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Hubert G. Wells, who trained animals for films including the original Doctor Dolittle, Out of Africa, Wolf, Sheena and The Ghost and the Darkness, has died. He was 88.
Wells died on Christmas Day of age-related illnesses at his home in Thousand Oaks, fellow animal trainer Doree Sitterly told The Hollywood Reporter.
Sitterly and Wells worked together for 20 years — she doubled for Meryl Streep on Out of Africa while he was serving as chief animal trainer on the 1986 Oscar best picture winner — and for 10 of those they lived on his 9-acre compound in the Santa Monica Mountains that was filled with trained wild animals. (They raised lion cubs in the laundry room.)
The Hungarian-born Wells got his start in Hollywood at Jungleland, a 27-acre theme park and private zoo in Thousand Oaks that was used to rent and train animals for movies, TV shows and commercials. After it closed in 1969, he created Animal Actors of Hollywood, running that operation for 30 years.
On John Guillermin’s Sheena (1984), starring Tanya Roberts, Wells brought five lions, three leopards, four chimpanzees, four white horses, 12 flamingos, two macaws, one elephant and one rhino to Kenya for the production.
“Sheena was a bad picture, almost painful to watch, but for me and my crew, it was fun to do and financially rewarding,” he wrote in his 2017 memoir, Lights, Camera, Lions: Memoirs of a Real-Life Dr. Doolittle.
Hubert Geza Wells was born on Aug. 8, 1934, in Budapest. His father, Karl, was a forest engineer. At a young age, he enjoyed reading Tarzan stories written by Edgar Rice Burroughs and practiced falconry; he called his first bird Fulgur, which is Latin for lightning.
Wells began training animals in his home country in 1954, then came to the U.S. three years later. In New York and Florida, he had a dog-and-leopard show that was featured in a story in Life magazine.
Wells moved to California in the mid-’60s to work on a Disney TV movie and landed a job as a lion trainer at Jungleland. He served as an animal trainer on the Rex Harrison-starring Doctor Dolittle (1967) — filmed in part at the Thousand Oaks park — and on the 1970-71 kids show Lancelot Link, Secret Chimp.
He also was as a consultant on Ring of Bright Water (1969), a story about a pet otter, and Living Free (1972), the sequel to Born Free.
Wells went on to work on films including Quest for Fire (1981), John Schlesinger’s Honky Tonk Freeway (1981) — he trained an elephant and rhino for that — Never Cry Wolf (1983), The Clan of the Cave Bear (1986), Project X (1987), Big Top Pee-wee (1988), She-Devil (1989) and Babe: Pig in the City (1998).
He estimated that he worked on more than 150 features and 200 TV shows on five continents during his career.
Wells had no spouse or children, and his remaining family members live in Europe, Sitterly said.
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