Bismarck News

Someone You Should Know: Animal Trainer To The Stars

Mandan, N.D. - Is a star truly born? Or is a star trained? Once you meet Karen Thomas of Mandan, N.D., the answer becomes clear.

The story begins when Karen, as a kid living in California, discovered a role model on late-night television.

"There was a lady by the name of Joan Embery who would come on [The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson] with exotic animals from the San Diego Zoo," Thomas says. "I thought, 'Wow. I want that job.'"
And after spending time at veterinary school, that's exactly what she did.

Thomas spent twenty-five years making memories as the animal trainer behind some of the most iconic critters of the last few decades.

From television­ shows like Star Trek -- "Data, he was the android on that starship, and he had a pet cat called Spot the cat." -- to commercial stars like the Target dog -- "It takes eight hours to color the Target dog!" -- and even music videos -- "I worked with Phil Collins and the band. We had a dog on the beach playing tug-of-war with his pants."

And the list goes on and on.

But even celebrities need places to lay their heads at night.

One such celebrity is 17-year-old Phoebe, a cat that brought home the bacon for about a dozen years as one of the faces of Fancy Feast cat food. (She's retired now, mind you.)

"She's missing most of her teeth these days, and deaf," Thomas tells me. "But other than that, she's still bossing the dog around. She's her old self."

Phoebe is one of a select few co-workers that became family to Thomas. And by the way, "co-worker" is her term.

"You're going through all kinds of escapades and things together like a co-worker, or like a spouse," Thomas says. "Sometimes you're in worse shape than they are, and they bring you out of it."

After twenty-five years, Karen Thomas saw generations of those co-workers come and go. "The hardest part of my job was losing my co-workers over time. It kills you," she says.

But spending her days with Phoebe, the Target dog, tigers, birds, and so many more was a star turn worth taking.

"You feel so lucky," Thomas says. "You were paid to travel and see places you normally would never see."
Karen Thomas -- a trainer to the stars -- is someone you should know.

Thomas worked with animals in California from 1989 until 2014. That's when she and her husband moved back to his home state of North Dakota.

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