Martine Colette has walked with lions in Tujunga and rounded up abused wallaroos in Malibu.
For the last two decades she has charmed Hollywood celebrities, such as Bruce Willis, Will Smith and Drew Barrymore, into opening their wallets to support the Wildlife Waystation, home to nearly 1,200 injured and outcast exotic animals in the Angeles National Forest.
She has inspired an army of volunteers to clean animal dung from cages and truck water to the 160-acre sanctuary above Tujunga.
And until April 7, when the state Department of Fish and Game barred the refuge from accepting any new animals, she had persuaded the agency to repeatedly bend its rules. Since then, the Waystation has come under scrutiny from at least four local, state and federal agencies, which are inspecting or investigating the canyon refuge for alleged environmental and animal-safety violations. And Fish and Game released a consultant’s report that called it “a roadside disaster.”
Last week, supporters including actress Dyan Cannon rallied behind Colette and her compound in Little Tujunga Canyon just outside the Los Angeles city limits. They said the order, which also bars public access to the refuge, could lead to financial ruin for the largest and longest-running facility of its kind in the nation.
To many, Colette wrote the book on how to take in and rehabilitate abandoned animals. Carol Asvestas, a board member of the American Sanctuary Assn., a national organization of 27 refuges, called Colette’s “the mother of all sanctuaries.” The association’s 27 members agreed last week to stand behind the Waystation through its crisis.
At the center of that crisis stands a passionate woman who even supporters say is sometimes abrasive, with a fierce love of animals and a disdain for any rules but her own. This is not her first brush with allegations of wrongdoing. In 1995, six members of the Wildlife Waystation’s board of directors resigned, claiming that Colette had misspent more than $500,000. An IRS audit later cleared her.
Supporters are counting on Colette’s fortitude to carry her through this latest crisis.
“Of course, I am firm and direct, sometimes difficult,” she said last week. “Some people don’t like that. But what kind of woman do you think it takes to build a place like this?”
Opened in 1976, the Waystation serves as a refuge for wild and exotic animals that are injured or homeless. State inspectors said they found a number of “serious cage violations” at the refuge that threatened the welfare of animals and the public. Of more than 200 cages inspected, two-thirds were out of compliance, the state said. Some lack roofs, some are too small and some are not constructed properly to ensure that the animals can’t escape.
The inspectors said they also found garbage and abandoned vehicles leaking oil near creeks, and streams clogged with bottles, tires, metal pipe and other debris. They reported discovering large amounts of horse manure flowing into a stream, as well as disinfectant, urine and other animals’ feces.
Colette, the French-born daughter of a Belgian diplomat, lived most of her childhood in Nairobi, Kenya. As a teenager, she worked in trapping camps, where lions and other animals were taken before being shipped to zoos abroad. People in the villages near the camps, she said, began to take injured animals to her when they realized she had a gift for nursing them to health.
Colette, 57, moved to Los Angeles with her then-husband, whom she described as a “famous American writer,” and plugged into the Hollywood scene.
But she did not leave Africa completely behind. She designed the Afrocentric stage costumes for the soul-funk band Earth, Wind and Fire. She became something of a Hollywood socialite and owes some of her celebrity connections to those “glamourpuss” days.
“It was a gradual transition,” Colette said of her metamorphosis from sequins to khakis. “I didn’t walk in one day and say, ‘Hey, I’m going to live with the animals.’ ”
Away From People and Toward Animals
A mountain lion in a 5-foot-by-5-foot cage drew her pity at a 1965 show at the Pan-Pacific Auditorium and became her first refugee. Within 10 years, she had a house full of beasts and a yard full of wild cats, spurring her move to Little Tujunga Canyon and the opening of the Wildlife Waystation.
As a widow, Colette has grown away from people and toward animals. Her four former husbands are a taboo topic, she said, a closed door in her life. She once said children scare her, and she has none of her own.
“People won’t let me be anything else,” she said. “If I go somewhere, somebody’s going to talk to me about animals.”
The emotional solitude sometimes weighs heavily on her. On solitary nights, two tigresses give her “spiritual renewal.” In the mornings, she breakfasts with Shauri-ya Mangu, the baby chimpanzee who shares her home.
Her singular goal--to extend the life of every animal--has drawn criticism from peers in the animal rehabilitation community.
Elaine Thrune, president of the National Wildlife Rehabilitators Assn., said that if the Waystation has more animals than it can handle, as the state has alleged, Colette should consider euthanizing those with the most acute injuries.
“That decision is not an easy issue anywhere in the country,” Thrune said.
The Waystation did euthanize a tiger in 1997, following the breakout of a virus that killed 17 big cats. However, Colette said, she is “just very, very focused by nature. It is a physical and emotional impossibility for me to deny an injured animal.”
Mayor’s Daughter Resigns Over Concerns
Several members of the Waystation’s board of directors have resigned in the last few years, complaining of how the animals were treated.
Kathy Riordan, who has been a board member for five years, for example, said Friday that she has just sent in her resignation because of concerns over animal health issues and the manner in which Colette runs the facility.
She complained of what she called Colette’s “founder’s syndrome--[an] insistence that the Waystation couldn’t be run without her. I stayed on for the same reason everybody else did,” Riordan said. “I thought maybe I could make changes from the inside for the good of the animals.”
Riordan, who is the daughter of Mayor Richard Riordan, said she canceled last October’s annual fund-raiser at the mayor’s mansion because of her concerns. A fund-raiser had been held there for the previous five years and made as much as $100,000.
From a security shack overlooking the compound, the newer education pavilion and snack bar stand out against the aging buildings near Colette’s wood-fenced home. More than 70 workers, each paid about $500 a month, live in a trailer encampment on a ridge above.
The Waystation’s $2.5-million annual budget comes from private donations and fund-raisers such as dinners and auctions, officials said.
Sanctuary cages contain grizzly bears from a closed zoo, ligers--a hybrid of lions and tigers--rescued from a ranch in Idaho, mountain lions caught in Southern California backyards.
Temperamental iguanas, a massive boa constrictor and a talking cockatoo--whose owner dropped it off when it starting plucking its own feathers--inhabit the infirmary. A grumpy, middle-aged chimp named Moe, who bit off a woman’s finger in West Covina, has become one of the residents of a temporary primate house.
Because the refuge accepts physically and mentally unhealthy animals, the American Sanctuary Assn.'s Asvestas believes state standards for sanctuaries are too high.
Health Concerns Raised the Stakes
Colette served on a 1977 commission that led to relaxing the rules, but now the Waystation is accused of violating those regulations, such as the requirement that all cages have roofs. According to state records, the Waystation has been in violation of that rule and others over the years.
The Department of Fish and Game had allowed the refuge’s animal population to grow despite the violations, until last week when the parties reached a standoff over caging standards. A March 28 inspection revealed that the Waystation also apparently violated health regulations, said spokesman Steve Matarano, and the state launched its offensive.
“It’s no secret they’ve had problems for several years,” said Matarano. But when Colette moved from cage violations to health and safety issues, “it upped the ante considerably.”
Years earlier, the Wildlife Waystation and Fish and Game were partners in wild animal rescue.
“We had a contract with the Department of Fish and Game in the early days,” said Judi Williams, a Waystation volunteer from 1978 to 1995 and one of the board members who resigned five years ago.
“We totally focused on animal care. They would give us $10,000 a year to help them out. They would bring us wild animals in need of a place to go. They were not equipped to take care of them. Nor did they know how.”
At one time, Williams said, the state agency gave the Waystation thousands of dollars to help pave a better road up to the refuge.
Current board member Ollie Blanning, a senior deputy to Los Angeles County Supervisor Mike Antonovich, said she was surprised by Fish and Game’s allegations because the Waystation is cooperating with the agency.
“They would tell us we needed to fix something and tell us how to do it,” she said, “and then we would.”
But some former board members said state action was long overdue.
“She has bucked Fish and Game for so many years, and now it’s like enough is enough,” said Diana Higashi, who worked as a volunteer at the Waystation for eight years and served on its board of directors for four. “To put it simply, the rules don’t apply for her.”
Higashi said the agency tried to work with Colette and gave her extra time to clean up her act.
“I thought something was going to happen long before now,” said Gail Lippman, a volunteer landscaper at the Waystation for nine years who left several years ago on bad terms. “Martine is a very difficult person to deal with. She is like a dictator up there. She always felt the rules didn’t apply to her.”
Lippman said she is not surprised by concern over the cages.
“She has been told for years that her cages need improving,” Lippman said. “I think everyone has a legitimate concern that these animals can escape, because they have.”
Relations between the refuge and the state soured in the mid-1980s as regulators grew weary of Colette’s ignoring their warnings, Williams said. Still, Fish and Game continued to work with the Waystation, dropping off animals and granting leniency on cages, even as it tightened regulations. The refuge, for example, has been operating without a permit since 1997 as Fish and Game tried to bring it into compliance.
Fish and Game officials, who have documented 26 births at the complex from 1994 to 1997, also have accused Colette of illegally breeding animals. But Colette said all animals are spayed, neutered or isolated from the opposite sex.
“Sometimes you get an oops,” said Colette, who claims the state numbers are exaggerated. “Out of 75,000 animals that have come through here over the years, we’ve had 22 oopses.”