(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.”