What's striking is their size. Some 350 to 550 pounds of muscle, but not really intimidating as they nudge visitors affectionately, large pink tongues coming out of enormous heads to lick human arms.
Tippi Hedren laughs delightedly. "Mama's angel," she croons to Starface as she nuzzles her face next to his. Starface, a 17-year-old lion from a now-defunct wild animal park in Texas, seems to be humming. Hedren and lion lie on the ground, his paw covering her hand, her head cocked to his.
Minutes later Starface wanders off. Zazu, a 14-year-old Bengal tiger, creeps down the hill of the compound he shares with the lions Starface, Boomer and Lolita.
Time to Leave
Zazu moves from person to person, his muscular body rocking against theirs, occasionally sniffing. He returns to one visitor and sniffs more persistently.
"OK, let's leave now," Hedren says abruptly.
On the other side of the wire fence, the gate locked behind her, she explains, "that's how we keep ourselves safe. We've learned to read them, it's almost instinctive. Zazu was getting too interested."
There is a curious balance of both tension and peace at Shambala, the 180-acre ranch in Soledad Canyon, north of Los Angeles in the Santa Clarita Valley, where 93 lions and tigers and other big cats along with two African elephants wander, stretch and sleep in a secluded river setting.
Since 1971, Shambala--which is ancient Sanskrit for "a meeting place of peace and harmony for all beings, animal and human"--has been beset by fire and flood, births and deaths, maulings and financial problems.
Yet Shambala has survived: the necessary $4,000 a week somehow always found; those early maulings simply memories offering insight into animal behavior.
These days, Tippi Hedren says, strolling past flower beds through jungle-like foliage down to the wooded picnic area by a man-made waterfall on the Santa Clara River, "Shambala is just Shambala."
The story of how Shambala came to be was a natural for publication. There were too many crazy adventures: movie actress Hedren and her former husband, producer-turned-businessman Noel Marshall, blithely raising lion and tiger cubs along with their combined children in their home off Beverly Glen Boulevard in Sherman Oaks; making "Roar," the movie that prompted the acquisition of Shambala; the nightmare of the natural disasters; the first birth in captivity of a ti-tigon (a tigon is the offspring of a lion and tiger; and a ti-tigon comes from the mating of a tigon and a tiger.)
Hedren and veteran writer Theodore Taylor had her journal and about 160,000 photographs to draw from and the resulting book is "The Cats of Shambala," published this summer by Simon & Schuster.
It may seem odd to think of Tippi Hedren, the cool blonde actress best known for her roles in the Alfred Hitchcock classics "The Birds" in 1963 and "Marnie" in 1964, as earth mother-vet technician to a bunch of lions and tigers. She still is movie-star pretty, her figure trim in khaki safari pants and a sweater. Her last movie was "Roar," a seven-year effort completed in 1980, which she and her husband co-produced and starred in. (Though distributed elsewhere in the world, "Roar" never made it to the United States.)
Simply an Obsession
What happened to her, she says, was simply an obsession: initially with getting the movie made, but in the long run, an obsession with these big cats.
"We were so sure the film was going to be a success that we thought everything (financing the ranch and the lions, etc.) would take care of itself.
"Of course, when we first got the idea for the film, we didn't realize that the genetic dictates of the big cat require it to fight other cats it doesn't know. So we couldn't just bring in cats and make a movie, we had to raise them together."
As she relates how she and Marshall eased into the big-cat business, it seems amazing that any two people could be so naive, so impulsive, but mostly so persevering on a project that had to be incredibly difficult and expensive.
Shambala and "Roar," as the story is told in Hedren's book, came about after Hedren and Marshall on location in Africa, saw an abandoned flat-roof Portuguese-style house. It had been the residence of a game warden until it was flooded and now was home to the largest pride of lions in Africa.
Fascinated by the house, all the lions living there as one big happy family and what they learned about lions on just this one afternoon guided tour, Noel Marshall uttered the words that were to change their lives. "You know we ought to make a picture about this."
There were a few more trips to Africa for films (Hedren admits she occasionally used acting as a way to travel) before she and Marshall really got going with the film idea. But then it was like a snowball. As Hedren writes in her book, they just had to ask "who owns a lion" and they were involved with a whole network of big-cat people.