The Wild World of Joel Slaven

Lori Kurtzman
Joel Slaven with his dogs, Journey and Wrangler, at his Licking County home

When Joel Slaven was a boy, his parents moved from the South Side of Columbus to Berwick, to a house they’d built themselves, their dream home, a tidy three-bedroom brick ranch in a burgeoning neighborhood so tight-knit that the children would remain friends for decades. Sanford Slaven was an optometrist, and Reva Slaven was a public school clerk, and their only child, their little Joel, was a boy with a singular focus—an obsession, really—that left them haunted by the dark, pungent funk of 100 peeing rodents.

Your dad and I worked our whole lives to build this beautiful house, Reva would tell her son,and you’re turning it into a zoo.

They’d given Joel a little room in the basement, and he’d filled it with life that begat new life, so much so that it might have felt, to a mom who liked animals but surely not that much, that things in her dream home were spiraling out of control. This wasn’t just a few guinea pigs. We’re talking 50, 60, 100, by some accounts. The smell would hit you as soon as you opened the back door. And the noise! The pigs had grown so accustomed to the neighborhood kids coming over to give them treats of lettuce that they’d begin squealing the moment they heard that back door swing open.

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Even relatives complained.Reva, they’d say,why do you let him do this? You’ve got to stop him.

“And my mom”—Reva, by the way, was hailed as a saint among mothers—“would just say, ‘This is what he really loves. He’ll grow out of it. He’ll get over it.’”

Joel Slaven turned 67 in April. On his sprawling estate in the tiny village of Alexandria, just down the hill from the extraordinary dream home he built a few years ago, he’s got a room inside a barn where he recently took a head count and came up with 420 guinea pigs.

***

Oh, we have so much to cover. Seven decades. I’ve got to tell you how Slaven scrapped and hustled and built his love of animals into a veritable empire, forming Joel Slaven’s Professional Animals Inc. in 1997. How he’s produced shows from coast to coast and in places between (you’ve probably seen his work at the Columbus Zoo and Aquarium) and trained animals to appear on stage, on TV and on film. How he’s rescued more than 2,000 rejected pets. How he became a mail-order taxidermist at 10. How he got attacked by a bear. How he got hammered with Leonardo DiCaprio. How he retired, but only kind of, and now spends half his days in the gentle comfort of squawking birds and squeaking rodents.

It’s almost too much.

I’ve been writing about people for 20 years, and never have I come across someone with so much story. It never fails: I’ll be talking to Slaven for hours, and then offhandedly, as though he just remembered, he’ll tell me about, say, his pet lion—Cubby, naturally—who once trashed his girlfriend’s apartment while they were out on a date, chewing through her record collection and shattering her 55-gallon aquarium.

Talking to Cousin Bob only makes things harder. “I mean, for an outsider to hear my stories and his stories on our life, you would say we were BSing. There’s no way these stories really happened,” says Cousin Bob (Messing, who married and divorced Slaven’s cousin and remained one of his best friends). “I’m telling you, with my right hand raised up, you can probably take that to the bank.”

But let’s jump in. We’ll start with Thumper.

Thumper is one of the first stories Slaven tells me after I arrive at the absurdly gorgeous house he built atop 20-some acres of rural Licking County land. Slaven’s home, a rustic masterpiece of stone and reclaimed wood that quite possibly drove a builder mad, is set so far back from a main road that I miss my turn, and a hawk swoops in front of my car as though Slaven sent it to stop me.

I backtrack and try again, up a hill, down a hill, past a barn and a pond, over a narrow bridge, pulling up to the biggest front door I’ve ever seen. Slaven, in jeans and a ball cap, lets me inside. He fixes me a cup of coffee, which gives me the chance to gawk at his main floor: soaring beamed ceilings, miles of gleaming wooden floors, a fish tank as long as a canoe, a massive stone fireplace that could house me and most of my belongings.

We head downstairs to a party room with a fully stocked bar and showbiz memorabilia—framed newspaper and magazine clippings, production posters, autographed celebrity photos—lining the walls. I spot a black-and-white head shot of Jim Carrey addressed “TO JOEL BEASTMASTER!”

I ask him how this whole thing got started. “I grew up on the South Side of Columbus, on East Whittier Street,” he says. “And my parents, they liked animals, but they were not professional animal people. And I don’t have siblings. And people ask me where did this animal thing come from? And I have no idea.”

But the story has to start somewhere, so how about there, on East Whittier? A few blocks down the street was a carryout, and behind the carryout were hutches, and inside those hutches were rabbits that the owner raised for meat. Slaven was enamored. He wanted a rabbit so badly that he begged the owner, who agreed under two conditions: that Slaven buy the rabbit, and that Slaven earn the money by breaking down and stacking beer and wine boxes.

“I went home and I told my parents … ‘I’ve gotta buy this rabbit,’” Slaven says. “‘But I have a job.’”

He was 4 years old. The rabbit was a big Chinchilla, half his size. Picture this kid: knobby knees, shorts, cowboy boots, riding his bicycle down the street, training wheels scraping the ground, Thumper in the front basket, a carrot in the boy’s back pocket.

I’m delighted, if a bit suspicious. The story, like all of them, is just too good. But before I leave, Slaven finds a blurry picture, and I’ll be damned if it isn’t little Joel in a plaid shirt, crouching on the ground, his dad gripping his son’s forearms, a big gray bunny between his knees.

“You know, Joel was always an interesting guy, even as a kid,” says longtime friend Sandy Meizlish. “We used to joke that Joel liked animals better than he did people, and I think we’re still joking about it.”

Slaven and Meizlish met in elementary school, when Slaven was an unusually confident and demanding little kid who ruled Berwick with his faithful German shepherd, Gypsy. He had a devilish sense of humor and a penchant for adventure that his friends found hard to resist.

“You didn’t tell Joel no, because it was going to be fun,” Meizlish says. “It was going to be a little crazy, and it was going to be a story later.”

The whole neighborhood knew about Slaven’s obsession with animals. He fished turtles and tadpoles from nearby creeks. He fed a neighbor’s homing pigeons and cleaned their nest boxes. He ran a guinea pig breeding business from his basement, where he also raised white mice, chinchillas, parakeets and pigeons. When he turned 16, his parents built him a basketball court to encourage his interest in sports, and he built a big cage on it to house two coatimundis, South American raccoons named Pete and Repeat.

“Joel’s parents were just tremendous, wonderful people, and they went through a lot with Joel,” says Neal Barkan, who also met Slaven in elementary school. “They hated it, but they loved it. … They loved the animals too.”

After he got his driver’s license, Slaven split his free time between the Columbus Zoo and the now-defunct Beulah Park racetrack in Grove City, growing infatuated with the racehorses and the men who rode them. While his friends made college plans, Slaven dreamed of becoming a jockey. He had the body for it: compact but sturdy, a wisp at 5-foot-2 and 98 pounds. At Beulah Park, a track photographer noticed him exercising horses and asked if he’d like to ride at Darby Dan Farm, an estate west of Columbus that was owned at the time by megamillionaire John W. Galbreath and home to two Kentucky Derby winners.

“I thought, ‘Yeah, right,’” Slaven says, but the next day he and his dad headed out to the farm and met with the head trainer, who shook Slaven’s hand and said,You wanna be a race rider, huh? Well, I don’t believe that’s going to happen. I believe you’re going to grow into those feet of yours.

“This guy was breaking my heart,” Slaven says. “I had just gotten there.”

Still, the man offered Slaven a job exercising horses, and Slaven offered to quit school immediately before his dad stepped in and said hold on a second here. During the next summer and after he graduated from Eastmoor High School in 1971, Slaven rode horses at Darby Dan. And then he started growing, just like the trainer had predicted. He starved himself until he grew weak and still packed on 20 pounds.

***

Dang it, I’m halfway through this article and still haven’t gotten to Jack Hanna yet. I’ll have to cut out DiCaprio and the purloined pigeon and the alligator in the hotel bathtub and the ferrets in the suit coat. Oh, and the time Reva called the sanitation department, and they hung up on her when she asked them to pick up her son’s failed taxidermy experiment, a bear carcass he’d conned Cousin Bob into hauling home from the circus. (“I had a really nice company car that you’re not supposed to put dead animals in,” Messing says.)

Anyway, Jungle Jack.

In the late ’70s—right around the time that Baretta was a hit show and star Robert Blake acted alongside a cockatoo named Fred—Slaven opened a pet store on the East Side called Pet Paradise, where he bought and sold exotic birds. That was also the time an unknown from Tennessee answered an ad to become director of a sad little zoo in Columbus, Ohio.

“I don’t even know if you could call it a roadside menagerie,” Slaven says. He was a zoo volunteer at the time, and he remembers a snowy day when he was walking to his car and a passing driver offered him a ride. One of the guy’s windows was busted out, and a door was held on by a rope, but Slaven got in anyway. The men traded stories. Slaven said he wanted to sell his pet store and become a professional animal trainer and produce a show where the trainers stay backstage. The guy behind the steering wheel said he wanted to put the Columbus Zoo on the map and have his own TV show and travel the world filming animals.

Hanna doesn’t remember that encounter—he recalls meeting Slaven in a grocery store—but what followed was a partnership that boosted both men’s careers and forged a decadeslong friendship. Over the years, Slaven would appear onJack Hanna’s Animal Adventures and occasionally accompany Hanna to his legendary appearances onThe Late Show with David Letterman. Once, right there on TV, Hanna told Letterman that Slaven was “the greatest animal trainer in the world.”

“He really is an incredible trainer,” Hanna tells me. “I think he could train worms.”

Hanna helped launch Slaven’s training career. He got Slaven an interview at the now-shuttered Cypress Gardens, a picturesque Central Florida theme park known for its elaborate water ski shows. There, Slaven worked his way up to head animal trainer and made a splash when he taught a dog named Corker to knock a clown named Corky off a boat and hit the throttle to—with some hidden trickery—speed away. I am not making this up.

He got his next gig by borderline stalking one of his idols, famed horse trainer Glenn Randall Sr., who was helping to open a horse-themed dinner theater called Arabian Nights in Kissimmee, Florida. Randall, best known for training Roy Rogers’ palomino, Trigger, consented to a handshake that led to an audition where Slaven showed off his best work with his dog Freebee, and Randall sat Slaven down and said,You know when you came over here and talked to me that first day, I had my doubts, but you know you are a goddamn dog trainer.

Slaven started to build a reputation for himself. He set up a show in Canada featuring cats he rescued from shelters, and domestic animal shows soon became his focus. He created shows for another park, then worked for a production company out of Texas building shows at Six Flags amusement parks before striking out on his own. Along the way, he worked with animals on movies, including “Ace Ventura: Pet Detective” (hence “BEASTMASTER!”), “The Road to Wellville,” “The Rainmaker” and the 1997 remake “That Darn Cat.”

Slaven’s professional rise sounds slick when you line it up in neat paragraphs like that, but make no mistake: This was a grind. A dirty, tedious, relationship-sacrificing grind. Slaven can teach a mutt to fetch a coin from a pile of mulch, but that work requires the kind of dogged persistence and patience that almost no one has. His focus didn’t leave room for much else. Girlfriends gave up. A fiancée faded away. While the neighborhood kids back in Berwick graduated into prominent jobs as doctors and lawyers, Slaven clawed at a childhood fantasy that seemed out of reach, literally shoveling animal crap for meager wages. “For a long time, it just didn’t make sense. … But he just had this burning desire to be involved with animals,” Barkan says.

The animal shows were a breakthrough. Slaven was putting on performances unlike anyone had seen—in one act, a cat chased a rat into a doghouse and was confronted by its tenant—and he was doing it with pets that had been cast aside as troublemakers and nuisances. Suzi Hanna, Jack’s wife of 52 years, called Slaven a “visionary,” and not just that: “One of the most amazing visionaries I’ve ever met. … He would tell me about these shows and his ideas, and honestly I would think, ‘Oh my gosh, it isn’t possible.’”

Slaven’s style was different from the animal shows that preceded him. He wanted animals of all kinds out there on the stage—pigeons, rats, ducks, pigs, dogs, cats, skunks, more. He wanted the pace to be fast, faster. And, as he’d told Hanna, he wanted his trainers behind the curtains as much as possible.

“He will just dream up these things and initially present them to us, and we’ll be like, ‘Are you out of your mind? We can’t do that,’” says Andrea LeBlond, Slaven’s personal assistant and office manager, who began working for him as a trainer in 1999. Take Slaven’s signature “group run,” a bit where a skunk enters a building and sends a slew of animals scurrying across the stage, not a human in sight. “The first time he presented this to us … we’re looking at like, ‘This is never going to happen, ever. Are you mad?’”

The group run is something to behold. There’s a bootleg video from a 2018 performance of Surfin’ Safari, Slaven’s show at the Columbus Zoo and Aquarium that features more than 120 exotic and rescued domestic animals flapping and prancing on stage: The skunk appears from behind a curtain and waddles into a makeshift surf shop and a disembodied voice cries, “PEE-EW! What’s that smell?

“SKUNK!”

More than a dozen dogs and cats tear out of the shop. They disappear into corners of the stage so quickly that the guy holding the camera can’t keep up. Some hang left, some bounce right. I briefly spot a Dalmatian. Then a pair of pot-bellied pigs. Then a line of white ducks, wings flapping, nine in all.

Slaven grew his production company to more than 70 trainers and created domestic animal shows for SeaWorld and Busch Gardens parks, among others. In 2009, he and his company trained nearly two dozen rescued Dalmatians for the “101 Dalmatians Musical,” which toured the country and concluded with a show at Madison Square Garden. He won a raft of entertainment awards and adopted out hundreds of animals he’d rescued, trained and retired from his shows. In 2014, the Pet Alliance of Greater Orlando named Slaven its first Animal Hero.

***

There’s more. There’s so much more. Zebras and kangaroos and chipmunks in the house.So-and-so pooped on the living room carpet andso-and-so is eating the chair. And I won’t get the chance to tell you the story of how he jammed a four-wheeler chest-deep into ice-cold creek water with Barkan, an architect and an engineer on board, but trust me. It’s a good one.

The last time I see Slaven, a simpler time, before a pandemic closes down the country and his shows, before his mom, a widow still living in her dream home at 94, falls ill, before I feel compelled to ask Slaven if he knowsTiger King Joe Exotic (for the record: no), I visit him in his barn. Snow is falling over Alexandria in big fat flakes.

I hear them as soon as I step inside. Birds—hundreds of them, the color of ripe fruit and hard candies—squawking and screeching, their feathered crests popped high in curiosity. Inside a formerly lavish lodge room that once hosted parties for his famous and nonfamous friends, Slaven introduces me to the parakeets and cockatiels and conures that he’s raising for his new hobby-turned-business, Great Pets.

We shout over the noise. I ask whether it bothers him.

“I love this,” he says. “I love being around them. I love hearing them.”

And then we move to a quieter room, Slaven’s favorite. I peer into a cage, and an orange wig with two black eyes stares back. There are hundreds of guinea pigs in the room, Peruvians and Silkies and Texels and Abyssinians, more than half of the world’s recognized breeds, future pets for the future Joel Slavens of the world. And you know, I can’t smell a single one. 

***

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Slaven with his German shepherd Joey and a coatimundi, a South American raccoon, in the early 1980s