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The Lion's Share of the Good Life : Tippi Trades Roar of the Greasepaint for the Real Thing

September 26, 1985|TIA GINDICK | Times Staff Writer

The first lion was more of an exchange student. He was an adult named Neil, who lived with a man named Ron Oxley who was building an animal rental business in Soledad Canyon.

A friendly, easy-going creature who liked to sleep on Hedren's daughter's bed, Neil would visit the Marshall home on Knobhill Drive for four or five days at a time. He was such a delight that it was only a matter of time before the Hedren-Marshall family got its own lion, a four-week cub named Casey who'd already outworn his welcome as a house pet for a Mandeville Canyon physician.

Casey was soon joined by Needra, an excess cub from Lion Country Safari. Then there were Ike and Mike, Trans and Bridget--all adorable, all rambunctious.

The Hedren-Marshall home, normally neat and so organized that Tippi's closets were color-coordinated, acquired a certain chaotic charm with six cubs running around, poking their little heads over the fence to terrify the neighbors, leaping from mantelpiece to coffee table, playing tug of war with the bedspread.

Hedren, who'd always had dogs or cats, is one of those people with a special affinity for animals. Her little lions, she knew, were only behaving normally. So for the chaos: "I just got used to it."

Even now, she says, glancing around her two-bedroom trailer where nine normal-sized cats live full time and the big cats are allowed on occasion by invitation, "you see those bedspreads (madras-type prints on the sofa and chairs). They're covering a multitude of sins."

Hedren and her staff tend to refer to the younger animals as the "little guys." But "little" is only a moment in time. When born, they can be held in your hand. For a brief time, they're puppy-sized. Then, as Hedren says, "they blow up like balloons."

Shambala was inevitable--both as a movie set and as a home for the babies. From flat, dry high desert, it was converted to an Africa-like setting filled with trees, lakes and hills.

As for the animals, by the end of 1979, the nose count ran: 71 lions, 26 tigers, 10 cougars, nine black panthers, four leopards, two jaguars, one tigon, two elephants, six black swans, four Canadian geese, seven flamingos, four cranes, two peacocks and a marabou stork. All had names and distinct personalities. All were given attention, training and lots of love.

'A Magical Time'

This was the movie period--from roughly 1973 to 1980--"a magical time," as Tippi Hedren thinks about it today. "It was spectacular, all these animals growing up together."

It was also a time of problems, so many in fact that by film's end Hedren and Marshall no longer really knew each other, she says. The film cost "I don't know, millions" and never recovered its costs. Hedren and Marshall eventually sold all their income property, plus the Knobhill house.

They were divorced in 1982. Marshall continues to provide the bulk of Shambala's financial support. Hedren is engaged to an Orange County businessman.

"People sometimes say to me that if it weren't for the lions, Noel and I would still be together . . . I can't say, but the accidents, the floods--these things didn't happen every day. During the actual filming, there were 140 people around the lions and tigers every day. It's amazing we didn't have more accidents. We learned so much from that time. That's what keeps us safe now."

Hedren's career, she says, just sort of slid--downward--the more she became involved with the cats. It wasn't so much a choice as simply something that happened; except, she observes, "you have to be very visible as an actress and I found my life here to be very, very interesting."

"However," she adds with a burst of laughter, "that's not to say I wouldn't take part in another movie . . . I'm negotiable."

The cats, however, are here to stay. In 1983, the actress established the Roar Foundation to provide protection, shelter, care and maintenance for the animals at Shambala. The foundation also conducts educational programs and research. Says Hedren, "with the problems of losing wildlife due to poachers or encroaching civilizations, it's zoos, animal parks and places like Shambala that are safe for wildlife."

In addition, there will be a second book, this one on Noelle and Nathaniel, the tigon and ti-tigon; then a third, covering the personality traits of the different big cats.

Shambala itself has settled into a routine with four full-time handlers and two maintenance men on staff.

And never, Hedren says, has she ever doubted the rightness of everything that's happened.

"People don't have any idea of the depth of feeling in these animals. These are thinking, feeling beings that are just fascinating."

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