What could be more frightening than being pecked by a flock of Alfred Hitchcock’s blood-thirsty birds?
Maybe coming face to face with a Siberian tiger, or a five-ton elephant that’s been known to charge passing trains?
Tippi Hedren, the actress perhaps best known as the schoolteacher attacked by Hitchcock’s killer crows in the classic thriller “The Birds,” is at home--literally--among the 60 or so snarling cats and two elephants at her Shambala Preserve in the Antelope Valley.
Shambala, meaning a place of peace and harmony, is the place she chose to raise her great cats. Some of them were unwanted and abandoned, retired from movie making, or too unruly for zoos or the circus.
It’s also a place Hedren eagerly shares.
The preserve is secluded, beautiful and a bit frightening, but Hedren appears to like it that way. She and her helpers, many of them volunteers, try to make a comfortable home here for the animals, interacting with them and learning about them along the way. Because the cost of the animals’ upkeep is about $5,000 a week, Hedren says, she allows an occasional herd of the human kind to venture onto Shambala soil.
One such fund-raising outing for the public will be Saturday. Hedren and her volunteers will lead visitors on a walking tour of the 130-acre preserve. All but a few of the animals view tour-goers from their natural pens; a few of the trusted “pets” are permitted to mingle. Reservations are required, and the cost is $30 per person. The money goes to the Roar Foundation, which Hedren created to help keep the cats fed and to support animal rights.
The petite actress hardly seems the lion-tamer type. But she devotes most of her time and much of her income--from jobs such as her current role as Helen on TV’s “The Bold and the Beautiful"--to these affectionate but sometimes dangerous beasts. “I love acting,” she says, but her first love is Shambala and her cats.
“I learn a lot about people from them,” Hedren says. “If people could be as honest as animals, what a different world it would be.”
When Hedren and then-husband Noel Marshall established Shambala in 1972, there was no freeway. A dirt road led to the sanctuary, nestled in a canyon on the Santa Clara River. Now, pockets of subdivisions dot the hills of Acton and Canyon Country, but the canyon still separates Shambala from encroaching civilization.
“Lots of people think we’re all crazy to be working so closely with the animals,” Hedren says. “But we have a very wonderful time getting to know them . . . without using whips and those kinds of circus methods.”
Hedren begins the tour by saying: “These animals have owned me for about 20 years.” She started accumulating the brood while preparing to make “Roar,” a film about the great cats. “People believe they are frightening creatures, but in fact they have well-rounded personalities. They’re very social and have a sense of humor.” While sharing animal anecdotes--such as the elephants’ love of breath mints, or the time Natasha, the “queen of Shambala,” tore into a “Bold and the Beautiful” script Hedren was reading because the tigress wanted all the attention--the smile never leaves her face. Visitors don’t seem to tire of her funny, sometimes sad and generally enlightening stories of daily life with the great cats.
“One lion thinks it’s just hilarious to tackle us,” Hedren says. “He’s very funny about it . . . and we always know when it will happen.” She calls him Boomer.
On the tour, Hedren introduces pen pals Gabriel, David and Robbie Jr. as if they’re family members, describing the lions’ unique personalities and remarking how much Robbie looks like his father. But one of the dangers, Hedren explains, is that the cats have a possessive quality. “It could be a camera case, my jacket or a clump of grass. If you don’t recognize when that cat is possessive, it could be trouble.”
But the moods pass, she says. Unfortunately, the possessive mood cost Robbie’s father his life.
In 1978, a “wall of water” came rushing through the canyon after five days of rain, downing the fences and letting the animals loose. One of the trainers pleaded with the police not to shoot Robbie.
“They wouldn’t listen,” Hedren says, still shaken by the incident. “If they would have let him get over his possessive mood, he would have been fine. . . . They pumped I don’t know how many bullets into him.”
Hedren concedes the cats can be dangerous and that not all the Shambala animals are friendly. “We don’t take any of them for granted,” she says. “They’re very powerful animals.” But the “bad” ones “make sounds that are definitely not friendly.”
No one on a public tour has ever been injured, says Hedren, who asks visitors to sign liability waivers before touring the preserve.
The tour occasionally comes across remnants left by movie crews that once used the canyon as a film set. Hedren assures visitors that the bus skeleton in the center of the lioness’ den was left by a film crew, not an unlucky tour group.
A few hours into the tour, Hedren’s storytelling has to be cut off by her helpers so visitors can have a lunch break. When the great cats’ roars begin to reverberate through the canyon, at least one visitor wonders if the animals are discussing what’s for their lunch.
The tour group picnics at the widest part of the river, near the two-story Africa House. The building was built by Hedren and crew for the set of “Roar” and is surrounded on all sides by water.
Shambala T-shirts and other animal-related items are sold there, along with Hedren’s book, “The Cats of Shambala,” which documents many of her experiences at the preserve. “Roar” videos, which also feature Hedren’s daughter, actress Melanie Griffith, are sold as well. The rest of the time, the house belongs to Natasha, one of several cats that socialize with humans. Visitors can even have their pictures taken with her.
“We don’t consider them pets,” Hedren says of the great cats. “We consider them friends. Everything we’ve learned about them is so fascinating.” For instance, you can tell if the animal likes you, Hedren says: The lion will come up and rub against you; the elephant will wrap its trunk around you.
After lunch, visitors pull themselves across the river on a raft to the elephant compound, the final tour stop. It’s obvious how Timbo the elephant feels about Tippi Hedren: He immediately wraps his trunk around her.
Reservations are required for this weekend’s tour (the grounds are also available for private parties). The outing is from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Call (805) 268-0380. The cost is $30; children under 18 are not allowed.