Leader of the pack

Ce­sar Mil­lan is back to be­ing top dog af­ter a very low point in his life.

The Star Malaysia - Star2 - - People - By WONG KIM HOH

THE world’s most fa­mous dog whis­perer walks into a func­tion room in Te­masek Club, Sin­ga­pore, his bur­nished com­plex­ion set­ting off his pep­per-and-salt hair and gleam­ing white teeth.

Short but stur­dily built, Ce­sar Mil­lan is snazz­ily dressed in a tight olive polo T-shirt, white jeans and metal­lic sil­ver sneak­ers.

His swag­ger is tem­pered by a charm­ing af­fa­bil­ity and open­ness, a qual­ity com­mon in folks who have scaled dizzy heights as well as hit rock bot­tom.

Born into a poor fam­ily in Mex­ico, the 47-year-old en­tered the United States il­le­gally when he was 21 and went on to be­come a dog be­haviourist ex­traor­di­naire, with his own glob­ally syn­di­cated TV series Dog Whis­perer and sev­eral books.

But suc­cess brought more than just fame and wealth; it also weighed him down with pres­sures, both in­ter­nal and ex­ter­nal. It came to a head in 2010 when he felt so lost, be­trayed and bar­ren that he tried to kill him­self by swal­low­ing a cock­tail of pills.

He woke up three days later in a hos­pi­tal’s psy­chi­atric ward.

“If you re­cover, you be­come very clear about things. It doesn’t hap­pen to a lot of peo­ple but I was glad I could get back my pas­sion, my fo­cus and my lead­er­ship skills,” ex­plains Mil­lan who was in Sin­ga­pore re­cently.

Un­til he was five, Mil­lan, the se­cond of five chil­dren, lived on a vil­lage farm in Si­naloa in north-western Mex­ico. His fa­ther was a farmer turned pho­tog­ra­pher; his mother, a seam­stress.

“When I was small, my fam­ily walked cat­tle for the wealthy landown­ers in the vil­lage. So my grand­fa­ther al­ways had a pack of dogs.

“My grand­fa­ther, fa­ther and I would take the cat­tle to eat grass and drink wa­ter, and then lead them back to the pens.”

From his grand­fa­ther, he in­her­ited a unique way with dogs – one which led to him be­ing nick­named El Per­rero or “the dog boy”.

Books did not in­ter­est Mil­lan but an­i­mals did. “I couldn’t live with­out them, I had to be around them,” says the ami­able man who of­ten brought strays home.

By the time he was 13, he knew he wanted to go to the United States, learn to be­come a dog trainer and come back to open his own dog-train­ing fa­cil­ity.

Af­ter fin­ish­ing high school, he spent a few years work­ing at dif­fer­ent jobs.When he turned 21, Mil­lan’s fa­ther gave him his life sav­ings. He tucked the money into his shoes and high­tailed it to Ti­juana where he tried to find, over two weeks, the best way to cross the bor­der.

“It was dan­ger­ous. I was 21, had never been out­side my state and there I was in another state about to do some­thing il­le­gal.

“Ti­juana was con­trolled by drug car­tels. If you were not care­ful, you could end up hav­ing your or­gans sold,” he says.

One day, a coy­ote – or peo­ple smug­gler – told him he could get him into the United States.

The jour­ney was dan­ger­ous.

“We walked, crawled, went into wa­ter, hid in tun­nels, ran against traf­fic on the free­way. It took us eight hours,” he says.

Once in the United States, the coy­ote paid a taxi driver who drove Mil­lan and dropped him off at a bus stop in San Diego.

That night and for the next two months, he slept on a piece of card­board un­der a free­way, to­gether with other il­le­gals and home­less Amer­i­cans.

No job was be­neath him: He worked in kitchens, mowed lawns and washed cars.

One day, he en­tered a pet groom­ing sa­lon and mouthed the only English sen­tence he knew to the two Cau­casian women in­side: “Do you have any ap­pli­ca­tion for work?”

Al­though he did not un­der­stand their replies, he soon made out they needed help groom­ing an ag­gres­sive cocker spaniel.

He proved to be so in­dis­pens­able that the two women even gave him the keys to the premises when they knew he was home­less.

“I took my first proper shower there in a bath­tub which I used to shower the dogs,” he re­calls with a grin.

Within a few weeks, he had saved enough to buy him­self new clothes, new shoes and a Grey­hound bus ticket to Los An­ge­les.

There, he started mak­ing cold calls and knock­ing on doors to of­fer dog-walk­ing ser­vices.

Soon he be­came known as “the Mex­i­can guy who could walk 30 dogs with no trou­ble”.

As word of mouth grew, bas­ket­ball and foot­ball play­ers started seek­ing his ser­vices.

So did Hol­ly­wood celebri­ties such as Vin Diesel, Ni­co­las Cage and Salma Hayek, as well as Will Smith and his wife Jada Pin­kett Smith, who later hired him an English teacher.

A jour­nal­ist from Los An­ge­les Times news­pa­per trailed him for three days, and wrote a fea­ture on his win­ning ways with ca­nines.

“She said, ‘Hol­ly­wood loves you. You have peo­ple com­ing from Eng­land to see you. What would you like to do next?’

“I said, ‘Well, I would like to have a TV show.’”

The day af­ter the ar­ti­cle was pub­lished, he had a line of TV pro­duc­ers bang­ing down his door.

Mil­lan knew ex­actly how he wanted Dog Whis­perer to be. His key mes­sage is: Dogs are pack an­i­mals and need a calm as­sertive leader. To turn them into bal­anced an­i­mals, they need ex­er­cise, dis­ci­pline and af­fec­tion, in that or­der.

Dog Whis­perer pre­miered in Septem­ber 2004 on the Na­tional Ge­o­graphic chan­nel. It was syn­di­cated to more than 80 coun­tries, at­tract­ing au­di­ences in the tens of mil­lions.

But fame was dis­ori­ent­ing.

“Peo­ple were sud­denly pan­der­ing to you, treat­ing you in a way you’ve never been treated be­fore,” he says .

For a while, it got to his head but his dogs brought him back to earth. “In the world of an­i­mals, fame and wealth and power do not ex­ist. When your feet are not on the ground, your dogs won’t lis­ten to you. Their re­ac­tions told me I was in trou­ble,” he says.

His ca­reer soared. But just when all seemed hunky-dory, things came crash­ing in 2010. His beloved side­kick Daddy – an Amer­i­can pit bull ter­rier – died. His wife Ilu­sion filed for di­vorce. And al­though he naively be­lieved that Dog Whis­perer was his, he found out that the pro­duc­tion com­pany owned all the rights.

“It was shock­ing, but it hap­pens to a lot of artists. We sign a lot of things but we don’t know what we are sign­ing ... I felt I had no worth.”

“When you feel like a fail­ure, you just go into this spi­ral,” he says. He rea­soned there must be a rea­son why he was still alive af­ter his sui­cide at­tempt.

So he went back to work, and swore to live by a new maxim: own­er­ship, con­trol and lead­er­ship.

A new woman, Jahira Dar, came into his life. He de­vel­oped other TV series in­clud­ing Ce­sar 911, Leader Of The Pack and Dog Na­tion, which he co-hosts with his elder son An­dre, 22. He has also worked with younger son Calvin, 16, on another series, Mutt & Stuff, for Nick­elodeon. – The Straits Times/Asia News Net­work

Though Chuan has taken a mul­ti­tude of pic­tures of both flora and fauna, the pho­tog­ra­phy bug only bit him a few years ago. — ART CHEN/The Star

‘In the world of an­i­mals, fame and wealth and power do not ex­ist,’ says Mil­lan. — ANN

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