California veterinarian James Peddie makes a name for himself on TV and movie sets.
For the upcoming movie “Zookeeper,” starring Kevin James, the production company needed to move a menagerie of exotic animals to the set, Boston’s Franklin Park Zoo. But introducing an unfamiliar elephant, giraffe and bears—even the highly trained, medically pampered specimens that work in the film industry—into the zoo population worried the zoo’s veterinarian.
The zoo wanted a barrage of tests done on the animal actors. The animals’ handlers balked. It seemed like an impasse that couldn’t be breached.
Enter James Peddie, DVM—the “Hollywood Vet.”
Having worked on dozens of film sets and with hundreds of exotic animals over the past two decades, Dr. Peddie understood why the zookeepers needed solid proof that the new arrivals wouldn’t bring disease with them. He also understood that the trainers were fiercely protective of their valuable charges and would not allow any overly invasive exams, especially one that would require anesthesia, a considerable risk in an exotic.
Working closely with both sides, he brokered a level of tests acceptable to all. Next, he developed protocols to guarantee minimal contact with the zoo’s inhabitants.
“Dr. Peddie was able to talk, vet to vet, about all of the important issues when it came to disease control, and as a veterinarian he could command the authority that we could not,” says trainer Kari Johnson, whose elephant Rosie is among the stars of the movie. “Because of all his experience, he was able to make what could have been a nightmare a very pleasant experience for everyone involved.”
It’s the kind of work Peddie, 70, has done for nearly 20 years, for more than 100 films, TV series and commercials. Working much of that time with his wife, Linda Peddie, DVM, he cared for the wolves in “Dances with Wolves,” the puppies in the live-action version of “101 Dalmatians” and exotic species of every stripe for TV shows from “Frasier” to “Full House.”
Now largely retired except for the occasional Zookeeper”-type consulting job, Peddie takes his show on the road, speaking to audiences of veterinary students and industry professionals. His message: Never underestimate where a DVM degree can take you.
Filling a Niche
As an undergraduate and then a veterinary student at Cornell University, Peddie planned to return home to rural Pennsylvania and open a practice catering to dairy farmers. But Linda wanted to move somewhere warmer—and where dairy cows wouldn’t be the primary patients.
They decided California was the place to be. After several months at a general practice and a stint in the Army, Peddie became part owner of Conejo Valley Veterinary Clinic in Thousand Oaks, where Linda practiced, in 1969.
Being near Hollywood, the clinic often saw exotic cats and birds, but Peddie initially had little interest in them. An emergency early in his career changed his mind.
A client’s female leopard ruptured her uterus while delivering three cubs and developed a severe infection. As the on-call vet, Peddie had to perform emergency surgery.
“I’d never worked on a leopard before. Heck, I probably had never seen a leopard before,” he says.
The cat lived. And Peddie realized: “I had the knowledge to treat it. I just had to look at the symptoms it was presenting. I didn’t have to focus on, ‘Oh, this is a leopard’ or ‘This is an elephant.’”
As his comfort level grew, Peddie began teaching part time in the Exotic Animal Training and Management Program at Moorpark College. In 1991, he sold his interest in his practice to teach full time.
Paging Dr. Peddie
Within weeks, the Universal Studios theme park in Los Angeles called. Would he like to care for the park’s primates part time?
He went to lunch with an executive, fully intending to turn down the offer. But during a tour he recognized that a few changes in how workers cleaned the apes’ habitat would reduce the incidence of parasites in the population—improvements, he says, that any veterinarian would understand. He made the recommendations and took the job.
From there, the film work began rolling in, often at the request of trainers he had instructed years earlier at Moorpark. Much of the work involved paperwork, such as overseeing the complicated visa and vaccination requirements for shipping an elephant to a film set in Thailand. Most of the work was after hours, such as figuring out a treatment for an elephant that came down with diarrhea during a shoot or how to get the right diet sent to another country.
The Peddies occasionally worked on location, but James Peddie says that other than the catering truck—“They eat very well on movie sets!”—the work wasn’t nearly as glamorous as it sounds.
“To be perfectly candid, there’s a tremendous amount of standing around,” he says.
Back to Work
For years, Linda says, he worked seven days a week, teaching on weekdays and jetting off to a film set or doing paperwork on weekends. And eventually, it caught up with him. In 2005, both having suffered immune system disorders, the Peddies closed the bulk of their Hollywood practice.
Linda retired, but James simply couldn’t. After a year’s rest, he began taking on a client here, a film there. He recently completed work on “Water for Elephants,” due out in April, starring Robert Pattinson as a hard-luck veterinary student who joins a traveling circus during the Great Depression. And in an only-in-the-movies turn, the school the fictional student drops out to join the circus? Cornell.
“It’s just been a fascinating life,” Peddie says simply.