Larry Clifford, 68, has had many unusual friends over the years: sea lions, dolphins, penguins and parrots. But his relationship with a cougar named Clark prompted him to write and publish an illustrated children’s book, “Would You Be My Friend?”
The Spokane Valley resident and onetime curator of Spokane Valley’s former Walk in the Wild Zoo spent 38 years training exotic animals in places like SeaWorld and the San Diego Zoo, before a back injury forced him to retire.
He traces his fascination with animals to childhood. “When school was over I used to rush home to watch ‘Sea Hunt’ with Lloyd Bridges,” he recalled.
His parents arranged for him to take scuba classes and the family moved to San Diego shortly after he received his diver’s certification. Clifford, then 18, applied for a job at SeaWorld. “I was hired as an animal trainer,” he said.
Clifford’s first assignment was working with the dolphins. One act in particular made him rather famous. He said, “It was called the ‘Roman Ride.’ I rode on the backs of two dolphins.”
But he found he had a special affinity with sea lions, especially a huge fellow named John. “Sea lions are a lot like dogs,” Clifford said. “They love to play and get food rewards.”
He enjoyed the theatricality of the shows at SeaWorld. Photos on the wall of his office show him dressed in a red coat and top hat. “I got to be the ringmaster of the sea lion show.” His red coat also hangs on the wall. “Sadly, I can’t fit into, now!”
Another memorable accomplishment involved teaching a chimpanzee named CJ to water ski.
His experiences allowed him to participate in the filming of several movies and television specials. He trained the dolphins that appeared in the movie “Danny and the Mermaid.”
“I trained two dolphins to tow the mermaid around,” he said.
And Clifford worked on better-known movies, as well, namely “Doctor Dolittle,” starring Rex Harrison. “I trained the dolphins,” he said. “Rex Harrison was a real nice guy.”
Bob Hope was another “nice guy” he worked with. Clifford trained a sea lion for one of the actor’s television specials. “When we were done filming, Bob Hope came over and shook my hand and thanked me,” he recalled.
While working at the Seaquarium in Miami, he attended a lot of Miami Dolphins football games. At the time the team played in the Orange Bowl, where they’d installed a tank in the end zone for Flipper, their mascot. Clifford said, “I took Flipper to all the home games.”
In the late ’70s, he began working with the big cats at the San Diego Zoo. He’s matter-of-fact about the dangers that come with in training exotic animals. “I’ve had 168 stitches in my career,” he said with a shrug. “No big deal – hazards of the job.”
Clifford accepted a contract assignment to train a cougar for a fundraiser for the Oregon Zoo in Portland. He said, “They wanted me to train a cougar to jump up on a table and pose for pictures with the guests.”
That’s when he met Clark, the cougar who has the central role in “Would You Be My Friend?”
“Clark had been confiscated from his owner. The guy had him in his house and had had Clark’s front claws removed.”
Though initially wary, Clark came to trust Clifford and the photo shoot was a success. “Clark was a good guy,” he said. “I really wanted to take him home with me, but I didn’t have the facilities to house him.”
The idea for the book sprang from Clifford’s own experiences with being bullied as a child and the difficulties he had making friends.
Illustrated by former Gonzaga University student Tayler Corbisiero, the story traces Clark’s approach to a deer, a raccoon, an owl and a rabbit. “Would you be my friend?” he asks. But the animals rebuff him and tell him he’s too different from them. Then a butterfly named Donald lands on Clark’s nose. “Just because we’re different doesn’t mean we can’t be friends,” Donald tells Clark.
Clifford, speaking with a 40-year-old blue hyacinth macaw named Hawkeye perched on his shoulder, said he hopes the story will encourage kids to work on making and keeping friends, and to be open to friendships with kids who seem different from them. The book is available at Hastings Entertainment in Spokane Valley.
Clifford’s also planning to write a memoir about his many years as an exotic animal trainer, he said. “Without the animals, I would have been nothing.”