, Making Chere Hickock Queen of the Quadrupeddlers
A typical day might find Hickock (who of course claims to be related to Wild Bill Hickok) accompanying a baboon on a fashion shoot, posing with a tiger for a magazine story about her and draping a boa (all snake, no feathers) carefully across a model's naked shoulders for a dramatic portfolio shot.
If animals can sense fear in the people around them, they probe Hickock in vain. She handles every assignment with aplomb whether it's bodyguarding a lion from drunken conventioneers or test-driving elephants for company presidents who want to make a big entrance. This same self-assurance marks Hickock's business instincts and phone manner. "Whenever anybody calls me," she explains, "no matter what they want, I say, 'No problem!' It's total cocksureness here."
This can-do reflex has earned Hickock some unenviable assignments, such as locating penguins for a company promotion filmed near Washington, D.C. and arranging an iguana fashion show for a Japanese TV producer. Her list of clients and contacts grows faster than an unchecked rodent population and nothing—so far—has stumped her. When Hickock gets a call for an animal species not listed among her arkload of available talent, she just starts phoning the many other animal handlers she knows around the country. "Animal people are like circus people," says Hickock. "We know each other. If I can't find an animal, I usually know someone who can."
No problem for a woman who has been collecting critters since she was a kid. Growing up in Dallas, one of six children of a salesman and a housewife, Chere was constantly being frisked by her mother at the door. "I was always the sort of little girl who came home with snakes in her pocket," Hickock says with a laugh. Since wild pets were frowned upon in her house, Chere had to settle for a dog.
Once out of high school, Hickock studied agriculture for a year at West Texas State University. There she learned, among other things, how to castrate a pig. "A lot of guys get pretty nervous when I tell them that," Chere squeals. While in college, she worked part-time catching rattlesnakes for a nearby farmer.
According to Hickock, she has had some 70 jobs since she was 15, including taxidermist, truck driver, dog groomer and one six-month stint utilizing her pig-trimming skills. Along the way she spent a year in California at the Moorpark School for Exotic Animal Training and Management where the idea for Animal Trackers was hatched. Hickock noticed that the film industry was beginning to do a lot of location work in Texas and that there were few if any Texans catering to the movies' animal needs.
Hickock unleashed the company in April 1984 with seed money from a veterinarian whose name she picked out of the phone book at random. Chere did $56,000 worth of business her first year and expects to double that this year. Typical fees run from $75 per hour to put a dog in front of your Polaroid camera to upwards of $150 an hour for a tiger on your lawn. As agent and often handler, Hickock takes roughly 20 percent of everything that comes in. It is well-earned compensation for the risks involved. Hickock, who recently took on a full-time assistant, doesn't like to work with bears and tests the big cats herself by playing with them for a half hour or so.
Pet owners can sometimes be as pushy as stage mothers in thinking their cat is the next Morris or their dog is the best thing since Lassie. At a recent open casting call in a local parking lot, Chere put some two dozen domestic felines and canines through their varied paces. She also took a look at a beer-drinking lion, a white Alaskan wolf and a raven. For most of the devoted pet owner-promoters it was "Don't call me, I'll call you," and then Hickock was off to a lunch meeting in her gold Chevy Suburban with the cage in the back.
Though Hickock is single, she doesn't exactly live alone. She shares her three-bedroom house not far from her office in North Dallas with a red-tailed boa named Jason, a goat named Gertie, a crow named Trammel, a monkey named Mona, a rabbit named Lago, a parrot named Lolly and three unnamed raccoons. Last heard, Hickock had been asked to arrange an armadillo "wedding" for an electronics firm that uses the burrowing mammal in the company logo. Her response, of course: "No problem!"