Sunday, September 13, 2015

Photo Essay: The Hidden Kingdom of Big Cats

Captivity sucks.

Those are the words of Chris Gallucci, the Executive Director of the Shambala Preserve in Acton, CA. He's been working at Shambala for 40 years—first building fences (which have to be strong enough to keep the captive big cats in, and the wild animals out), and then as the keeper of the elephants that once resided here, and died here of old age.

"That means I did my job," Chris says.

The Shambala Preserve today functions out of necessity. Exotic animals are constantly being born in captivity—in fact, many bred in captivity—to be put to work as circus performers, movie actors, or roadside zoo attractions or sold as pets. Eventually, a humane society gets involved, or Animal Control snatches one up that got loose (and is never claimed, because its owner had it illegally and doesn't want to suffer the punishment), and they call Shambala and say, "We've got this big cat. You want it?"

And this non-profit preserve is there to clean up the messes of other people, who have mistreated, underfed, and even declawed these beasts, who never had the chance to experience life in the wild. And you could never turn them out into the wild—"set them free"—because they've all been born in captivity.

Which sucks.

Shambala doesn't seek out these animals. They don't pursue them, and they don't campaign. They don't have to. They get enough unsolicited calls.

But it was not always so. These 43 acres—plus a 35-acre buffer zone—were once the private property of actress Tippi Hedren (of The Birds fame) and her film producer husband Noel Marshall. They purchased the land specifically to house a pride of lions they acquired to shoot the movie Roar, which became a notorious disaster not only because of the three years and $17 million it took to complete it, but also the 70+ members of cast and crew who got injured (some pretty severely) during the shoot, giving a whole other dimension to the human-big cat relationships that the film intended to portray.

It's amazing no one died. The movie Roar blurs the lines between fantasy and reality, because you're watching these lions actually run amok and attack people, and you're watching the actors react in the scenes with real terror. There's little plot to the movie, and what does happen in it probably would scare most humans off from cuddling up to a lion or tiger, which is never fully domesticated.



But none of that kept me from visiting Shambala, home of the Roar Foundation, where Roar was filmed (California standing in for Africa).



In fact, it made me want to visit even more. Especially knowing that Tippi still lives there.



I had no misconceptions about what I would encounter at Shambala. I didn't think there would still be lions roaming freely throughout the property, swimming in the lake. After all, the 1970s were a different time.



And I figured they'd learned their lesson in terms of human safety—a fact confirmed by the posted rules and regulations of visiting the preserve.



The only animals you can get really close to are the various bronze statues that were donated to the preserve and are now scattered throughout the property.



The "Safari Tour" visit consists of an hour-long walking tour around the various enclosures—all made of regulation fencing—while keeping our distance from big cats like King, who arrived here in May 1998 at less than a year old from the Michigan Humane Society. On a hot September mid-afternoon, King was lazily lounging about, like many of the others. They tend to be more active at feeding time in the morning and at night, when they are sure to roar.



The water features throughout the preserve serve a dual function: aesthetics, and fire protection. If a wildfire rages through this area, evacuation would be the absolute last resort. It would be better to keep everything and everybody inside with access to water than try to transport them.



If they had to move all the cats out, they could—they've got 28 trailers for each of the 28 cats. But it hasn't happened yet, not even in the 2009 Station Fire. Fortunately, Shambala is situated between a main road and the Metrolink railroad tracks, both of which act as pretty good fire breaks that are somebody else's responsibility to maintain.



A lot of the action in the movie happens in the water, where children no longer frolic. But once upon a time, Tippi Hedren's daughter, actress Melanie Griffith, swam here among the lions.



For a donation of $3000, you can sleep among the lions in one of the preserve's tents, which are situated between several of the enclosures—and certainly within earshot of the animals' nightly roars.



During the day, there's no guarantee that the big cats will be out, or that they'll be in a good mood. They're accustomed to Shambala staff members like Chris and staff photographer Bill Dow, who have been there for decades, but tour groups consist of strangers who might pose a threat to the cats.



Some of them, like Sabu, keep to themselves and don't notice us much. Sabu was relocated to Shambala from Neverland Ranch with another tiger named Thriller when Michael Jackson's zoo closed. Unfortunately, when big cats like this are given way, it's usually without any funding for their future care.



I was glad to see that most of the enclosures are pretty big—much larger than those at The Cat House or the Old Griffith Park Zoo. Chris doesn't even call them cages; he calls them "compounds."



But understandably, because captivity sucks, some of the cats tend to get a bit agitated inside.



I mean, what are they to do all day? They're fed every morning. They don't have to hunt. By law, they're not bred, or used for commercial purposes.



And many of them are still recovering from severe cases of neglect. (See: Tiger Rescue in Colton, CA)



Tigers like Alexander and Natasha are solitary beasts anyway...



...but lions are naturally social.



Lily the lioness is pretty protective over her den-mate, Henson, even though they didn't arrive together. Lily had been confiscated by the Michigan Humane Society...



...while Henson had been seized from a private owner. He got his new name from Henson Productions, which paid for the lion's flight from Georgia to California.



The males aren't castrated so they can keep their manly manes, but the females are fixed so that they can share a den and no breeding will occur.



Zeus is considered Shambala's "Mane Event"—without the aid of a stylist, his windswept hair seems to change every day. He arrived to Shambala from Texas in 2002 by U-Haul.

Although these animals should have never been captive in the first place, since that's their situation and there's no changing it, at least they can live out the rest of their natural lives in a clean and safe environment where they'll be well-fed. Since most of the lions were born in the mid- to late-90s, and are approaching 20 to 25 years old, they're reaching the limits of their life expectancy in captivity. Some of the tigers are younger than the lions, but they also don't live as long.

Other cats not seen on the tour (either because they were hiding or because of where their compound is located) include bobcats, an Asian leopard cat, a serval, and a mountain lion.

All in all, nowadays there are only 28 cats. The cast of Roar consisted of 150 lions, tigers, leopards, a jaguar, and an elephant.

You have to see it to believe it.



Related Posts:
In Captivity
Photo Essay: Lions, Tigers, and Bears - Oh My!
Photo Essay: An Orphanage for Contraband Pets