For actress, animals are her way of life

Sanctuary, run by Tippi Hedren, is a refuge for wildlife

April 16, 2002|By Ruth Ryon | Ruth Ryon,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Tippi Hedren keeps a mountain lion outside her kitchen, two African wildcats known as servals off her bedroom and a "liger," an offspring of a lion and a tiger, behind a fence a few feet from her front porch.

The actress, who starred in Alfred Hitchcock's The Birds (1963) and Marnie (1964), also has elephants in her house. Not live ones - they're part of a jewelry and art collection. But the cats are real, and an adult elephant does share the grounds.

Hedren lives in the Antelope Valley, 40 miles northeast of Los Angeles, in a wild-animal sanctuary she named Shambala - Sanskrit for a meeting place of peace and harmony for all beings, animal and human.

Home to Hedren since the mid-1970s, Shambala is a refuge for about 60 big cats and Timbo, a 45-year-old African bull elephant. All of the cats were born in the United States. Some were kept as youngsters in private homes. Many were abused.

None should be considered a pet, said Hedren, who first became interested in the plight of wildlife while filming in Africa during the 1960s and '70s.

Never mind that she opens a window in her house to let Daisy, the mountain lion, get a drink from the kitchen sink.

Forget that Hedren steps onto the deck and into the yard off her bedroom to summon a serval named Bugs Bunny.

These cats are predators. Asked if she has ever been bitten, Hedren said, "It comes with the territory, but I've had no bad bites - I'm still here."

She and her 11-member staff have learned how to treat the animals "with the dignity and respect they should have," she said. Of course, gaining that knowledge took time.

Shambala was founded by Hedren in 1972, the year Timbo arrived after being evicted from a game park in the Northwest.

Hedren moved to the sanctuary, then on 40 acres on the edge of the Mojave Desert, when her house was built there in 1976.

Rustically elegant, her Shambala house is decorated in leopard and tiger prints and collectibles such as stuffed toys of lions and other animals. "I collect everything," she said.

Over the years, Hedren has added onto the house and Shambala, which has the Santa Clara River running through it. Roar, the nonprofit foundation that operates Shambala and is headed by Hedren, recently acquired another 32 acres.

Hedren has six house cats. Five have the first and last names of actors in her life: Melanie Griffith, her daughter; Antonio Banderas, Griffith's husband; Rod Taylor, her co-star in The Birds; Marlon Brando, one of her co-stars in A Countess From Hong Kong (1967); and John Saxon, her co-star in Mr. Kingstreet's War, a movie she made in Africa.

Sometimes the house cats are taken to the Shambala gift shop for a change of scenery. Most of the time, the cats stay indoors. Signs in both places read: "Please don't let the cat out, no matter what it tells you."

Another sign, which marks Hedren's dressing room, says "Tippi Hedren" on a star. Her dressing room was her bedroom until she added on a room with a Dutch door for viewing the large-eared servals, which she sometimes walks on a leash.

Throughout the house, Hedren has filled walls, tops of credenzas and other furnishings with photos of herself and her extended family.

There are pictures of her famous daughter and son-in-law, snapshots of her three grandchildren and photos of wild animals that Hedren took. Some of her photos and sketches have sold for as much as $1,000.

Many are of her favorite Shambala animals, such as Natasha, a tigress. "She lived her whole life with me," the actress said. Natasha died at 19.

The guest house, actually a safari tent on a platform, is available to the public for a price.

With a gift of $2,500 to Shambala, which depends on donations to house and feed the animals, a couple can spend a night on a featherbed in the tent between April and October. The cost covers a tour of the preserve, cocktails and a gourmet dinner.

A shower off of the guest house has a window. "I put it in so you can watch the tiger and the tiger can watch you," Hedren said. Diners on the veranda get a view of the elephant. After-dinner conversation is punctuated by the sounds of big cats.

The exotic cats and elephant at Shambala stay in their habitats unless taken on walks or to other places, such as the makeshift jungle made with fresh boughs and bushes by elephant handler Chris Gallucci, who helped build Hedren's house.

Among the animals are retired circus and Las Vegas performers, old TV and movie actors and big cats that were considered cute gifts when they were little but too much for their owners to handle as adolescents and adults.

A cheetah born in Oregon with three legs came to Shambala at birth. "We taught her how to stand, how to walk," Hedren said. "Now she runs."

Georgie, a black leopard, came to the sanctuary during a divorce. Neither husband nor wife could decide who should get the animal. "They're still deciding," Hedren said, "and Georgie has been with us now for 10 years."

Leo, a lion, was living unhappily in somebody's basement in Branson, Mo.

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