Star of Hitchcock Thriller Keeps Blood Stirring in Own Private Jungle : Tippi Hedren: Actress is years away from the film classic, ‘The Birds.’ Now, she holds court with animals housed in her Shambala Preserve.
When Tippi Hedren was jolted awake by the Jan. 17 earthquake, her first thoughts were like something out of “Jurassic Park.”
“Are the gates holding? Are the fences holding?”
She was alarmed because behind the gates and fences of her Shambala Preserve here, about 25 miles from the epicenter, reside 76 big cats from the veldts and jungles of Africa and Asia. Fortunately, all of the enclosures held firm.
“The cats took it all in stride,” the actress reported. “Except for Delilah, a lioness who was very nervous and paced for a couple of hours.
“The bull elephant was furious. Unlike the cats, he was enclosed in a barn, and he was angry that something had shaken it. That was his privilege, to shake the barn. He was trumpeting and screaming for a long time.”
Shambala had survived another of its many crises, both physical and fiscal. This cottonwood-shaded oasis for animals in rustic Soledad Canyon about 40 miles north of Los Angeles continues to thrive, thanks in large part to its founder.
Tippi Hedren seems oddly cast as the operator of a refuge for homeless and unwanted animals. She made a sensational film debut in 1963 with “The Birds,” in which she was attacked by flocks of crows and gulls. She followed with another Alfred Hitchcock thriller, co-starring with Sean Connery in “Marnie.” She was hailed as heiress apparent to the line of blond beauty ice queens of Hitchcock movies.
She seems totally at home in Shambala (a Sanskrit word for a refuge of peace and harmony for all beings). Nearing 60, she is slim as a ballerina in a bright-green shirt, form-fitting jeans and black boots. She strides confidently along the gently flowing Santa Clara River, pausing for a little roughhouse with a tiger out for a stroll with its trainer.
Stopping at an enclosure, she said: “This little tiger was being offered for $10,000 out of a car parked in Fashion Island in Newport Beach. Fortunately, some caring person called the Fish and Game Department, and the cubs were confiscated. There are a lot of illegal breeders offering animals as pets and taking them away from their mothers before they have the nutrients to make them immune.”
She continued the tour, pointing out two servals contributed by a Chicago couple who could no longer care for them. Other compounds contain black and spotted leopards, a snow leopard, cougars, Siberian as well as Bengal tigers. All have been born in captivity, she explained, so none could survive in the wild.
“This is Mikey,” she said, stopping near a majestic lion. “Mikey was found abandoned in a mechanic’s yard in Yonkers, N.Y. The ASPCA called us. He lives with those two lionesses over there in the holding compound. Sometimes if he’s with them too often he gets very macho and he’s very tough on them. So they get separated and have a little R & R. Then they join him again, and everything is fine.”
Hedren explained more about Shambala, sitting in front of her relic-filled office-home amid a blizzard of cotton. “This happens to the trees for a month every year, and it drives all of us crazy,” she said.
Shambala had its origins in 1969 when Hedren made a couple of films in Africa. She was appalled at the decimation of wild animals by hunters, settlers and poachers. She and her then-husband, producer Noel Marshall, decided to make a film, “Roar,” to dramatize the issue.
“Movie trainers wouldn’t allow their animals to work with others because they were afraid of fights,” Hedren said. “So we decided to get our own animals.”
They acquired an animal rental spread in Soledad Canyon, and “Roar” was filmed there starring Hedren and her daughter, Melanie Griffith. “Roar” was never released domestically, but as the years went by, Shambala became known to a network of animal lovers. Abandoned and homeless cats, as well as excess animals from zoos, came to stay.
“There is no breeding, no buying and no selling,” Hedren explained. “When an animal comes here, it is here for life.”
She will occasionally rent cats for movie roles, but only if they are in “dignified” situations. One of the tigers is currently working in Disney’s “The Jungle Book” on location in Missouri.
Hedren, who is in the process of divorcing retired manufacturer Luis Barrenechea, says her animals require her full attention. “I shouldn’t be married,” she said.
Keeping Shambala in business has proved a constant challenge. A 1978 flood almost demolished the compound and killed three lions. Annual expenses amount to $250,000--imagine the meat bills. The money comes from private donors, twice-monthly tours, a gift shop, rentals for weddings, company parties and the like. Also from Hedren herself.
“I really need to work,” she said. “People think that I’m no longer interested in acting and only interested in working with the animals. Obviously I have given that impression, but it is not how I feel.
“I think I’m a good actor. I think I look OK. I don’t understand why I’m not working all the time.”
She appeared recently in Showtime’s “The Birds II: Land’s End” and is now cast in the HBO series “Dream On.”
Daughter Melanie Griffith, meanwhile, seems to work steadily and Hedren says she is proud of her film career. The two enjoy a close relationship and see each other often at Griffith’s homes in Beverly Hills and Aspen, Colo.
Tippi Hedren came to Hollywood in storybook style. A top New York model, she appeared in a diet drink commercial that Hitchcock saw on the “Today Show.” A short time later she was besieged by gulls in her hair.
“It’s pretty amazing,” she contemplated, “how one little incident can literally move you in a course that could probably never, ever be attained otherwise. It’s a wonderful thing to be associated with a film of that caliber. People often say, ‘Don’t you get tired talking about it?’ I never do.”
Hedren recalled that she was neither hurt--”except for a small scratches”--nor scared during the bird attacks. An animal lover all her life, she said: “Not too many things scare me. The thing that scares me is getting old. I don’t want to get old; it scares me.
“But,” she said with a rueful laugh, “it’s gonna happen.”
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