By Jill Howard-Church, Animal and Society Institute
Last weekend I had the opportunity to tour the Shambala Preserve wildlife sanctuary in Acton, California. It is operated by the Roar Foundation, founded by actress Tippi Hedren in 1983. The woman perhaps most famous for the movie "The Birds" has dedicated her life to the cats and other exotic animals she literally shares her home with in the rugged mountains above Los Angeles.
From her experiences in the entertainment industry, Tippi became aware of the plight of lions, tigers, leopards and other animals who had been bought as pets or kept in zoos and were later discarded, most often because (duh) they aren't meant to live in a living room.
Shambala is a Sanskrit word that means a "place of peace, tranquility and happiness," and in this case describes a facility dedicated to helping animals "who have suffered from gross mistreatment and neglect...regain their physical and mental health and live out their lives in dignity." The sanctuary is home to more than 60 big cats ranging from lynx to lions.
The cats live in large enclosures, some singly and others in pairs or trios, depending on their species and temperament. They have shelter, trees for shade and climbing, and balls and other things to play with. A pool and stream provide cooling water, something tigers especially love.
Janice Payne, Shambala's director of docents, led the tour and described each cat's sad history. Some were only a few months old when they were abandoned by their owners, while others were a bit older. Michael Jackson's tigers, Thriller and Sabu, are among them. All were born in captivity and will never know freedom as nature intended. Short tours are allowed only one weekend a month, so the animals are spared the constant stress of human presence.
Because it was midday and nearly 90 degrees, most of the cats were dozing, just as my orange tabby does at home in the summer. I watched one tiger methodically wash her face just as a housecat does, while a black leopard named Boo rolled on his back in the grass as smoothly as any Siamese. But Janice and the other staff made it clear that even animals who were raised by human beings are quite capable of attacking anyone who comes too close; just a few years ago, a Shambala handler was nearly killed.
But the cat who caught my attention most was a leopard named Savannah. She was born in January 1997 and came to Shambala in 2003 after being confiscated from a place called Tiger Rescue, which was shut down in 2003 after its owner was found guilty of gross negligence and abuse. Whatever she endured there seems to have remained with her.
Unlike many of the lions and tigers who slept or barely noticed as we walked past, Savannah watched her human visitors intently. Perched on a platform just above our eye level, she crouched motionless but followed us with her piercing amber eyes. We were warned that she was not fond of people, but the expression I saw in her face was more than ambivalence: she seemed angry. I know it's impossible to know exactly what she was thinking, but despite our benign intentions, she sure didn't look at us like we were her saviors.
And I admired her honesty. She knows darn well she has no business being in this situation. She has every right to be roaring mad, to lash out at anyone who reminds her that they can come and go and she cannot. No matter how much they care for and about her, she must remain a caged animal for the rest of her life, and she seems to rebel against that - as should we all.
Seeing the very real results of human selfishness and ignorance, in the form of purpose-bred lions, tigers, leopards, mountain lions and the Seussian "liger" (lion-tiger hybrid), is a powerful reminder that we need to work harder to stop the kind of suffering that is made worse because it is so needless and preventable. There is simply no good reason for these animals to have been brought into a world where their suffering is a foregone conclusion. They have no natural family, no natural habitat, and no natural life. There ought to be a federal law to prevent what they've been subjected to, but despite the earnest efforts of Tippi Hedren and other advocates, that goal is still not realized.
The Captive Wildlife Safety Act, passed in 2003, makes it illegal to transport exotic cats across state lines for sale as pets, but does not prevent in-state sales. Only 19 states currently ban the sale of exotic cats as pets, and it is estimated that there are more privately owned tigers in United States than exist in the wild in the rest of the world.
It's hard to fathom how any halfway intelligent person could ever think buying a lion or tiger cub was a good idea, and harder to imagine why doing so is still legal in 31 states. But if you want to see how and why the private ownership of big cats continues, watch a documentary called "The Tiger Next Door" by Camilla Calamandrei. It clearly illustrates how public apathy must be rectified by public policy that will prevent inevitable tragedies for animals and people.
We owe it to Savannah and the thousands of other animals, who should have been born free but who will die caged, to put an end to the exotic cat trade.
Jill Howard-Church is a writer and editor who specializes in animal issues. She serves as the part-time communications director for the Animals and Society Institute, and is the volunteer president of the Vegetarian Society of Georgia.