We have seen images of bears curiously peeking into cars and rummaging through trash cans, looking for food. But the concept of a bear and a man forming an enduring team that opened the hearts of everyone who met and worked with them never entered our minds.
Not until we had the privilege of meeting one half of an amazing bear-human partnership. Nick (Nicholas) Toth is the second-generation owner of Cougar Hill Ranch and trainer of Casey, one of the most famous and versatile bears in the world. Casey performed in numerous movies and commercials but is universally known as Baloo, the Bear, in Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book and The Jungle Book: Mowgli’s Story.
Casey lives on in his screen roles, including as the Tolstoy-reading bear in Because of Winn-Dixie. He also lives on in story after story that Nick and his aunt Helena Walsh tell about meeting, training, and working and traveling with the personality-plus bear they raised from the time he was a cub. Nick wrote about his complex and satisfying relationship in a story titled, “Casey as Baloo the Bear in the Jungle Book Movies: Where’s the Closest KFC?” His story is one of thirty in the book we co-wrote with Robin Ganzert, PhD, president and CEO of American Humane Association.
For Animal Stars: Behind the Scenes with Your Favorite Animal Actors, we did extensive research which included meeting the celebrity animals who star in film and television and interviewing their world-class trainers. We wanted to find out how Nick helped to transform a massive bear into such a lovable personality captured on camera. And what was this talented and enchanting big bear like off-camera?
On a hot and arid mid-July day we drove through desert landscape out of Los Angeles down dusty country roads to Cougar Hill Ranch. As we chatted about the upcoming visit, we didn’t realize that we were in for a delightful treat. A long, winding gravel road led to a place where we parked our rental car. We got out to take a closer look at a clean and organized facility. About a half-dozen buildings, large fenced-in sections, and abundant shade trees housed a variety of animals. The pleasant environment had the feel of a family setting; not strictly a business facility.
We walked toward the Cougar Ranch main office just as Nick Toth, a bear of a man himself, came out the door. He smiled a friendly, welcoming greeting and escorted us to his office, a couple of adjoining rooms with a door that opened directly to the grounds. Similar to ours at home in Minnesota, this was definitely the working office of a busy person. Piles of papers and photos, file folders, and storage boxes were neatly stacked around the rooms. A large fan whirred, keeping us cool in spite of the dry heat.
Nick sat on a chair near a large wooden desk and indicated that we should make ourselves comfortable on a sofa covered with a colorful print cloth. We had entered “Command Central” where Nick and his family made important decisions about calls for the services of their well-trained and cared-for working animal stars.
Nick was soon joined by his Aunt Helena. In the way two people, who have grown up together, converse, Nick and Helena finished each other’s sentences and remembered details the other had forgotten to mention. After we set up our miniature recorder and began to take notes, Nick and Helena told us about the family’s rich, long Hollywood history. Nick’s father, George Toth, was a refugee to America from Hungary after that country’s uprising against Russian rule in 1956.
An expert falconer and dog trainer, after moving his family to California, George went to work for Disney Studios. In 1970 he purchased Cougar Hill Ranch and turned it into a family business. While other children went home to play and watch afternoon television programs, after school each day Nick and his sister Elizabeth cleaned cages, fed the animals, and trained them to perform in movies. “My ability to choose and train animals for films, television, and commercials came from having literally grown up with them. Our whole family was involved in this business,” Nick said.
After Nick and Helena talked about family history, they warmed up to their favorite topic—Casey. They regaled us with one anecdote after another about Casey’s first job when he was five months old to filming Back to the Future. While attending the movie’s cast party, Casey discovered what would become an essential for every job. Nick recalled, “Somebody brought a bucket of Kentucky Fried Chicken (KFC) and gave him a piece. He lit up as if saying, ‘This is the best thing on earth!’” From that point on, in addition to Casey’s daily five-gallon buckets of lettuce, apples, peaches, oranges, berries, melons, breads, carrots, the Toths’ homemade dog food, and kibble, Casey demanded cut-up pieces of KFC fried chicken as his go-to reward for tasks well done.
According to Helena, “No other fried chicken satisfied him.” No matter where they were working, the movie’s crew had to drive to the closest KFC each day to bring back Casey’s Colonel Sanders’ Original Recipe. “He could tell the difference and refused any substitute.”
Over the years, Nick and Casey developed a relationship like no other between a bear a man. Nick would scratch Casey’s feet, play ball with the bear, and then Casey would knock Nick down when he’d had enough pampering. Still, Nick and his family of professional animal trainers never forgot that despite Casey’s endearing qualities, the bear was fast, smart, and could be extremely aggressive. They always watched for signs that Casey needed to rest. “He is thinking evil,” Nick would observe. And the Toths would scoot Casey off set to the bear’s private trailer for a break.
We spent a couple of hours learning about Nick and Casey’s many years working together until Casey’s retirement and eventual passing. After the emotions rose to the surface while Nick and Helena remembered remarkable career, it was a quiet and sweet relief to go outside for a tour of their facility.
Helena brought out another of the family’s most cherished members – Hollyberry, a rescued deer. California Fish and Wildlife often bring wild or exotic animals for rehabilitation at Cougar Hill Ranch. Hollyberry was a day-old doe a warden had found near the highway. Only palm-sized, she had been born prematurely and left to die. Nick and his family raised the baby into a small but healthy deer.
Because Hollyberry was so frail and tiny, the Toths had to keep her in their home. Usually they would attempt to return a rescued wild animal to a natural habitat, but this baby needed so much nurturing that she bonded with the family.
While Helena fed Hollyberry apple slices, she and Nick talked about the deer’s powerful trust in them. As it turns out, Holly is so calm that she’s often seen in commercials in which a car looks as if it’s about to hit a deer. In carefully orchestrated scenes in which American Humane Association’s certified animal safety representatives partner with Nick to make sure Holly (or no other animal) ever gets hurt, a car appears to be hurtling toward Holly, placing the deer in danger.
Nick says, “She stands still while the car approaches, with absolute certainty and trust that we will make sure she does not get hit.” She does her job so well that producers and directors remember and ask for her by name when they are filming such a scene. Holly even has her own animatronic double who fills in for her so she never has to do anything that might be dangerous.
As with the other world-class trainers who contributed stories to Animal Stars, we asked Nick for secret training tips. He talked to us about his advice for transporting animals over long distances with some great tips on page 59 of the book. But he added something very touching that seemed to sum up this gentle family’s way of viewing their relationships with the animals. Nick says, “My mom had a habit of blessing our truck with holy water and saying a prayer with us before we left the ranch for our trips to work locations. My mom and Helena always said very long blessings. When I do them now, they are much shorter: ‘Take us there. Bring us back. Amen.’”
Bring us back, Nick. We’d love to visit Cougar Hill Ranch again!