She Thinks Like a Cat,
Interview with actress and animal activist Tippi Hedren
by Bill Bruzy
Star of two Alfred Hitchcock films, “The Birds” and the psychological classic “Marnie,” Tippi Hedren has an impressive collection of film, stage and television credits to her name. In addition to her acclaimed work with Chaplin, Brando, Sophia Loren, and Sean Connery she has worked tirelessly for a number of compassionate causes, for people, and for animals.
Creator of The Roar Foundation she provides sanctuary for abused and abandoned animals, mainly cats. She lives with lions, Bengal tigers, snow leopards, cheetas, servals, big cats, beautiful, noble creatures. I had a chance to talk with her recently about her work with animals.
Bill Bruzy Tell me about your love for animals. Is this something you’ve known about yourself since you were a kid?
Tippi Hedren I think there are some of us who are born with this concern about animals, a love for them. I kind of call it a birth-affect. I’ve always loved animals, always looked at them with delight and awe. They are thinking-feeling beings I find absolutely fascinating.
BB How did the work of rescuing big cats, and The Roar Foundation, begin?
TH In 1969 and 70 I did two films in Africa. During that time we would go to different game preserves. It was so beautiful to see animals running free, working with each other, against each other, whatever the case may be.
I listened to people who lived there say how many more animals there were fifteen and twenty years ago. And that was 1970. Around that time people were saying if we don’t do something to help the animal population, just due to the effect of encroaching civilization, and worst of all poaching, by the year 2000 the animals are going to be gone.
So my then husband and I decided to do a film about these animals. We chose the great cats because almost everyone is interested in them, for one reason or another. But in order to do our movie we would need at least forty lions. We were going to use Hollywood acting animals, and have a nine month shoot.
But because there are instinctual dictates to fight the trainers wouldn’t let their cats work with a cat it didn’t know. They didn’t want their animals hurt and they didn’t want to be hurt themselves. So it was suggested we acquire our own animals to do the movie. So that sort of opened a can of peas that was never to be closed.
The first little animal that we acquired, a little lion, was a rescue from a doctor. The doctor was told that this little lion would make a great pet but by the time the little eight-week old cub turned into a five-month old it had destroyed the good doctors house. And apparently because the little lion didn’t have another cub to play with he was taking a pretty good chunk out of the doctor too. The doctor was screaming for help.
From then on, without even knowing what we were doing, we became a very important facility for taking in animals that had been abused or abandoned or neglected. Pretty soon Fish and Game was calling us, The Department of Agriculture…
BB So this just happened, you didn’t set out to do this.
TH It just evolved, yes. We didn’t acquire these animals to be pets. And it was very clear to us they weren’t pets.
BB You were keeping them where?
TH We started out in Sherman Oaks, at our home. Of course these animals are illegal, you can’t do that. We eventually had to board them and we boarded them at this place which we eventually purchased.
BB Did you breed cats at the facility?
TH We did. When we were doing the movie we did. After our movie was completed and the money we had acquired from foreign sales was gone I formed The Roar Foundation in order to keep the animals here. This was their home, this was beautiful, it had large areas for these animals.
BB You actually live with these big cats now?
TH Yes, I live right on the preserve. There is a little mountain lion outside my kitchen window right now. But the thing that I’ve found out about these animals is that they are not pets.
BB Judging from the behavior of my cats, if they had a few hundred pounds on them I could see what you mean.
TH I’ve had house kitties that, if they were lions, I’d be scared to death of them.
BB I’ve seen servals mentioned at the preserve. What are servals?
TH They are an African cat, about forty pounds at full adult growth. They are very beautiful, with long legs, spots, stripes that start at the top of their head and go down to their shoulders, very large pointed ears-very cute. They’re not runners so they have a short tail. They’re jumpers. They are capable of leaping six to eight feet in the air to catch a bird on the wing.
They have a very strange personality, but they have become the “in,” popular exotic cat as a pet, which is very tragic. People are breeding these animals, and selling them, as good pets!
Six years ago we didn’t have any servals, now we have seven of them. They had been privately owned and people can’t control them. The last one that came in had been with a family for four years and bit their little girl in the neck. They had to find another home for it.
BB How many cats do you have at the preserve now?
TH About sixty. We also have two African elephants.
BB You’ve mentioned that a lot of the abandoned animals wind up in “canned hunts” as a way of getting rid of them. What is a “canned hunt?”
TH A “canned hunt” is a facility that will take an animal-one that may have entertained you, could have been with a zoo, could have been privately owned-and these facilities will leave these animals out on a chain, open a gate, and for anywhere from $3,000 to $20,000 somebody can be guaranteed a trophy: a head on the wall and a rug on the floor.
It’s an unconscionable act and one that should be outlawed. Senator Lautenberg of New Jersey is trying to pass a law to stop this. He’s been trying for years to get this bill passed but there is a lot of opposition.
BB But “canned hunts” are illegal in California already, what about Texas?
TH They are illegal in California. There are 10,000 of them in the United States though. There are 500 in the State of Texas alone.
BB You are also lobbying to pass a federal law regulating animal protection. It’s different from Senator Lautenberg’s?
TH My bill is “The Shambala Wild Animal Protection Act.” I had originally wanted to put measures to stop the “canned hunts” in my bill but everybody in Washington said if I did that the bill wouldn’t even come close to being passed. But Senator Lautenberg is taking care of that and doing the best he can.
BB So what does your bill regulate?
TH This is to regulate people who have these animals. First of all they have to have an education in order to take care of these animals. They must have a facility that is not only safe for the animals but safe for humans too. People can’t just come up and put their fingers in the cages, or their little arms. A little boy just had his arm ripped off in Texas. These things shouldn’t happen. But my files on these attacks just keep getting bigger and bigger.
These cats are predators. I’ve always been aware of it. Look it up in the dictionary. So people who feel these animals should be, or can be pets, are living in absolute folly.
So this bill will regulate that sort of thing. But I’m getting a lot of hate mail from people who own these animals. They think I took the animals on as pets, which I never did. We took them on only because we had too.
I never thought of them as pets. They destroyed my house. They hurt every member of my family. So I’m going through a lot with trying to get this bill passed.
BB Does it look like it’s getting support?
TH Yes, Congressman Tom Lantos of Northern California is going to be sponsoring the bill on the House side and John McCain is going to sponsor on the Senate side.
BB So how is the foundation doing? I notice you do lots of fundraising. Some of your friends help. You even played bingo!
TH Where did you hear that? Yes, I did. And Betty White and Ed Begley, Loni Anderson, Antonio Banderas and my daughter Melanie Griffith and others help out. But it’s hard raising money.
BB There is a bigger spiritual issue here too. I see your karma, falling into rescuing big cats, it just happened. You were born with a concern for them. But a lot of people think … hey, they’re only animals. Why should we care about animals?
TH I think it’s pretty pompous of us to believe we are the only species that is important on this earth. I think we were all put here for a reason, a purpose. I think that our world without animals would be a rather tragic, empty, place.
I wish that people would really look at animals as thinking-feeling beings and respect them and treat them with dignity. They are not beings to be owned, or beaten, or treated poorly.
And they have a job. Every one of them has a job. They have relationships. They have logic. They have a sense of humor. They have great capacities for love.
Animals can give so great a quality to our lives. I think it would be a great loss not to have them here, not to respect them and protect them.
I think we need to deal with the fact of the burgeoning human population that is not only taking the animals life and land away from them but I think it is going to have a very severe effect on human life.
We really aren’t dealing with that. Everybody talks about it but nobody really does anything about the fact of population growth. It’s a very complicated issue and problem. But pretty soon it’s going to be like the loss of the animals. If we don’t deal with it then it will be too late.
BB To continue on the heart realm here, I notice that when people lose pets the grief can be extreme. The relationships are so pure, often more pure than our human relationships which have a lot of mixed emotion in them. We seem to have a purity of love very often with our animals which is difficult with the people in our lives.
TH The animal is, I think, sometimes very highly evolved in their relationship and their acceptance of another being as they are. They don’t try to change them. How many times do we see a relationship where all of a sudden the wife wants the husband to be a different person than he really is, or visa versa. We as humans are not very accepting. That’s rather tragic and I think it is one of the charms of the animal. That’s why so many people feel so strongly about their animals. There is total acceptance.
BB I know. When Mouser throws up on my desk I just clean it up and hope she’s got the hairball out. If a girlfriend did that I wouldn’t be so understanding.
TH (Laughing) Absolutely.
BB You also have two elephants now? Where did they come from and how is it working?
TH Yes, African elephants. One came from a game preserve outside of Vancouver and the other one came from the circus. They are so happy. When they first met, well, elephants don’t like each other when they first meet, like people. And I could imagine them thinking, “you say we’re going to live together?”
I did a little research because they were so comfortable with each other. They touched trunks, he ran his trunk over the top of her head, behind her ears, over her back. We were wondering how they could be so friendly. It wasn’t normal.
I almost cried when I got the information on them. It became clear to me that they left Africa on the same boat! They went to Frankfurt, Germany where one went to the circus and the other to the animal park. It was amazing. Destiny.
BB So let’s shift gears here. Celebrity is a currency. As you certainly know better than I, you can do things with that currency, things like build Shambala. But how do you view that power?
TH With celebrity you have this unbelievable capability of people listening to you. I found that to be kind of interesting. I felt that is was important, for any of us that had this thing, to use it.
BB Celebrity is a public trust in a way.
TH Absolutely it is. However, I feel if we, as celebrities, are going to do these kinds of things we should know what we are talking about. We need to become really involved with whatever it is we become impassioned with. I think that’s important too. The responsibility is two fold.
At the same time this other work has certainly saved my whole life as an actress. My life as an actress was wonderful and marvelous but it was also extremely disappointing. It’s a very difficult career, at best. You are always looking for a job. You’re being talked about as though you were a piece of meat. It’s really difficult, as wonderful as it is to be an actress, it’s a double-edged sword.
BB So before we close I wanted to know how many documentaries have you done on the cats?
TH We’ve done two documentaries and we’ll possibly be doing another one. “The Cats of Shambala” is a book we had out on those years starting in 1970 with the movie “Roar.” We are republishing the book soon but it should be available for download on the website (www.shambala.org) now or in the very near future.
When the film was completed and we distributed “Roar” all over the world it was important to keep the animals at Shambala because this was their home. It’s a beautiful place in which the animals have a large place to live. One of the nicest things we do for them is move them around so they don’t get bored. They have a different body of water to play in, a different tree to climb, different smells, different neighbors. It’s so good for them and they really enjoy it. Some areas are a quarter of an acre, some larger, some smaller. All the tigers border on water, which is important to them. They really are very happy and my animal crew is wonderful. The whole crew is fabulous.
BB It sounds to me you think like a cat.
TH (Laughing) I do.
The Shambala Preserve and The Roar Foundation have a website at www.shambala.org. They can be reached at Shambala Preserve, 6867 Soledad Canyon, Acton, CA. 93510, (661) 268-8809. The offer monthly afternoon safari’s and have an “Adopt a Wild One” program where individuals can cover the cost of maintaining an animal. There are programs for membership and the website has complete information on how you can support the “Shambala Wild Animal Protection Act.”
Bill Bruzy is a writer and counselor in Austin, Texas.