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The Tonight Show With Jay Leno: An Awesome Behind The Scenes Look At The Animals

It Only Happened Once!

I only ever lost an animal once – fortunately for a relatively short period of time. It was on the set of The Tonight Show with Jay Leno a few years ago when Jay led the ratings wars of late night TV. I was a regular guest – not because I was entertaining mind you, but because I brought animals and animals are interesting, often cute (or scary), frequently funny, and have lots of information to be shared about them. I was there as the guest who could handle the animals, churn out interesting information and keep things under a semblance of control – or so we thought. 

I was walking across stage to hand off a small primate called a marmoset, which is a tiny, adorable, agile little monkey. The leash came loose (had he secretly been working on this before the segment?) and off he went, jumping quickly onto the set wall and disappearing into the expanse of the huge studio. A studio that was filled now with an audience, the crew, lights, cameras and other animals. The Tonight Show is filmed all the way through to minimize editing before the show airs, so it’s pretty much like doing a show live. So, what to do?

Mission: Find The Marmoset

I put a couple handlers on watch until the segment and the show was over, then we would mount an all out search and rescue for the small primate until we found it. Good plan. Unfortunately, we searched high and low, up in the rafters, to under the seats; we baited kennels with tasty morsels of favorite foods to entice him to come out of hiding.

Actually, we had no idea if he was hiding, or just hanging out, the place was so big. He could be sitting on an overhead pipe, watching all the antics and feeling like he was high up in the canopy of a strange PVC forest. We kept looking, the crew went home, the studio locked down. I was still inside. I wasn’t going anywhere while my marmoset was inside the studio somewhere. Kennels were placed around in likely locations and I finally tried to get a couple hours sleep on the ‘Green Room’ couch. 

The Morning’s Light

First light, I checked to assess the situation – he hadn’t found his way into any of the kennels we had set up but I refreshed the foods placed inside to keep them enticing. My team arrived to continue the search. We looked into every cubbyhole, false wall and perch we could find, but no monkey.

In the afternoon, right before the day’s show was set to tape when Kevin Eubanks started the band up, out came the marmoset, from the exact spot he entered the wall by the stage exit. He lazily jumped into his kennel for his tasty meal. Alright then. Apparently he had stayed put, napping until it got too noisy to sleep and came out when he was hungry. Was I worried? Never – and that’s a lie. 

Being Famous For The Crazy Critters

According to Jay Leno, I was his most frequent guest during his late night reign. While most would never recall the human face associated with bringing all those adorable, crazy critters onto the show, it was certainly an honor and wonderful time for me. Whenever I watched the show it was hard to believe, even after 65 plus segments, that I was one of the people who got introduced by that strong announcer voice (of either Edd Hall or John Melendez), to walk onto stage and impart some enjoyment and information into viewers lives.

I took each of those goals seriously. Being a passionate conservationist, I always discussed the status of species populations, their threats and what folks could do to help save them. May not sound light and funny as typical of late night segments but the show had no issue with me ensuring I could get some serious messages out in between the animal antics and Jay’s innate comic ability to play off of what was happening.

I’d be plugging an organization or two working to save the species I was showcasing at the time while Jay was tickling it’s whiskers or giving a belly rub. Often though, I couldn’t get a word in edgewise as either I, or the audience was laughing too hard and Jay was already off on another tangent. 


The Life Of An Animal Trainer

Being an animal trainer and behaviorist, I knew as long as the animals were comfortable, they would do all the natural, fun, silly and surprising things they always do. Animals amaze me every day, which is why I find them so fascinating. When the critters are happy and content, they do what they do when just hanging out at home. Baby joey jumps into mom’s pouch after racing around a bit, scarlet ibis lands on Jay’s head for a nice place to perch with a view, a six foot alligator downs a whole chicken, or a tiger cub wrestles with a couch pillow.

Jay Made It Easy And Funny

And of course Jay always capitalized on whatever it was the animals were doing with infamous one-liners “What’s that Lassie? Jimmy fell into the well!” when an animal vocalized, or “When was the last time you fed this guy?” as baby or adult wolfed down some chow. There were lots of times the critters didn’t do what was expected, but it really didn’t matter as long as they were at ease. Those close up’s captured by the camera folks never failed to get an “Awwwwww” from the live audience. 

Ensuring The Animals Comfort

Even with animals that are very used to traveling to new places, we also made sure each individual animal had the opportunity to get used to the set before everything began to get hectic. At The Tonight Show, the very first time we went on the show, we asked for additional time to desensitize the critters to the area they would be in for the segments. It was the first time the show had ever heard such a request but they were happy to oblige after working out that one crewmember would need to stay behind for our lunchtime training sessions.

Every show thereafter, we showed up before any other guests in order to get access and quiet time for each animal on set. With that extra time, plus the more hectic rehearsal, our “ambassadors” were ready for show time. I often requested of the animals trainers to do the show without leashes, as except for species that needed leashes for their safety (such as the small marmosets) or due to regulations (such as big cats.)

Our ambassadors were not looking to leave. They were interested in what was happening and they enjoyed the special treats they received for being a ‘guest’ and their personal trainers were always close by as well, just in case. And there were certainly a good share of ‘just in case’ and ‘unscripted’ moments as I think about the fact we probably had close to 500 animals in that studio over the 15+ year period I did the show. There were times when live on air I was crawling around behind the set, in the bandstand, in the audience and even under the set. All great TV of course!

The Importance Of Training And Experience

Being comfortable in new places and interacting with unknown people does not come naturally to most animals. We took care to condition all our ambassador animals to find new situations interesting and enriching. A great example of this are the otters the SeaWorld parks trained as outreach animals. They are curious animals by nature but without lots of time, training and experience, they are also very cautious since they are small prey animals in nature. But the ambassador otters were bold, feared nothing, and loved to go for walks to investigate new places, smells and sights.

They were often part of our holiday segments since they were so much fun to watch opening ‘presents’ with their dexterous little fingers and fishing inside for toys and treats. We had other animals they had never before seen on stage at the same time but nothing phased them – not a large reindeer, a huge camel, noisy parrots or climbing sloth.

They enjoyed going on trips; staying with the trainers in their hotel rooms overnight, often snuggling in the bed covers. Our two most traveled otters, Buffy and Xander, were even trained to ‘potty’ in a cat litter box! (Don’t try this at home though believe me! They still stink like the wild animals that they are, get into everything, and do have a set of very sharp powerful chompers if they wanted to use them.)

The Animals Make The Show

All this preparation time and effort came down to philosophy. I believe the animals are the most important part of making a successful segment – and their state, either relaxed or stressed, is all important. I worked along with trainers to ensure every animal was relaxed, able to enjoy the segments as much as I, Jay, the audience and viewers. This was the case for every type of show and presentation we did, and we did hundreds and hundreds of segments over the years on both talk shows and news programs, as well as live performances.

Doing The Tonight Show with Jay will always be one of my favorites. We got treated like stars, with a private green room for me and one or two more for the animals and trainers; they knew my weakness and provided cookies and brownies, Diet Coke and flowers; and the staff and crew, from Jay to producers, directors, camera and sound crew to props and security, all felt like family.

I was so fortunate to have had the opportunity to reach millions and millions of people, doing right by the animals and helping to inspire a generation to care about wildlife and about our planet. Today, I am still focused on working for animals, maybe not as visibly, but to me, that part was never the point. 

Check out one of the organizations Julie works with called Save The Elephants.

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About The Author
Julie Scardina
Julie Scardina
A lifelong love of all animals led Julie to careers as animal trainer, conservationist, and educator. Julie has been recognized for her work in these fields with a variety of awards: a trainer’s association lifetime achievement award, a US Fish & Wildlife Service award for conservation, an Emmy for educational programming, and a collegiate Hall of Fame induction to name a few. Julie co-authored the book Wildlife Heroes highlighting 40 conservationists and their dedicated life’s work to save imperiled species. Julie was also the most frequent guest on the Tonight Show with Jay Leno and appeared on the Today Show over 100 times discussing animals and conservation. Julie is President/CEO of Mission Wildlife, an organization dedicated to saving species and supporting conservation. After decades of travel to all seven continents, often filming for wildlife and conservation content, Julie also works as a travel advisor and planner, utilizing travel to increase understanding and support for wildlife and wild places, the very things she holds most dear.
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