Having recently adopted a dog, I find myself suddenly interested in all things Cesar Millan, so when I learned that the new issue of Men’s Journal featured a lengthy profile of the man known to many as the “Dog Whisperer,” I just had to read it. I had no idea what I was in for.
As the piece — titled “Rescuing Cesar” — details, Millan’s life has gone to sh*t in recent years. His beloved dog died. His wife left him. He invested poorly and was left with little money to show for his burgeoning dog training empire. And it culminated in a suicide attempt.
Earlier that year, in a few awful months at the start of 2010, Millan’s life turned upside down. In February, his sidekick Daddy, a giant, gentle red pit bull who frequently assisted Millan on the show and whom he calls “my mentor,” died of cancer at age 16. A month later, while he was on tour in Europe, his wife of 16 years, Ilusion, informed him she was filing for divorce. As he was reeling from those blows, Millan discovered that while ‘Dog Whisperer’ had made him one of America’s biggest TV stars, a series of bad business deals had left him with very little in the bank to show for it. “I found out I didn’t own anything – just T-shirts and touring,” he told me recently. “It was the biggest shock in the world.”
Millan remembers walking around in a daze, feeling betrayed and very alone. “I am a pack animal,” he said. “Everything I did was to keep the pack together. All of a sudden I had no pack.” He slept on his brother’s couch, spent time in church, and lost so much weight he dropped four pants sizes. Occasionally, he returned home to visit his family in suburban Santa Clarita, a few miles from the ranch. “We were trying to do the whole thing white people do where they come back and visit,” he says now, with a bitter laugh. “But it didn’t work for me.” Millan’s two sons, Andre, then 15, and Calvin, 11, blamed him for the separation and refused to speak to him. “They were brainwashed. . . . They believed their life was better without me,” he says. During the worst times, even his dogs kept their distance. “Dogs don’t follow an unstable leader,” he says. “I was very unstable.”
That May, in 2010, Millan hit bottom. “It was a spiral,” he says. “All the willpower I had, the desire to motivate myself, my kids, all I had achieved – none of that, nothing, mattered.”
One day, at his wife’s house, he swallowed a bottle of her Xanax and some other pills and got into bed, hoping to end his life. “I thought, If I do a combination, I can die quicker. So I just took all the pills I could find, poof”
“I had so much rage and sadness,” he continues. “I went to the other side of me, which is ‘fuck it, I’m a failure.'” Millan woke up in the hospital psychiatric ward, where he remained under observation for 72 hours. “Nothing happened!” he says. “I thought, Well shit, that means I’m not supposed to die. I better get back to work.”
The piece also details the fascinating journey that led Millan to become arguably the world’s best dog trainer, starting with his first experiences with dogs as a kid growing up in Mexico.
Millan dreamed of growing up to be a soccer star, a drug dealer, or a soap opera actor. “That was the people everybody admired and respected, the people that were actually able to support their families,” he says. That all changed when Millan was 13, and his family got its first TV. After dinner they would gather to watch reruns of ‘Lassie’ and ‘Rin Tin Tin’. He was enchanted by the tricks those Hollywood dogs were able to do, and he had an epiphany. “I told my mom, ‘I’m going to be the best dog trainer in the world.'”…After school he worked cleaning dog kennels in a vet’s office, where he was known for his ability to calm even the most agitated and aggressive patients.
He later immigrated to the United States illegally, living under overpasses in Southern California for the first few months he was in the country.
Eventually, Millan found part-time work at a pet-grooming salon where he was sometimes allowed to sleep at night, and as a dishwasher at the Sizzler. “I did a good job,” he says, “so they moved me up to the salad bar.” One night at an ice-skating rink, he met Ilusion, a pretty 17-year-old Mexican-American girl. In 1994, when she was pregnant with their first son, Andre, the couple moved north to the rough Inglewood section of Los Angeles. Cesar went door-to-door offering dog walking and training services – for free at first, until friends convinced him to charge $10 a day. The neighborhood was gang turf, and many of the dogs he worked with had been used for protection and fighting. “These were tough dogs, man! Dogs with one eye, three legs; dogs that had been lit on fire,” he says.
Millan became a neighborhood hero, the guy who could rollerblade down the street with 10 or 12 gangster dogs at his side. “By law, you can walk only three dogs on a leash,” he says. “But in that neighborhood, it was like I was doing them a favor. They liked having me around.”
Millan took over a ramshackle former auto-repair shop that was being used to store donated clothes and that was often set on fire by squatting crackheads. He called it the Dog Psychology Center. “We started cleaning up the place – taking old pallets and covering them with green carpet, building beds. I had no money, so from trash I made obstacle courses. I would walk 40 or 50 dogs off-leash in the alley out back. We would patrol the area. Slowly, the crime went down; the graffiti stopped. We became a healthy addition to the community.”
Ilusion worried that the sketchy neighborhood would scare off new clients, but as his reputation grew, Millan says, “dogs started arriving from Beverly Hills, sometimes in limos.” One of his early clients was the actress Jada Pinkett, who had four rottweilers she needed help with. “Jada has huevos,” Millan says. “There’s the street side of her, but at the same time you see the evolved Jada. I’m the same way. I have both sides.” In 2002, the L.A. Times ran a photo of Millan walking up Centinela Avenue with a pack of eight thuggish-looking rottweilers and mutts strolling peacefully behind him. “He talks like Freud, looks like Rudolph Valentino, and acts like Merlin the Wizard,” the piece reported. It also quoted Millan saying that one day he’d like to have his own TV show.
Over the next week, Millan says, a dozen TV producers showed up at the Dog Psychology Center.
In case you’re wondering, the piece does detail how Millan pulled himself out of the deep depression that led to a suicide attempt. In an ironic turn of fate, he was made whole again by…wait for it…dogs.
All that summer, Millan spent his days at the ranch, clearing brush, digging roads, and planting trees. “Some people turn to cigarettes and alcohol when they have problems,” he said. “I use hard work.” When the sadness overwhelmed him, he would hike up the nearly vertical rim of the canyon – rocky, dry scrub thick with rattlesnakes – in heat that reached 115 degrees. If he didn’t feel better when he got back down, he’d do it again.
One night, “I was sitting under this tree, right here,” he said, pulling up in the Gator next to a giant Buddha statue, “and I was crying. I noticed the dogs started coming over, and they surrounded me. There were, like, 11 dogs all around, and they started to lick my face. Normally I don’t like to be licked. I’m afraid of germs, but this was different. I had the sense that these dogs were healing me. From that night, I began to get stronger.”
Go read the whole thing when you have time. It’s kind of beautiful.
(Pic via NatGeo)