Jump to: navigation, search

Boston Globe (18/Oct/1988) - Tippi Hedren's pride and joy



Tippi Hedren's pride and joy

Lions and tigers and birds — Oh, my!

That paraphrased refrain from "The Wizard of Oz" could be Tippi Hedren's theme song.

Hedren starred in Alfred Hitchcock's 1963 classic, "The Birds," as the stunning young San Francisco socialite whose arrival in Bodega Bay with a pair of lovebirds sparks a feathered frenzy. And for the past 17 years or so, Hedren has been the doting matriarch of a huge, well-fed pride of big cats, now numbering 72 — lions, tigers, leopards, panthers, mountain lions and various combinations, and two elephants for good measure.

Her private 180-acre preserve (manned by four full-time employees) is tucked away at the foot of the stubble-faced San Gabriel Mountains in the Santa Clarita Valley of California, outside the town of Acton. You can't miss the entrance to "Shambala" (Sanskrit for "a meeting place for peace and harmony"). There is a 12-foot-high perimeter game fence and a sign warning that "Trespassers may be eaten or stomped." Head down the dusty drive and you're on safari. Lion roars swell the valley and echo off the mountains. Trumpeting elephants join in the jam session. Shambala is a lush oasis in the dry valley, with tireless, shooshing sprinklers keeping the transplanted jungle vegetation alive. Mixed groups of lions and tigers live in large compounds, while climbing cats (mountain lions and leopards) live in smaller, roofed enclosures. A large "African house" stands on the shore of a pond.

Here you can find the still glamorous 53-year-old Hedren (she has a small, two-bedroom house on the compound and a larger one closer to L.A.) — brushing a tiger or talking to a lion. Despite the stuffed-toy appearance of the striking animals, Hedren says they can be deadly — the big cats can

bring down a zebra in a single swat and devour 50 or 60 pounds of meat in one sitting.

"They are not tame at all," Hedren says. "You can understand them and stay out of those situations that would get you into trouble, but their instincts are in them forever. That's what I love about them. They can be your dearest friend, but in a split second they could do some very, very serious damage. The thing that of course protects us is the knowledge and understanding of the basic characteristics of each species, and then you have to know the individual personality traits of each cat. The lion will tell you everything. He's very demonstrative — about how he feels, what he's thinking, what he's planning. Tigers not so much, they're a little more volatile. The leopard is very fast. The jaguar is a deadly, deadly animal. We found homes for the jaguars who used to live here." Hedren felt the jaguars were just too unpredictable to work with.

Some people might think an attraction to such dangerous animals is crazy.

"Yes, I'm crazy and obsessed and loving it," Hedren says.

Hedren caught cat fever during a trip to Africa. She and her then husband, Noel Marshall, hatched a scheme to make a movie starring big cats. Throughout the early '70s they recruited a cast of almost 100 big cats — taking many orphaned cubs into their home in Sherman Oaks, Calif.

The film, "Roar," which has yet to be released in the United States, was made on the grounds of Shambala, (purchased when the cats outgrew their suburban surroundings) despite flood, fire, injury and financial disasters.

And some of the injuries were astounding. An assistant director had three teeth knocked out, his left ear almost torn off and his throat punctured by Tongaru — a huge lion with a deservedly bad reputation.

Hedren has had her share of unpleasant experiences, including a confrontation with lioness Cherries. During the filming of one scene, Cherries took Hedren's head into her mouth. In Hedren's book, "The Cats of Shambala," she writes, "I could hear her teeth scraping bone and the sound was truly unforgettable." Though the bite caused a lot of bleeding, it wasn't serious. Hedren was given a tetanus shot and some antibiotics at a local hospital.

But the most horrifying incident occurred when cinematographer Jan de Bont set up a scene in which the cats were to leap over him as he filmed from a tarp-covered pit. The crew wore football helmets. However, after setting up the scene, de Bont discovered the helmet interfered with the eyepiece on the camera, so he removed it. Cherries had been watching the movement under the tarp. Hedren explains, "Like when you're in bed and the cat bites your toes under the blanket." Only this wasn't a little house cat and it wasn't toes she went after. Cherries grabbed de Bont's head and ripped his scalp off in one piece. "It's the most hideous thing I've ever been through," says Hedren. One hundred and twenty stitches were required to replace his scalp.

"There isn't a time when I walk into a compound — and I never go in by myself, except for maybe Natasha — that we aren't always watching where the cats are," Hedren says. "What's the look on their faces? What's the body posture? What's the relationship with the other animals? What's the relationship with us? Is there anything around they could become possessive over? Always. You are always on alert."

Even love can be painful with the big cats. Their rough tongues are designed to clean meat off bones. So when Hedren holds her arm out for the tiger Natasha to lick or when Noelle, the tigon, insists on sucking her thumb, skin can become raw.

And Hedren says they do feel something like love. "This would be anthropomorphizing, but they have a general liking — whether it could be called love . . . I think it could. They have a capacity for relationships. I know they form very firm bonds not only with each other but with us. And it's very evident with everyone at Shambala."

Noelle, the tigon, is herself an oddity on a very odd farm. Lions and tigers are carefully placed together in big, open compounds on Shambala. And though it rarely happens in the wild, even in the one place in India where lions and tigers live in proximity, at Shambala a male tiger mated with a female lion. And 10 years ago, Noelle, a "tigon," was born. She is a big and beautiful honey-colored cat with faint tiger stripes.

According to Hedren, tigers and lions have very different vocalizations. Noelle speaks tiger and lion. Even more amazing, Noelle, thought to be sterile, mated with a tiger and gave birth five years ago to a "ti-tigon," — three-fourths tiger, one-fourth lion — named Nathaniel.

Hedren says that Noelle spoke only "tiger" to her mostly tiger offspring. But though Noelle knew how to handle the energetic cub, the staff was puzzled by Nathaniel.

"We didn't know who we were dealing with," Hedren says. "The tiger in him or the lion. Noelle had the best traits of both, but he was showing the bad traits of the tiger. So we brought him over to Boomer a lion; well, Boomer knocked him over and swore at him and taught him that you can't just do as you please all the time. We sent him back to Noelle when he was 10 months old."

For Hedren Shambala is more than a hobby, it's a cause. She says she sees animals becoming extinct through loss of habitat and feels her preserve is important.

"Zoos can't afford them. There are hunts in Texas in which they use the cats for trophies. For $10,000 or whatever, you can shoot a lion who would walk right up to you as a friend. It's appalling. There are times when I really don't know how I'm going to pull it through — and I'm in one of those positions right now — I have things that are being planned for the future, but that doesn't help this week or next week."

Her pride eats 600 to 700 pounds of meat a day. And the elephants — Timbo and Kura — eat 500 pounds a day each. That's $1,500 a week just for food and about $20,000 a month (including maintenance) to run Shambala.

Considering that Hedren's last smash hit movie was in 1964, that's a lot of money. "Every dime I make goes to Shambala," Hedren says. And though Luis Barrenechea, her businessman husband of 2 1/2 years, finds a $20,000-a-month loss hard to fathom, he too has made donations.

Hedren's daughter, actress Melanie Griffith ("The Drowning Pool," "Body Double," "Something Wild" and the soon-to-be-released "Working Girl") also donates money. But Hedren spends most of her time fund-raising for her nonprofit agency, Roar.

Hedren and her staff of four (it used to be 17) and an army of volunteers conduct fund-raising safaris on the weekends. They print a newsletter, get as much commercial work for the animals as possible and have set up a foster care/adoption program in which people can sponsor a big cat.

Still, every week is a struggle. "They have such a hold on all of us it's impossible to explain it," Hedren says. "The sacrifices we make here at Shambala are terrific, people can't believe what we go through."

It is hard to understand until you kneel beside Scarface the lion, pet Natasha the tiger or listen to mountain lion Amy purr. Then everything Hedren does makes absolute sense.


Back in the early '60s, Tippi Hedren was catapulted into stardom. Director Alfred Hitchcock saw her as a model in a Pet Milk's Sego diet drink commercial during "The Today Show" and signed her on. Hedren was to be the director's new Grace Kelly — the old one had chosen a more regal existence in Monaco.

He gave Hedren the starring roles in "The Birds" and "Marnie."

According to biographer Donald Spoto, Hitchcock fell in love with his new ice princess and was unable to keep his feelings in check.

Hitchcock pursued Hedren, and when she wouldn't acquiesce, he ended her career. Hedren has just begun to talk about the episode over the past few years. Here is what she had to say recently about the legendary director:

"I deliberately didn't want to talk about it, and wouldn't — until I had the friendship with Donald Spoto for a number of years. It wasn't until he wanted to do the biography that I spoke about it.

"Hitchcock was such a complicated person. There were qualities that I absolutely loved, qualities that I was just appalled by. I can't even make a decision about how I really feel about him. I admired him so. And yet I was so disgusted with him. It's hard for me to just give a point-blank feeling about him.

"He not only helped me in my acting tremendously but gave me a whole education in filmmaking.

"And yet to be the object of anyone's obsession is just painful. It isn't flattering at all, it is painful — not only for the person who is the object, but knowing the degree of pain the other person is going through. I couldn't just look at it as how it was affecting me.

"His wife ... she knew and she felt terrible. She felt so sorry and so helpless. Every one of us has felt a degree of jealousy, but it doesn't even measure up to what an obsession becomes. Doesn't even come close — it's imprisoning."

When asked for her emotional reaction to his death, Hedren says, without blinking an eye, "Relief.

"My feelings were not mixed up at all. I felt like I had been imprisoned by this. It has that effect on you. You can't act normal, you can't be yourself when somebody is that consumed by you and it isn't something that you want.

"I felt like I had been cheated out of a really wonderful career, out of the friendship of a man I greatly admired. I really felt abused. And I also felt such empathy for this tragic man who was going through such pain.

"He said he would see to it that my career was ended, and he really did. Over a period of years it would get back to me. Directors and producers would say, 'Oh, we were so sorry when you couldn't do our film,' and I'd say, 'What film?' Francois Truffaut wanted me for a film and was told I wasn't available. It's very easily done. Without anything nasty.

"I think about it with sadness. A great, heavy sadness."