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Animal Attraction

Tippi Hedren's Acton preserve provides a haven for abandoned big cats and other game.


Felix, Tom, Sylvester, Stimpy, the MGM lion, the Pink Panther, Maynard G. Krebs and the late Miles Davis are just some of popular culture's cool cats that continue to fascinate us. An entirely different species of cat, the big one, can be seen at the Shambala preserve, which is not far from beautiful downtown Acton.

Shambala is a Sanscrit word that means "a meeting place of peace and harmony for all beings, animal and human." This one is up Soledad Canyon Road off Highway 14. Heading past the gravel- and sand-mining operations, the desolate landscape gradually changes to include more water and trees as you near Shambala, located near the starting place of the Santa Clara River, which meanders through the 60-acre site.

The first thing you notice, besides the heat, is the healthy green canopy of mostly cottonwood and oak trees. There are also plenty of fences--not to Jurassic Park dimensions--but fences aplenty, nonetheless. They need them because Shambala is home for nearly 70 big cats, plus a couple of African elephants, a python and a bunch of fast ducks.

After parking and a short walk, visitors register for their tour and get the chance to sign a bunch of petitions to save critters that need saving such as bears, seals and wolves. There are also petitions to boycott Taiwan and, needless to say, the circus has no fans at Shambala.

The brains behind all this is activist-actress-conservationist Tippi Hedren, who founded Shambala in 1972, and created the nonprofit Roar Foundation in 1983. As an actor, Hedren is probably best known for her work in the famous Alfred Hitchcock thriller "The Birds" in 1962. She is also mother of actress Melanie Griffith.

The tour begins with an informal introduction by Tippi herself, wearing an endangered-species ribbon, which she hopes will rival the AIDS ribbon in popularity. Her current cause is halting the breeding and trading of wild animals, mostly predators. A tireless campaigner, Hedren has gotten measures passed in over a score of states outlawing such breeding and trading. But it is Hedren's view that what we need is legislation with more teeth, so to speak.

"Something must be done on the federal level," she said. "Over and over we are asked to take in animals here that are illegally bred. Over the last 25 years, it hasn't gotten better--it's gotten worse. It's time to stop it. I've taken on one tremendous problem. Write to your congressman about the irresponsible breeding and selling of predators, and of course the worst of all, canned hunts. Your voice counts. It always counts."

While it may be true that a Bengal tiger in the backyard will keep the burglars and the neighbor's dog away, it is also true that wild animals make bad pets. All the critters at Shambala were born in captivity and have no survival skills and are dependent upon humans for their welfare. Animals at Shambala are never bred, sold or traded.

"They are wild animals and they were never meant to be in captivity. And those wild animal genes will never ever change. You can be their friend, but never ever trust them. Once they come here, they're here for the rest of their lives."

Cats at Shambala, with a lifetime no-cut contract, live much longer than their wild relatives. Wild lions, the most social of big cats, definitely have problems with their African neighbors. It's not curiosity that kills the big cat, but hyenas, snakes and poachers. Life expectancy for males is 12 years in the wild, and for females, 15 to 16 years. Some lions at Shambala are over 20.

On this day, Hedren had to cut her spiel short as she was flying to Washington to have dinner with the Clintons. And yes, she has met Socks the First Cat, whom she said is "absolutely adorable," even as she produced an 8-by-10 glossy for proof.

The tours, which begin close to the designated hour, are led by one of many volunteers who work at the park. Karen McClure, a four-year Shambala veteran, discussed the The Rules, which are actually quite simple: No kids under 18 are allowed at Shambala because the animals see them not as your darling Student of the Month, but more likely Meal of the Month. To a lion, a child is prey. Visitors are urged to stay away from the fence and not to crouch down, which makes you appear smaller and thus perhaps more like dinner.

The visit begins with the sleeping lion tour, but that's not unusual. Cats sleep about 20 hours a day, and lions definitely have that part figured out. As our guide informs us that lions eat 10-15 pounds of meat per day, a lioness suddenly appears at the fence, seemingly materializing out of thin air. Lions stalk things.

Next is Tippi herself's abode, where a house cat snoozes serenely on the porch. Behind the house is a large enclosure, where a cougar mugs for the camera. Next to that, a Bengal tiger ignores everyone yet keeps a diligent watch, making it clear there is no future in burglary at Shambala.

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