Big cat fanatics claw at Tippi

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Big cat fanatics claw at Tippi

From The Sunday Times
March 1, 2009
John Harlow, Los Angeles

Filming The Birds, Tippi Hedren was genuinely shocked and bloodied when Alfred Hitchcock unleashed seagulls on her for dramatic effect.

But the director’s favourite blonde was never as scared as she is today, pursuing her campaign to end the breeding of lions and tigers outside zoos; the animals have killed 32 people in the United States in the past five years.

From Shambala, the California-based sanctuary for unwanted big cats she established more than 25 years ago, she is preparing to confront the $100m-a-year (£70m) business of exotic animal breeders, who have already threatened her life. Police advised her to check under her car for bombs when she first campaigned for limits on the sale of lions and tigers.

The FBI traced the threatening calls to a “dangerous” New Jersey breeder who supplied gangsters with lions and tigers as status symbols. “For a long time they advised me not to leave my home without a police escort,” said Hedren last week.

The 79-year-old actress lives at Shambala in a modest bungalow behind high fences that keep her and 68 lions and tigers safe from the outside world in a canyon north of Los Angeles.

There are only about 7,000 tigers left in the wild, but the Association of Zoos and Aquariums estimates that Americans are keeping up to 12,000 as pets, a third of them in Texas, where hundreds are shot every year in “canned hunts”.

Big-game devotees will pay up to $50,000 (£35,000) to shoot a tranquillised tiger released into a corral so they can take the head, skin and paws home as trophies.

Thousands of other lions and tigers are purchased as cubs for as little as $500 (£350) at car boot sales and are raised in back gardens or basements and lofts until they grow unmanageable. Many are then dumped in parks or shopping malls.

Hedren admits when she was younger she too was drawn to the exotic idea of keeping a big cat as a domestic pet, promoted in films such as the 1938 Cary Grant comedy Bringing Up Baby – Baby was a house-trained leopard.

However, she radically changed her mind. After assembling a pride of cubs in her Los Angeles home to shoot the 1981 movie Roar, she was mauled, and Jan de Bont, her cinematographer, was scalped.

“They are beautiful, but they are all serial killers who can only ever be trusted, even when at their most delightful, to attack and kill,” she said.

Shambala gives refuge to one lion once used to protect a drug kingpin’s stash in Texas, a pair raised inside a roof ventilation system and two Bengal tigers rescued from the Neverland ranch, Michael Jackson’s former home.

Hedren, once dismissed by critics as too passive when under attack in The Birds or being psychoanalysed by Sean Connery in her other Hitchcock film, Marnie, has become a fierce national spokeswoman for lions and tigers born in captivity. Last week Edward Perlmutter, the Colorado congressman, took her latest battle to Washington.

Hedren wants a ban on all big-cat breeding outside zoos, which she hopes will eventually make Shambala and other sanctuaries redundant.

“In some states it’s easier to keep a tiger than a dog, for which you need a licence. Within the past five years big cats have been responsible for 32 fatal killings and 574 injuries. They pick out a child from a crowd and, given the opportunity, hunt them down.”

In December 2007 a caretaker was injured at Shambala. Later that month a 17-stone Siberian tiger leapt out of her pen at San Francisco zoo, chased three teenagers who had teased her, and killed one.

The attack has sparked a debate about “supercats” – big cats that, thanks to improved nutrition and exercise, are too clever and aggressive to be kept in captivity. All attempts to reintroduce American lions to Africa have failed.

Hedren feels the only choice is to stop their breeding, but she is worried about angering breeders as much as she did in 2003.

“It was a very frightening time. The man who phoned was deadly serious and specific in his threats to me. I was advised I was costing some serious people a lot of money. And now I am going to take these people on again, but the time is right to end this trade.”

“My daughter [Melanie Griffith, the actress] wants me to move back to Los Angeles – she and her husband [Antonio Banderas, the Spanish actor] will buy me a house near them.

“But I still feel safer at Shambala, even if Patrick [a lion-tiger cross whose compound abuts her bungalow] does keep me awake at night with his conversation. This is my home, and this is where I can make a difference.”

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