The Lion’s Share of the Good Life : Tippi Trades Roar of the Greasepaint for the Real Thing
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.
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.”
She laughs, recalling some favorite stories. Like about Gregory, the Siberian tiger in the compound behind the house and how they had to put up bars because he was always trying to climb in through the kitchen windows. Or how Noelle, the tigon, took over the office for three months, allowing no one in while she taught some manners to her obstreperous child. And David, another lion, who went to Africa for a commercial.
(But no, the lions don’t pay for themselves. They don’t regularly hire out either. Some, like Buster the cheetah or Boomer the lion, are quite amiable to public appearances. But most just like to laze, occasionally roaring, playing with Tippi and the staff or scrapping with each other.)
Hedren gazes at Sidney, a lion born while she and Marshall were in Australia four years ago. He is standing on his hind paws, stretched to his full height of eight feet on the fence of his compound, looking at the visitors.
“Look at that size. You’d think I’d get used to them. But their size, their beauty, their power . . . I consider myself extremely lucky. It’s a wonderful honor to come home and have a lion, a tiger come up and greet you.”