The incredible creatures of York

Cate RocchiCountryman

While many of us get on with our routines, guess what Nigel Spencer, of Incredible Creatures in York, did to earn a crust recently?

He painted white rats in browning essence - the stuff you put in your gravy to have with roast meat - so they appeared to be wild rats.

Then, he took them to Claremont to one of the old asylums to work on a film and introduced them to none other than Scottish actor, Ewan McGregor.

"I borrowed the rats off a friend so afterwards, I spent the evening washing rats in the tub to get them back to white again," Nigel said.

And he has dozens of other stories like these.

I first encountered Nigel's wonderful travelling animals several months back at the Farming Champions' Farmer on Your Plate event in Perth.

A big fluffy white cat sat in a pen with dogs milling around him and birds perched on his head.

Goats and sheep followed Nigel meekly and hens sat on the fence to attention.

Dozens of children visited his animals on the day and all the furry and feathered creatures were impeccably behaved, alongside loud speakers and hundreds of people, near Carillon.

It is incredible. How does he do it?

"Champions are born, not made," said Nigel modestly, giving all credit to his animals.

One example of this philosophy is Dan the Kelpie, which Nigel spotted while wandering through a livestock market several years back. Dan was in a cage of boisterous kelpie pups and Nigel noticed he was unusually calm. Now, Dan rides the donkey with birds sitting on his head.

"He has turned out to be the most gentle, loving dog," Nigel said. "He won't jump on anyone, just sits quietly and shakes hands."

Another of his regular appearances is at Acacia Prison where families visit the inmates and enjoy his travelling animals. Nigel said the animals were therapy for the prisoners.

There is no doubt Nigel has a way with animals, but he also has a few little tricks up his sleeve. For example, how do you train a goose?

Just before eggs are about to hatch, Nigel bonds with unhatched goslings. He carries the eggs around - in the car, around the house - throughout the day, talking to them. Then, when the birds hatch, they follow him like they would the mother goose.

Last year his well-trained geese were filmed in the making of Accidental Soldier, a love story set in World War I about an Australian man who fell in love with a French woman who reared geese. It stars Bryan Brown and Rachel Ward and is yet to be released.

"It was lovely," said Nigel, adding quietly: "I got a standing ovation when I finished there because there were a lot of tricky scenes."

Then there have been a string of television commercials, including the duck in the Lotto advertisement, which he describes as his 'lucky' $5000 duck.

Some may also remember a wonderful commercial for the RPSCA, where an Australian shepherd digs a deep hole and covers it with a sheet. His abusive, unsuspecting owner falls in the hole and the message is, not all animals can protect themselves as well as this amazing dog.

Behind every animal's movie appearance is a great story. In the movie Stonebros, Nigel needed a dog to show aggression. He had one dog which originated from Kalgoorlie who had been hit by a road train and broken two of its legs. The dog was naturally sweet in nature but had to be taught to be aggressive and attack on command for film work.

After experimenting with his friends at Peel Zoo, Nigel discovered there were a couple of triggers which would bring out aggressive behaviour - cats, foxes and ostriches set him off.

So for an attack scene, filmed near the South Perth Civic Centre with the dog chasing Aboriginal actors across the park and pulling them down, Nigel used a very laidback cat to help psyche up the dog.

A native New Zealander, raised hunting and fishing in the hill country of the North Island, Nigel moved to York two years ago from a large block in Casuarina.

In York he has several acres for his animals as well as a small dam for water. His garden is straight out of a glossy magazine, and it turns out he is a first-class landscaper as well.

And then there is his art. He uses old wood and tin, found in paddocks on his travels, as canvasses. Beautiful coloured animals are painted on rusty tin. He also cuts the tin into sculptures.

Nigel is hoping his art will soon be available at the King's Park giftshop in Perth.

What of the future? More painting, animals and adventure, Nigel said. He is heading to New Zealand's South Island to pick up another couple of Hunterway dogs. The hardy dogs are a cross between a bloodhound, a Labrador and a border collie.

"And they have a heart as big as the South Island," Nigel said. "I want them for my shows - they have a big impressive bark and I will train them for TV as my other dogs are getting a bit old."

And you won't find Nigel lying on a beach for his future holidays. He plans to head to the kelpie muster in Casterton, New South Wales, the Iditarod sled dog race in Alaska and the Hunterville Shemozzle in New Zealand where Hunterway dogs and their owners compete in a gruelling marathon.

For more information, go to Nigel's Incredible Creatures Facebook page.

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