Fun Places to Visit
The Shambala Preserve, Acton, California
By Richard “Zippy” Grigonis — November 24, 2010
“I have lived in the shadow of birds and big cats for many years. I love all creatures big and small, feathered, furred, and finned. What they have taught me is a keen respect for the environment and the natural order of life.”
—Tippi Hedren, quoted in the book, Animal Angels (1998) by Stephanie Laland.
The Short Version of the Story: There exist many unwanted, neglected, abandoned or abused lions, tigers, cheetahs, cougars, elephants and other exotic “cast-offs” from inept private owners, failing zoos, movie companies, low-life circuses, and nefarious individuals who charge fees for the sport of shooting captive animals at point blank range. Since 1972, many of these animals have ended up living out their lives in safety, comfort and dignity at a sort of “animal orphanage” called the Shambala Preserve. (The name “Shambala” refers to a land of peace, tranquility and happiness for all beings, animal and human. It is from the Tibetan Buddhist “Shambhala”— itself a transliteration of an even older Sanskrit term, “Sambhala” from the ancient Hindu myth of Kalki of Sambhala found in the Mahabharata and the Puranas.) Shambala was founded by actress, conservationist and animal rights activist Tippi Hedren, star of Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds.
The cats of Shambala / Tippi Hedren with Theodore Taylor ; photographs by Bill Dow
The Long Version of the Story: The Shambala Preserve, one of America's premier big cat sanctuaries and a member of the American Sanctuary Association (ASA), is situated 40 miles (64 kilometers) northeast of Los Angeles at the edge of the Mohave Desert in Acton, California, between Antelope Valley and Santa Clarita Valley in the secluded, rugged Soledad Canyon. The locale was once the hideout of the legendary, colorful, Latin-American bandit Tiburcio Vasquez (1835–1875), after whom is named the nearby Vasquez Rocks and Vasquez Canyon near Saugus. (It was also the location where the original 1960s Star Trek TV series filmed the episode, “Shore Leave.”)
The Shambala Preserve has received the continuing care and attention—not to mention considerable financial support—of its founder, actress and conservationist Tippi Hedren. The star of such movie classics as director Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds and Marnie, Hedren is also founder (in 1983) and President of the non-profit The Roar Foundation, which via the Shambala Preserve provides critical protection, shelter, care and maintenance for exotic big cats and other animals that would otherwise find themselves in unfortunate circumstances. The foundation also has animal education programs for the public, and its research findings and coordinated efforts with similar organizations are meant to foster wildlife preservation and promote sound ecological principles on a global scale.
Roar Foundation board members have included such Hollywood luminaries as Loni Anderson, Antonio Banderas, Ed Begley, Jr., Linda Blair, Bo Derek, Melanie Griffith, Ken Howard and Linda Howard, Loretta Swit, and Betty White.
Tippi Hedren lives on the grounds of Shambala, in a cottage nestled in the midst of the big cat compounds. Hollywood’s real Catwoman awakens each morning at 4 a.m. to the roars of nearly 60 big cats of 11 different species—lions, tigers, black and spotted leopards, cougars, servals, bobcats, Asian Leopard cats, a Florida Panther, and a jungle cat, and a liger (a hybrid of a lion father and a tiger mother). There are also representatives of a few duck species that merrily paddle about in the lake—Muscovies, Mallards, etc.
“Back in 1972 there was nothing here,” she says. Hendren and her then-husband Noel Marshall, planted 800 trees (many of them are cottonwoods), redirected the creek and dredged the lake.
Tippi Hedren was alerted to the predicament of the big cats during the time she made two films shot in Africa, Satan’s Harvest (1970), also known as Devil’s Harvest, and Mister Kingstreet’s War (1973), aka Heroes Die Hard. While filming in Africa, she was told by the locals that the animals, as impressive as they were to her, existed in far greater numbers just 15 or 20 years before, and their population was shrinking because of sport hunting, poaching, and the ever-encroaching civilization. She became friendly with “a mellow lion” on the set of Satan’s Harvest, and, at the end of shooting Mister Kingstreet’s War, she discovered that the big cats used in the film had nowhere to go and would be confined to their small cages indefinitely. This was one of the eye-opening situations that spurred both Hedren and her husband at the time, Noel Marshall, to purchase some acreage that would eventually serve as a sort of retirement home for big cats. It was this land that ultimately became the Shambala Preserve.
The idea for making a movie about lions came to Hedren and Marshall after noticing that a house in Mozambique had been taken over by some squatters—a pride of lions. Rainy season floods had driven out the house’s inhabitant, the local game warden, and the lions moved right in. Reminiscing about it in a 1994 James Brady interview in Parade magazine, she said,
“It was an amazing thing to see: The lions were sitting in the windows, they were going in and out of the doors, they were sitting on the verandas, they were on the top of the Portuguese house, and they were in the front of the house. The big-maned lions, the lionesses, the rowdy young cubs, everybody was there. It grew to be the largest pride in all of Africa. It was such a unique thing to see and we thought, for a movie, let us use the great cats as our stars.”
Thus was the genesis of Roar, a film that would follow a fictional scientist’s work with lion, tiger and jaguar cubs, and dramatize the issue of how wild animals were being rapidly decimated by hunters, settlers and poachers—and how they don’t exactly make great housepets either, especially when you’ve got a whole mob of them hanging around. More than anything else, perhaps, it was the first film to capture the true personalities of these creatures.
Roar, which starred Hedren her husband and her young daughter, the future film star Melanie Griffith, was supposed to follow a nine-month shooting schedule, but it ultimately took five years. In fact, the entire process of getting the idea, searching for and buying the land, finding the animals and making the film took a total of 11 years. The film turned out to be an engrossing, transforming experience for everyone who worked on it.
Obviously, making such a film would require quite a few big cats of several species, along with some other African animals to provide a realistic atmosphere. Indeed, Hedren had planned the most ambitious film of its kind ever made, with the script calling for 28 or 29 big cat actors filmed together in and around the same house. Initially she expected she would follow the traditional Hollywood production route and hire experienced, “professional” acting animals schooled in the ways of Hollywood cinema by their skilled human trainers.
After several such film industry animal trainers read the script, however, they simply laughed and said that it was impossible to bring together that many animals on one movie set. Each big cat’s instinct is to fight any other animal with which they are unfamiliar. Naturally, the trainers wouldn’t allow even the possibility of that happening—they turned down the assignment flat.
Instead, the trainers suggested that Hedren and her husband get their own animals to do the movie, and introduce them very gradually and carefully so they would get along with each other. “Well, that opened a whole new can of peas,” as Hedren later said.
Hedren purchased the property in Soledad Canyon in 1972 and began acquiring her big cats—lots of them. Eight or ten animals were brought in at a time, where they became accustomed to themselves and the environment. At one point, 140 of the unpredictable, potentially ferocious felines occupied the property. And, in a precursor for what was to come, the first lion obtained by Hedren was a rescue. Hedren began accepting animals confiscated from owners by the California Fish and Game Department. Then the U.S. Department of Agriculture then called to see if they could take some animals. Other agencies and human societies followed. More and more unwanted exotic creatures from around the country found their way to Hedren’s refuge at the brink of the high desert.
In the meantime, the production of Roar became an extraordinary, almost surreal experience.
First, the film’s many “hands-on” scenes big cats, with sometimes dozens of them in the same frame, inevitably led to accidents—everyone was hurt by the lions at one time or another. When they did the very first shot of the film, Tippi Hedren’s husband Noel Marshall (who wrote, directed and appeared in the film as the character Hank) was bitten on the hand. Filming stopped. Hendren’s 19-year-old daughter Melanie Griffith was attacked by a lioness; she needed 50 stitches after the attack and feared she would lose an eye. (Fortunately, the wounds were ultimately not disfiguring.) Two of Marshall’s sons, Jerry and John Marshall (cast as Hank’s son) were also often attacked and badly injured by the lions. Hedren herself fractured a leg when she fell off of the resident elephant, Timbo, her arm was severely scratched by a leopard and a cougar bit her on the chest. Even the Director of Photography, Jon de Bont, who would later go on to direct such blockbuster movies as Die Hard, Basic Instinct, Speed, Twister and Minority Report, was bitten on the head by a lion and had to have his scalp sewn back onto his head.
“This was probably one of the most dangerous films that Hollywood has ever seen,” remarked Hedren. “It’s amazing no one was killed.”
Even with five working movie cameras, it was difficult for to capture the big cats’s most interesting behavior on film. Sometimes de Bont would spend hours setting up a shot, and the lions would just languish in the sun. Other times they would spring into action, when no camera was covering them. The production’s slow progress was a series of fits and starts—periods of boredom punctuated by chaos, sometimes terrifying in nature.
The most catastrophic delay in filming Roar occurred in 1978, when a tremendous flood almost demolished the compound and killed three lions. The whole production and property took an entire year to recover.
Needless to say, the money for the project would run out at intervals. Finally, in 1981, after 11 years and an astonishing $17 million, Roar was completed and released to theaters worldwide—except for the United States, where distributors wanted—dare I say it—the lions’ share of the profits (Hedren wanted most of the money to go to support the animals that made the movie). As amazing a film as it is, Roar garnered only $2 million worldwide. A year later (1982), Hedren’s marriage to Marshall came to an end.
However, during the whole process Tippi Hedren found her calling. After the film was completed, it was unthinkable to dispose of all of the unfortunate animals. Zoos could not possibly take that many big cats. Hedren thus became the protector to homeless lions and tigers that were born in captivity (or were captured at a very early age) and couldn’t be returned to the wild. The Roar experience led directly to the 1983 establishment of the non-profit Roar Foundation which accepted donations and which became the financial support arm of Hendren’s animal rescue efforts and her work to educate the public about wildlife. In 1985 Hedren’s 72 acres officially became the Shambala Preserve.
The idea for the name Shambala came from a woman was instrumental in handling the ton of paperwork and procedures involved in setting up the nonprofit foundation. She suggested that the preseve’s name could be Shambala, since said that it means “a meeting place of peace and harmony for all beings, animal and human,” commenting, “Wouldn’t it be wonderful if our world were like that?”
Although Hedren’s main interest is in the big cats, there were a couple of African elephant residents at Shambala. Timbo and Cora. Timbo, who came from a Vancouver animal park in 1972, was the only elephant on the property until 1978, when Hedren rescued Cora, a circus elephant that had enough of circus life and was about to be euthanized for “bad behavior.” When Cora arrived at Shambala, amazingly, the two elephants greeted each other like old friends, entwining their trunks and caressing each other. As it turned out, they were friends. Hedren did some research and discovered that the two elephants were shipped over from Africa on the same boat. “When they got to Frankfurt, Germany, Cora went to the circus, and Timbo went to the animal park,” says Hedren. The elephants still remembered their epic journey of decades before.
Cora died suddenly of a heart attack in August 2000, which devastated Hedren. At least Timbo was with Cora when she died. Hedren was again heartbroken in 2005 when Timbo also died of heart failure at the age of 48. She had just constructed a new compound for him.
The big cats now completely dominate the facility, residing in open compounds of one to two acres in size that mimic the animals’ natural habitats, with the exception of the leopard and mountain lion compounds which must be enclosed—they love to climb and could easily escape otherwise. The Shambala Preserve allows the cats to freely roam about and interact with others of their species. (Tigers, however, live alone because they are loners in the wild and they maintain that instinctual behavior in captivity.) Furthermore, the big cats are periodically moved to different compounds to help prevent boredom.
During the long history of the Shambala Preserve, each big cat arrived with an associated, enthralling story:
- A lion who was abandoned by his mother when he was five days old.
- Two servals contributed by a Chicago couple who could no longer care for them.
- Patrick, a liger (half lion, half tiger) rescued from a roadside zoo in Illinois, that had lived in a cage so small the muscles in his hindquarters and back legs had atrophied. Fortunately, Patrick didn’t hold it against the human race, and actually liked people.
- Togar, a lion that belonged to Satanist Anton LaVey, transferred to Shambala after San Francisco officials told LaVey that he couldn’t keep a fully grown lion as a house pet in the city limits.
- The late Michael Jackson’s two Bengal tigers, Sabu and Thriller arrived at Shambala when the financially-troubled Jackson closed the zoo at his Neverland Valley Ranch in Los Olivos, California.
- A 6-month, 150-pound lion cub named Mikey flown in from New York’s Kennedy International Airport. Strangers had shown up at a suburban Yonkers auto mechanics shop and said, “Hey, could you watch my lion for a minute? I’ll be right back,” and promptly disappeared. At Shambala, he grew up to be a magnificent specimen and for a time lived with two lionesses.
- A tiger cub that had been offered for sale for $10,000 out of a car parked in Fashion Island in Newport Beach, California. A concerned citizen notified the Fish and Game department, and agents arrived, finding a set of cubs, which they confiscated. (Many illegal breeders that offer exotic animals as pets don’t realize—or don’t care—that taking cubs away from their mothers too soon means that they cannot ingest sufficient nutrients and enzymes to complete their immune system’s development.)
- In February 2005 in Riverside Superior Court, Hedren filed a complaint regarding animal cruelty by a tiger rescuer, but was told by U.S. Department of Agriculture officials that they didn’t have enough inspectors to respond to her complaint. Rather than have it go to the rescuer, she made room for the lion at Shambala.
When a 1994 earthquake rolled through Shambala, which was just 25 miles from the quake’s epicenter, Hedren’s first reaction was like a scene out of the movie, Jurassic Park—“Are the gates and fences holding?” They were fine, as were the animals, except for a lioness named Delilah who nervously paced for a few hours, and Timbo the bull elephant, who stomped about and trumpeted at bit. (Shambala also managed to escape more recent fires in the region.)
Aside from the ever-popular lions and tigers, Shambala’s remarkable big cat sanctuary also includes black and spotted leopards, a snow leopard, cheetahs and cougars, all born in captivity and so none could survive on their own in the wild.
Tippi Hedren’s present-day husband, veterinarian Martin Dinnes, attended medical school with Dr. Robert Malloy, husband of her friend, Kim Novak.
Hedren is quite adamant that there is no breeding, buying, selling, trading of animals at the Shambala Preserve. The animals are not commercial items. In fact, in 2000, with Representative Tom Lantos of California, Tippi labored tirelessly on a failed attempt to pass a comprehensive bill that would regulate the sale of exotic cats. She had better luck in 2003 with the passage of Congressional Bill H.R. 1006, “The Captive Wildlife Safety Act,” sponsored by Representative Buck McKeon of California. The law prohibits the interstate sale and transport of big cats destined to become pets, addressing the public safety dangers posed by private ownership, illegal breeding, selling, and inhumane treatment of wild and exotic animals.
In 2010, while visiting the Barry Barsamian Hollywood legends Exhibit in San Francisco’s Metreon, Hedren was quoted as saying, “It has become my mission to stop the insanity of wild cats as pets… Everything that I’ve done in my life was to lead me to my work with the animals.”
The story of Tippi’s life and her beloved animals was told in Simon & Schuster’s The Cats of Shambala (1985).
Several documentaries have also appeared about the Shambala Preserve, including Lions: Kings of the Serengeti by the Richard Diercks Co, Inc. which won the Telly Award in 1995 for outstanding video documentary; and Life With Big Cats (1998), produced for the Animal Planet cable channel, which won the Genesis Award for best documentary in 1999.
For Tippi Hedren, mother of Melanie Griffith and grandmother of Alexander Bauer, Dakota Johnson, and Stella Banderas, her role as “den mother” to her beloved big cats and her efforts to leverage her movie star fame to rescue and educate the public about these magnificent predators have taken her to a realm far removed from the Minnesota world of little Nathalie Kay Hedren, who trained to be a figure skater and was an Eileen Ford model before her fateful encounter with Alfred Hitchcock. Such are the strange diversions on the Path of Life.
But do visit the Shambala Preseve. As the February 2000 issue of Los Angeles Magazine commented, “We can’t promise that a visit to actress Tippi Hedren’s Shambala Preserve will ignite your animal passions, but it will certainly give you a passion for animals.”
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