In the fall of 2011, Terry Thompson of Zanesville, OH, freed his collection of 56 wild animals — which included lions, tigers, wolves, leopards, and bears — before committing suicide. Police hunted down and killed 48 of those animals. Thompson’s menagerie had been legal.
In 2005, a Kansas teenager named Haley Hilderbrand was killed while posing for a photograph with a Siberian tiger at an animal sanctuary that has since been shut down.
In 2000, a 4-year-old boy had his arm ripped off by his uncle’s tiger outside Houston.
"None of these things should have ever happened," says actress and activist Tippi Hedren, whose Roar Foundation has operated the 80-acre Shambala Preserve in eastern Los Angeles County since 1983. "The situation in Zanesville should never have happened. This is all craziness, and I’m trying to put that across to our government."
As of this writing, only nine states have enforceable laws against breeding wild animals and keeping them as pets. Hedren’s 30 years of work for the Roar Foundation and the Shambala Preserve serves as the basis upon which she has developed two major laws controlling the breeding, sale, and private ownership of undomesticated animals.
Best known for her leading roles in Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds and Marnie, Hedren’s home is adjacent to the 30-year-old Shambala Preserve, and as she spoke to me over the phone recently, she was looking out her window at three tigresses. Hedren established the Roar Foundation, the nonprofit parent organization that operates Shambala, in order to rescue and provide sanctuary for exotic animals bred in captivity who have suffered from abuse or neglect at the hands of private breeders, zoos, circuses, and others.
"In ’68 and ’69 I did films in Africa," Hedren recalls. "And during those years, environmentalists were telling us that if we didn’t do something right then to save the animals of the world, by the year 2000 they would be gone. We learned about the plight of the whale, the panda, the tiger, the elephant — and losing great numbers of them due to encroaching civilization, sport hunting, and of course, poaching."
At that time, Hedren and her then-husband, producer Noel Marshall, were inspired by the work in Africa and by the endangered state of some of the world’s most noble creatures. They began to plan a film about great cats.
"We were kicking around ideas about whether we should focus on one animal, or on a group of animals," Hedren says. "And an answer came very quickly when we went on a photo safari to Mozambique. On the Gorangosa Game Preserve, there was a game warden who had moved out of his home because it flooded during the rainy seasons.”
A pride of lions moved in, she said, and it grew to become the largest on the continent.
“There must have been 25, 30 animals living in this house. It was amazing! I have a mental picture of it in my head, which I treasure. The lions would be sitting very regally in the windows, looking like great portraits. They were walking in and out the doors, they were napping on the verandas, the cubs were playing out in front — it was just beautiful. And we thought, ‘Bingo! Perfect movie set.’"
That film turned out to be Roar, released in 1981 after 11 years of production fraught with delays, disaster, and injuries. The latter problem may not come as a surprise, given the film’s central conceit is the deliberate mingling of actors and big cats. Star Hedren, ex-husband Marshall, Hedren’s daughter Melanie Griffith, and cinematographer Jan de Bont — among others — were seriously injured. The film’s budget swelled to $17 million after a flash flood wiped out the movie’s only set, finished footage, and three lions.
Still, the troubled project had a glimmering silver lining. Following its completion, Hedren and the Roar Foundation established the Shambala Preserve — at first to care for the animals used in the film itself and their offspring, although it soon began acquiring animals that had been bred in captivity and raised in zoos, circuses, and private menageries.
"At one point, in the mid-1970s into the 1980s, we had 150 big cats there at one time," she says. "All the time that we were dealing with these animals, we were learning about them. We were learning all their different characteristics. They have a great capacity for love; they have a sense of humor; they have their inferiority complexes and their dominancy problems; and of course, in a split second they can hurt you very badly or even kill you."
Since then, Hedren has worked to rescue big cats and prevent exotic animals from being bred in the United States, outside their natural habitats. Currently before Congress is the Big Cats and Public Safety Act, which was introduced in the House of Representatives by U.S. Rep. Buck McKeon, R-Calif., and in the Senate by Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., in 2012. This is the second bill related to controlling exotic animals that Hedren has championed. (The first was the Captive Wildlife Safety Act of 2003, which stopped the interstate trafficking of wild animals.)
The Big Cats and Public Safety Act will prohibit the "breeding and private possession of big cats, exempting only qualified, accredited AZA zoos, where they can be properly cared for and restrained," according to the Shambala website. Hedren has urged her supporters to make their voices heard by writing letters and emails to Congress. (She reminds us to direct those messages to the Legislative Assistants for Animal Affairs for our representatives and senators.)
As Hedren notes, "All of these animals are bred in the United States to be sold as pets or for financial gain. It’s a heinous business, and unfortunately it’s a huge business. According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, it’s on a par with illegal drugs."
In her work protecting exotic animals bred in captivity, Hedren has encountered many obstacles, but the biggest and most powerful is the circus lobby, citing specifically Feld Entertainment, which owns Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus, among other shows. She says CEO Kenneth Feld has demanded that circuses as well as breeders be exempted in the bill.
"I said I would not put that in the bill,” Hedren says “You know, our government feels that the circus is an industry and that it should be protected. Well, you know, human trafficking is an industry — why not protect that? Think of the dollars they could get for that. As far as I’m concerned, they are on a par with each other."