A giant elephant, a growling lion, or a capricious monkey…these are just some of the exotic attendees one may encounter at any modern-day private event. Today more and more event planners are incorporating animal appearances into their events as a way of attracting guests, getting them interacting, and leaving them with lasting memories. How an animal is integrated into an event depends highly on the type of animal, but the range of possibilities is broad: watching animals perform, touching animals, holding them, riding them, or even taking photos with them. Animals are also a great way to add to the theming of your party; obviously for an Arabian Nights event a couple of friendly camels could really help set an immersive environment for guests to get lost in. Besides in the case of Zen Arts…what circus is complete without a few animals!?

As the event planner, whether you are personally handling the animals or hiring a professional handler (recommended), it’s important to remember a few tips before turning your event into the San Diego Zoo. In order to ensure your evening goes off without a hiccup, you must be very careful when dealing with animals as they can often be unpredictable and uncontrollable. The bottom line is when it comes to animals you must always be prepared for the unexpected. Obviously since animals don’t talk, precautions are largely based in reading animal body language. Below we’ve listed the top things you and your handler should be aware of before tossing those exotic creatures into a room full of guests at your next event.

1. First and foremost, whenever possible have a trained professional animal wrangler experienced with either that specific animal you are integrating, or at the very least that species of animal, present at your event.

2. Be sure to look into any necessary permits you may need to acquire, whether municipally or state regulated, for having an exotic animal present at your event.

3. Before bringing the animal out, make sure there are no visible signs of illness or injury. A healthy animal should have a relaxed posture, either in a lazy belly-down position or upright and alert. Heavy breathing, lethargy, and odd body positioning could be signs of a serious problem. At this point, the health of the animal takes priority over the performance.

4. Be wary of animals that seem fearful, since a fearful animal is a dangerous animal. Signs of fear include dilated pupils, visible fangs, tensed muscles, raised fur, rear-pointed ears, stiff tails, the animal backing into a corner, or being vocally expressive (growling, snarling). Animals responding fearfully to an event setting, person/people, lights, or noises should be removed immediately.

5. That being said, always be cautious of extremely bright lights, loud noises, or large surrounding crowds that could intimidate and disturb the animal, causing it to enter a state of distress. Certain animals, specifically livestock, become especially distressed around loud voices or yelling. Keep calm and quiet if possible.

6. Since every animal is different, do some research beforehand to study up on body language and other visible signs, as well as what to do if this specific animal becomes agitated and loses control. Even though most likely everything will run smoothly, its important to have this information in your brain vault in case of an emergency.

7. Be careful how animals are held, holding them in positions that are comfortable and secure. Any position that could be deemed uncomfortable or causing pain could create fear and distress in the animal.

8. Make sure to have a box, cage, or place backstage for the animal to hide when feeling threatened or frightful. A dark and quiet place away from people is the best way to help an animal calm down. Once calmer they may feel more up to venturing back into the public.

9. Be sure to have plenty of water and food on hand ready for the animal. Being on display is enough stress on the creature as is. You need to be sure they are fed and quenched prior to exhibition.

10. Be conscious of your tone of voice with the animal. For most animals, a loud deep voice signifies a threat, so use a light and cheerful voice to keep the animal in a comfortable state.

11. It’s important to gain the animals trust before embarking on a performance. Simple massages on the neck and back are an easy way to please the animal and gain some credit. Be sure to use nice long and slow strokes with firm pressure.

12. Remember that animals are very intuitive creatures that can sense your feelings and state of mind; its true that they can literally “smell fear.” People that are angry or anxious may put the animal into a state of agitation or fear. Keep your guests calm and remain calm yourself. Easy tempers will ensure the animal stays comfortable and relaxed.

13. Be prepared for a situation in which an animal wishes to cut loose or roam free. Always have leashes and wranglers close by and on hand. A large towel or blanket is also good to throw over the eyes of an animal that may be out of control. In worst-case scenarios, with very large and powerful animals its always good to have a tranquilizer gun handy just in case.

14. Make sure animal first experiences are pleasant. Animals have excellent visual memories, meaning unlike us they don’t remember dialogue, only sounds and images. New experiences can be scary to animals, but they’ll calm down if they are allowed to let their curiosity guide them and explore on their own. Make sure they are used to the elements of any show performance prior to show time (e.g. bright lights, colors, music, costumes, crowds).

15. Animals should be approached from the front and not the blind spots in the rear or the side, with movements that are slow and deliberate.

16. Studies show that animals, just like people, get depressed and irritable when kept alone. If possible, keep your animal penned with a fellow brethren. Lone animals can become stressed and thus dangerous, but providing them some company can actually help keep them relaxed.

17. Be wary of children eager to touch the animals. Leave touching up to the discretion of the handler; some animals should not be approached at all.

18. Also be wary of children getting too loud or rowdy, as a raucous could put animals into distress.

19. Treat scratches, bites, and kicks as soon as possible, as these could help spread zoonotic diseases. On the same note, anyone touching animals should be advised to wash their hands afterwards as soon as possible for the same reason. Some diseases that could be transferred from animals to humans include salmonella, herpes, rabies, and hepatitis.

20. Advise guests ahead of time of the presence of animals to be wary of potential allergies from animal dander. In any case, its always good to have some antihistamine on hand for mild reactions, or in severe cases an epi-pen to stop airway constriction and other grave allergic reactions.

21. An exit strategy, either for the animal or yourself and the guests, is crucial to possess. You never know when an animal could go out of control, so its important to know exactly where to coerce the animal or lead your guests in the case of an animal on the loose.

22. All handlers and anyone else in close contact with the animal should wear the necessary protective equipment. Items like closed-toed shoes, safety goggles, gloves, or masks may be required for safe handling of certain animals.

23. Be prepared for dung!