Wednesday, April 14, 2010

From Birds to Big Cats

(This interview first appeared in Just Cats!, Jan./Feb. 2001 as part of my “Making a Difference….” column. --TJB)

As actress and animal-rights activist Tippi Hedren sees it, “My modeling career and my entire acting career were all a stepping-stone to this.” “This” refers to her work at Shambala, the big-cat refuge that she started in Acton, California back in 1981. It is, she adds simply, “the most important thing in the world to me.”

She doesn’t dwell much on either of those previous lives of hers but admits that her roles in movies like “The Birds” and “Marnie” have given her “a sort of window. A person who has celebrity is able to call attention to certain causes.” She finds it interesting that three of the actresses who worked with director Alfred Hitchcock – Kim Novak, Doris Day, and herself – have gone on to champion various animal causes. “I don’t know,” Hedren muses. “Is it because of the honesty of the animals? I don’t want to bad-mouth Hollywood, but Hollywood can be very hurtful. Animals are very honest, and it’s a wonderful thing to know an animal. I love all animals, but getting to know a wild animal is fascinating.”

And she has had plenty of opportunities to be fascinated. Shambala, which officially became a wild-animal preserve in June 1983, thanks to the establishment of The ROAR Foundation (“Actually, we were a preserve before we knew we were one,” Hedren comments with some amusement.), is home not only to lions and tigers but also to cougars, leopards, a jungle cat, snow leopards, a Florida panther, an elephant, several servals, a cheetah, a bobcat, and a liger. The latter, Patrick, is the result of a happenstance romance between a lion and a tigress. “He’s very, very beautiful,” the actress says of the hybrid cat. “He seems to have the best qualities of both.”

Patrick wasn’t born at Shambala – he came there courtesy of a small zoo – but many years ago, a tigon (a cross between a tiger and a lioness) was. They don’t buy or trade animals and haven’t bred any since 1981, Hedren explains, but “we had a birth like this at Shambala because we had two tigers who weren’t getting along, and when they fight, they will fight to the kill.” One of the malcontents was put in with some of the lionesses: it turned out that one of them was in season, and the tiger “was only too happy to oblige.” Ergo, the tigon.

As her conversation quickly reveals, Hedren has developed an ever-deepening love and understanding of the wild cats at Shambala (which, in ancient Sanskrit, means “A meeting place of peace and Harmony for all beings, Animal and Human”). “They’re all absolutely, totally different in personalities,” she enthuses. But that enthusiasm doesn’t blind her to the facts. “Wild animals can’t be tamed, and I can attest to that. So can my entire family.” It disturbs her that far too many lions and tigers “are being kept in people’s backyards without proper facilities. Keeping these animals in 8x10 cages – that is cruel and unusual punishment. Most states don’t have laws regarding the keeping of these big cats[, and] more often, it’s more difficult to get a dog license than it is to have a lion or a tiger in your backyard.”

And the results can go way beyond frightening, as Hedren’s files on accidents involving these “pets” show. A 4-year-old boy in Texas (“Texas is one of the worst offenders,” the actress says.) had his arm ripped off by a big cat: fortunately, the arm was retrieved in enough time for doctors to be able to successfully stitch it back on. A female guide at an animal park in Colorado wasn’t so lucky. While trying to show visitors how easy a particular tiger was to handle, the animal tore off her arm and ate it.

“It is horrifying,” Hedren admits after recounting these tales. “And it’s never the animal’s fault….The wild cat is really an insidious animal. They have a great capacity for love – a sense of humor – and they have their dominancy and insecurity problems. And in a split second, they can kill you.”

Some of the smaller wild cats can be almost as tricky to handle. Tabby, the bobcat-in-residence at Shambala, is too temperamental for anyone to go near. And the servals have “a very strange personality. They can be quite nasty. They are now one of the ‘in’ exotic pets because they’re small. They have these long legs, and they can do these karate chops, and they’re very fast. I’ve only known one serval who maybe you could pet: she jumped up and bit me on the mouth, and that’s the nicest one I’ve met.”

Knowing all this doesn’t dim her love and appreciation for these animals, “all of [whom] have their purpose.” Asked if she has any favorites among the wild cats of Shambala, Hedren replies, “That’s like asking a mother who her favorite child is. I had a tiger I was very close to…and I had a lion I was very close to….Each animal is a unique experience.”

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Thursday, April 8, 2010

The Best Curmudgeon Ever

I first saw him when I was in the 4th grade. My brother Craig had just gotten some literature from the newly formed Fund for Animals; and there, in the brochure, was a photo of its founder and president, Cleveland Amory, standing tall and speaking out for the rights of mustangs, seals, and all other creatures who couldn’t speak for themselves. My imagination was fired: that summer, one of my entries in the local 4-H Fair was what I thought of as my “animal conservation scrapbook” with pictures of buffaloes blithely scissored out of an out-of-print history book and literature from the Fund that I’d pilfered from my brother.

Years later, I came across Cleveland Amory’s The Cat Who Came for Christmas, The Cat and the Curmudgeon, and The Best Cat Ever. I devoured those books, crying at the end of the third one, when Polar Bear, the curmudgeonly stray who’d taken the activist under his paw, died. Some people complained about that last book – Amory went off on tangents, dropped names, yada yada -- but I loved the tangents. They were vivid and peppered with his unmistakable brand of humor. If good writing is, as one of my teachers used to say, like “extraordinarily good talk” – well, Mr. Amory could talk my ear off in print anytime. I never took much stock in the name-dropping charge either. The man simply struck me as being someone with interesting stories to tell, and it just so happened that given the circles he’d traveled in, a lot of famous folks figured in those stories.

So, when my Just Cats! Editors, Nancy and Bob Hungerford, told me to go ahead and set up an interview with him, I was delighted. And scared. I mean, this was Cleveland Amory, published author and former T. V. Guide critic, I’d be interviewing, a man who was capable of tossing off a verbal barb as lightly and easily as a paper airplane. Then, one Sunday shortly before our scheduled interview, I found myself driving behind a ranger with the word “Curmudgeon” embroidered on its spare-tire cover. I laughed aloud: suddenly, I knew the interview was going to turn out all right.

It turned out more than all right. Cleveland Amory was surprisingly easy to talk to. At one point, he frankly admitted that in the beginning, the term “animals’ rights” had made him nervous. “Everything having to do with rights back then,” Cleveland explained, “had to do with blacks, more so than women…and it seemed to me that saying, ‘Animals have rights’ might be construed as being disparaging to blacks, and, after all, blacks controlled a lot of animals in Africa and elsewhere.”

“I’ve always preferred the term ‘animal conservation,’” I remarked.

“I disagree with you there,” he shot back, explaining that the older term focused on wild animals and more or less left the domestic ones out in the cold. Was I smarting from his friendly but firm rebuke? Hell, no. I was exhilarated. It was one of those magical journalistic moments: the interview had stopped being an interview and become a dialogue. I went on to ask him about his personal philosophy, which was, like the man himself, direct and unpretentious. “Simply to be kind,” he replied promptly. “That would solve so much.”

If our first interview was a Bill Moyers-eque exchange, the second one was like a talk with an old friend. “I love the stuff you sent me,” Cleveland told me, referring to my review of The Best Cat Ever and a few other things I’d sent him in the interim. “I think they’re terrific….You write beautifully.”

We talked about the Polar Bear books, and I ran one of his comments by him, hoping to draw some more quotes from him. “Now, the last time we talked,” I began, “you said you were trying to get people to see Polar Bear as he was to you.”

There was silence on the other end of the line. “That’s good,” Cleveland finally said. “That’s better than anything I could have come up with, except when I was younger.”

We talked about the cat novel for young adults I’d just finished (Houdini) and – briefly – about the book he was premeditating (Ranch of Dreams, as it turned out). “You’re going to write that,” he retorted. Chuckling, he repeated, “You’re going to write it. I’m the senior writer – I’ve been working in the goddamn trenches long enough.” Shortly after that, he remarked, “You know, I’m sick of talking to you on the phone. Come down to the office here sometime.”

So, early that November, I walked into the Fund’s office. Cleveland looked up and gestured to the wide windowsill to the right of his desk. I hopped up and took out my ice-cream-sandwich-sized tape recorder, only to discover that the batteries had died in transit. I tossed the tape recorder back into my bag and whipped out my steno pad and pen.

We ended up spending over an hour together – partly putting the finishing touches on our interview, partly just visiting. Actually, we did more of the latter. One of Cleveland’s strengths was, I think, that he didn’t stand on ceremony. This lion was comfortable enough with himself that he didn’t have to. Roar, that is. Not about silly formalities. No, he was going to save his roars for what really mattered: his work on behalf of the animals.

He was a generous-hearted lion, too – generous with his time and with his praise. As we chatted, he’d toss off a friendly remark: “You should be reviewing all this – You’re funny – We think alike.” As I rose to leave, he took the Houdini manuscript from me, glanced at it, and said, “I know this’ll be good.” He asked me if I had an agent. When I replied that I didn’t, Cleveland replied, “Well, I think an agent would be very interested in you. Some people are only one-book writers – you’re not. You’re going to be writing for the rest of your life.” And he autographed the copy of The Best Cat Ever that I’d brought along with me: “For T. J. It was a pleasure being interviewed by a writer I know who is just at the dawn of a fine career. Cleveland Amory. Nov. 7, 1994.”

He sat back and eyed what he’d written. “Hmmph,” he said matter-of-factly. “Looks like ‘damn.’” And it did. He handed me back the book, and we shook hands. ‘Call any time,” he told me. I left his office a-glow. It didn’t matter whether anything more came of this – it didn’t even really matter whether I heard from him again. What did matter was that someone who mattered as a writer thought that I did, too.

But I did hear from him a few weeks later, and his response to Houdini was all a writer could ask for:

“…I thoroughly enjoyed Houdini. What a sweet, loyal soul. And what a brave one, to boot.

“Now, mind you, I am a few years older than your target audience. But only a few. So I can safely say you have a winner on your hands.” He went on to make a suggestion regarding one of my secondary characters, then concluded, “Meanwhile, I hope other people like Houdini as much as I – and I look forward to seeing it in bookstores before long. Be sure and let me know your progress. By the way, do you want your manuscript back?

“With warmest wishes,

Cleveland Amory.”

We corresponded fairly regularly after that. He always responded in a warm, friendly fashion to whatever writing news I shared with him, suggesting what he felt was a better title for one of my essays or laughing off a typo in my published interview with him. “A piece of journalism as positive as `Making a difference…' can,” he observed dryly, “can afford one ‘Amry.’”

Then, on July 11, 1995, my husband, Tim, was killed in a freak car accident coming home, and Cleveland’s response showed that he more than lived up to his philosophy of “simply to be kind”:

“Your letter was waiting for me upon my return from a long trip. What can I say?

“’Sorry’ is such an insignificant little word. Yet I do want you to know how sad I am for you. I am also gratified that you were able to take solace from the last chapter of The Best Cat Ever. You are quite right. Tim would most assuredly not quibble over a cat/human distinction.

“I enjoyed your ‘Out-of-Print Cat Books’ article and, of course, I am terribly pleased over the acceptance from Poets & Writers – though I understand full well how this lacks the thrill it might have once had for you.

“In closing, let me add my hopes that with each passing day, you will feel a little better. It goes without saying but if there is anything I can do to help, please do not hesitate to ask.”

We met again at the Fund’s office that Halloween. As usual, Cleveland was down-to-earth and to-the-point. We talked about everything from Tim, our daughter Marissa, and the cats-in-residence to what I was currently working on (“You have a sense of humor,” he remarked approvingly, “and it shows in your writing.”) and finding an agent for Houdini. He took a few minutes out then and there to place phone calls to his various contacts for me, leaving messages like “This is the IRS. Why aren’t you at your desk? I can’t stand this type of dereliction….” He never left his name, but that voice with its Bostonian accent was unmistakable. Besides, I had a pretty strong hunch that the folks who knew Cleveland were used to finding messages like that on their answering machines.

There is one memory-picture from that visit that still makes me smile. At some point during our chat, the phone rang, and Cleveland excused himself to take the call. He didn’t say much, just started chuckling. “Marian!” he suddenly bellowed. “Marian! Come in here and listen to what Ed has to say about his desk!”

There was an ominous silence. Then Marian Probst, his long-time secretary and the Fund’s treasurer “under whose incredible memory for irritating facts he [the author] has, with the patience of Job, long suffered" (The Cat and the Curmudgeon), marched into his office. “Cleveland,” she said shortly, “I was on the phone about greyhound racing. I could not come and listen to what Ed has to say about his desk.” And turned on her heel and marched out.

Cleveland sat there quietly for a moment. Then his desire to share the joke got the better of him, and he turned to me. “Ed’s this lawyer,” he explained. “Very funny guy. Anyway, someone came in to talk to him, looked at his desk, and said, ‘Were there any survivors?’” He chuckled again, shaking his head ruefully. “A writer would have given anything to come up with that….”

The other thing I remember vividly is the book-signing. This time, I’d brought the first two books in the Polar Bear trilogy with me. Cleveland took them and scribbled away for a few minutes, pausing only to ask me our cats’ names or to check the spelling of Marissa’s (“Because, of course, she’s going to read these some day,” he told me.); then he handed them back to me, saying, “There! I’ve signed my name, so you can’t give ‘em away.”

I flipped open The Cat Who Came for Christmas. On the title page, he’d written, “For TJ and Cricket and Kilah and Dervish and Tikvah and Zorro and Woody and Boris and Starfire – and of course Marissa. With love to you all, Cleveland.” But it was the inscription in The Cat and the Curmudgeon that really caught me by the throat: “For TJ and Marissa and in memory of Tim – with special affection – Cleveland Amory.”

I looked up at Cleveland. “He would have been pleased,” I said softly. And that one gesture on his part convinced me more than anything else that Cleveland Amory was a class act.

We continued our correspondence. Sometimes it would be awhile before I heard from Cleveland – there were book tours and, of course, business for the Fund – but he never failed to respond. “I am also pleased over the spirit of your letter,” he wrote shortly after our meeting, “—it seemed much lighter, almost back to the way things were when I first met you. Hopefully, this is a reflection of your true feelings." Or, after those first holidays without Tim: “I thought about you during the Christmas holidays, knowing this was yet another thing to be ‘gotten through.’ But I see by your letter you have come through with flying colors. Not that I doubted you would. But it is nice to have it confirmed.” And the condolence note he wrote me after my favorite cat Cricket’s death was just as thoughtful as the one he’d written me after Tim’s: “Not only do I feel for you but know only too well what you are feeling. The Best Bet, [my essay about Cricket,] however, is a lovely tribute to her.”

There were lighter notes, too, such as when I thought I’d landed a publisher for my novel: “Three cheers, and then some, over the happy news about Houdini. Really, I could not be more pleased and eagerly await my copy. Inscribed, please.” Or when one of my essays had been picked up for Chocolate for a Woman’s Heart: “So here I am again with kudos…even if their title is indeed inferior. This from someone who is quite partial to chocolates.”

We had a brief chat in April 1998, when the Houdini contract fell through. Cleveland was warm and affectionate, assuring me that the publishers had to give me my manuscript back. Then, before he signed off, he said, “By the way, Sally here was asking how you were doing.” I honestly didn’t remember who Sally was – I must’ve met her in passing during one of my visits – but it was such a typically down-to-earth homey Cleveland-ish statement. It was also one of the last things I ever heard him say.

I didn’t hear about his death till the Friday after it happened. A few days later, Barbara Bowen of Bowen Books sent me a copy of Cleveland’s obit from The New York Post. “What a grand and full life he had,” she wrote simply. To me, that was the best – the most fitting – epitaph ever. No living in half-shadows, no simply going through the motions for Cleveland Amory. He had lived his life grandly, fully, no-holds-barred. And how glad I was to have shared a few moments of that life with him.

Not long afterwards, I was working on a crossword puzzle and happened upon the following clue: “Conservationist Cleveland.” Immediately, my mind sped back to that first long-ago interview. I grinned to myself and inked in my “Amry.”

Point for my side, Cleveland.

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