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Animal House: Q&A with Antonio Ballatore of Animal Cribs

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Pets are family, which means our homes are as much theirs as ours. Nobody understands this as well as designer and animal enthusiast Antonio Ballatore, whose Animal Planet show Animal Cribs follows him as he designs stylish, functional spaces for a wide variety of pets and their people.

Ballatore, who rose to fame on season four of HGTV’s Design Star, finds inspiration for the spaces he seeks to transform from his own life, as well as the animals who call it home. We caught up with him to discuss his true muses—his dogs Chewie and Edie—and the journey that got him to where he is today.

TAILS: Growing up, your dream was to become a rock star. How did you end up in the design world instead?

Antonio Ballatore: I fell into it. I was getting tired of touring in punk rock bands, sleeping on floors, and dealing with unreliable band mates. I returned to New York City and ran a bar on the lower east side of Manhattan. During that time, I randomly ran into a friend who was working for the photographer David LaChapelle, and he was like, “Do you want to come build some sets?” At that point, I had built and designed a couple restaurants and bars in NYC so I thought I’d give it a shot. I wound up becoming one of David’s set designers and ultimately designed and built sets for some of the most iconic photos of the late ‘90s and early 2000s for top outlets like Rolling Stone and Vanity Fair. I worked with everyone
from Madonna and Eminem to Peewee Herman and George Clooney.

One day my best friend called and told me she had sent all my info into a show called Design Star. I had never even heard of it at the time. I showed up, won it, then got my own show called The Antonio Treatment.

Have you always been an animal lover? Did you have pets growing up?

Always. I was born in NYC so when we eventually moved out of the city two hours north to upstate New York, my parents went “Green Acres” like the old TV show. We had goats, dogs, cats, rabbits, fish, and even ducks.

How did Chewie come into your life?

The first dog I had as an adult was a 130-pound Bullmastiff named Champa. She passed away from lymphoma at the age of six. I took a couple months off and started researching Olde English Bulldogs—a healthier version of the traditional English Bulldogs. I came across a rescue with Chewie, a two-year-old male who was saved from a backyard breeder and kept in a crate his entire life. The rest is history. He was crazy at first, but with the help of my girlfriend at the time and her rescued Greyhound, we turned Chewie around. He became my soulmate dog.

You recently adopted another dog, Edie. How did you decide to welcome another dog into the pack?

Chewie was slowing down a lot in his old age, but I always saw a little pep in his step whenever he saw little dogs. Also, working with so many rescues every day it was so hard not to come home with a dog after work. I knew when I saw Edie, this little weirdo from MaeDay Rescue in LA, I had to get her. It was love at first sight!

Your social media feed is overflowing with photos of animals, especially Chewie and Edie. Do they come everywhere with you?

Yes, everywhere! Chewie and I have driven all over the U.S. multiple times. Chewie also loved to come to my jobs and just chill with me.

Was your own relationship with your pets the inspiration for your new animal-focused show?

Yes, it’s 100% Chewie’s fault I got this show. I was his sidekick. Every time I meet a new family’s pet—cats, dogs, birds—I give them the same kind of love I give my own animals. The love I have for all animals is my inspiration.

What is the best thing you designed for Chewie and Edie’s crib?

[Laughs] My entire space is theirs! There were only two things Chewie cared about: food and his bed. He would’ve been happiest with a custom hydraulic feeding funnel and a carrying sling for me to wear him around everywhere.

Without giving too much away, what has been your favorite Animal Cribs transformation so far?

I really enjoyed our “manimal cave” episode. We had 23 species in one basement. It was the biggest challenge we faced, but I had a lot of fun with it.

Filming with animals is always unpredictable. What is the craziest thing that has occurred on set so far?

I don’t want to jinx it, but we really lucked out. No crazy mishaps.

Is there an overall message you hope viewers walk away with after watching Animal Cribs?

That these pets are our family members and they deserve the best!

What else do you do in your personal life to help animals?

I adopt rescues. I am also a vegetarian.

What is your biggest dream for the future?

My hope is to adopt and rescue as many animals as I can.

Editor’s note: Just a couple of days after we spoke with Antonio, we learned that sadly, his dog Chewie passed away. Anyone who has loved an animal knows how hard it is to say goodbye, and our thoughts are with Antonio and Edie. We are sure Chewie’s essence and spirit will leave a lasting impression not only on Antonio’s heart, but in his future work with animals and their people as well.

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