Along Highway 14, in between Santa Clarita and Palmdale, you'll find Acton — a high desert city that's home to just over 7,500 people, dozens of filming locations, and 47 big cats. Actress Tippi Hedren's Shambala Preserve, Acton's 'pride' and joy, is a 80-acre parcel of land that houses and maintains lions, tigers, leopards any sort of big cat in need of a home. KPCC's Kevin Ferguson reports.
I met actress and activist Tippi Hedren on a brisk Monday just outside of her home, surrounded by almost 50 big cats.
Tippi Hedren is, among other things, the star of Alfred Hitchcock's films The Birds, mother to actress Melanie Griffith and the President of the Roar Foundation, the group that funds Shambala. The story behind Shambala goes back to 1981, when Hedren was filming a movie that featured over 100 lions, tigers, leopards and cheetahs. The film required so many big cats that Hollywood trainers couldn’t meet demand.
"So it was their suggestion that we acquire our own animals to do the movie, and it started out with one rescue and from then on, as soon as people knew that we were accepting these big cats, it just grew like Topsy," said Hedren. "We had 150 big cats here!"
By providing homes for all these rescued animals, Hedren had found a calling. In the same way you hear about animal rescues for typical house pets — German shepherds, rabbits, pit bulls — Shambala does the same thing for big cats.
Sanctuaries like Shambala save many of these animals from euthanasia. It just takes a lot more resources and permits. They take on animals when they can, but the preserve relies on donations for funding. Sometimes that's hard to come by.
Walking around the park, you'll find not just lions and tigers but leopards, servals (an African wildcat), even a few house cats — they're indoors only. Every now and then a Metrolink train passes through the park, and flying overhead are ravens. Everywhere.
"They live here! And I find it very interesting because the ravens figured very strongly in the movie I did, The Birds,' said Hedren. "We have this huge flock of ravens who live here, because they’re meat eaters and we serve between 400 and 500 pounds of meat everyday, so they’re happy. And they know which of the lions and tigers they can steal from, and which they can't."
As spacious and amazing as it all looks, Chris Galluci, the director makes it abundantly clear: Shambala isn't a zoo.
"Somebody bred these cats to put them behind a cage. Every animal here is doing a life. Now what we’re trying to do is fill in that gap," said Galluci. "We’re trying to give them a life."
The habitats here are just as big as you'd find at the L.A. or San Diego Zoos. Some cats are roommates, others live alone. What makes Shambala unique is the mission: above everything else, this is a home to the big cats. Safety for both them and the humans around them is paramount.
Wednesday, a volunteer at a sanctuary in Fresno County was killed when a 4-year-old lion attacked her. At Shambala, volunteers never work with the cats. And—after a tiger attack hospitalized a Shambala staffer in 2007—the preserve has gone entirely hands-off. They installed a complex fencing system that ensures humans and big cats are almost never in the same compound.
For visitors, the rules are even more strict. The center is open only once a month for guided tours. Once inside, you're required to stay at least four feet away from the fences. And, as Mae Ryan, our photographer learned during the tour: never crouch down to take a picture of a big cat. In the middle of our interview, a lioness named Zoe came running our way, stopping just short of the fence.
"Do not bend down. Seriously, don’t bend down that way. Because then they think that you’re play or prey—she’ll bite the fence and break her teeth!" said Galluci.
Zoe, along with brother Cyrus, both came to Shambala from a shuttered zoo in Mississippi. All of the cats here were once privately owned: some from Nevada, some from Ohio, Texas. Some owned by rich people, others by celebrities. When Michael Jackson closed his zoo at Neverland the center received both of his tigers.
A lot of the stories are the same: wealthy families buy a leopard, or a tiger, or a lion. The wealthy family can't afford it anymore, or the upkeep is too much, or too dangerous. They pass the cat onto sanctuaries like Shambala. As Tippi explains, sometimes the stories can get pretty grim.
"We have a black leopard who was purchased for $6,000, taken to Newport Beach. And as he grew, he was scratching the lady’s satin sofas and chewing her Jimmy Choo shoes. So she put him in a closet and that’s where he lived," said Hedren. "The husband would come home at night, put great big leather gauntlets up to his shoulders, take the cat out, wrestle with him—thereby saying ‘this is how you treat humans,’ and then he’d go back in the closet. And finally, they were convinced that this probably isn’t a good idea. So he came to live at Shambala, and they brought him from Newport Beach in the trunk of their car in a zippered clothes bag."
For Hedren, taking care of these big cats is only half of the mission. She says the aim of Shambala and the Roar Foundation is to put an end to the private breeding of exotic animals. Hedren's group has lobbied Congress for nearly four years now to do just that. Just over a year ago the bill was first introduced on the floor of the House of Representatives.
"Why does our government allow this? I mean, these are apex predators, top of the food chain," said Hedren. "One of the four most dangerous animals in the world, and yet they say ‘sure, breed them, sell them to whoever can give you the money for them.'"
Shambala is a symptom of bad decisions. Despite how difficult, expensive and dangerous it is, people keep buying pet lions and tigers. Some want to show off their wealth, others just want to appear rich, some people just like big cats. But when the fun comes to end — and it almost inevitably does — these cats have to go somewhere.
For now, they at least have places like Shambala to call home.