Tippi Hedren spoke to the Long Beach Rotary Club in July, 1993. She passionately described the plight of wild animals in captivity and her efforts to rescue them from an unnatural life. Impressed by her talk, I made a trip to the Shambala Preserve. Recalling the thrill of my first visit, more than two decades ago, I was curious to see what had changed.
Shambala is located in Acton, California, near Palmdale, on land once used as a movie set for an early 1970’s film starring Ms. Hedren. At the completion of filming, she learned the big cats used in the movie would likely be kept in cages for the rest their lives. To make sure that didn’t happen she acquired the animals – and the land.
The property now serves as a sanctuary for exotic felines and elephants. Shambala is a Sanskrit word meaning: “A meeting place of peace and harmony for all beings, animal and human.” Ms. Hedren, who still lives on the property, has become a world-renowned advocate and champion of animal rights.
A word about Tippi Hedren may be helpful. She was the star of the 1963 Alfred Hitchcock thriller titled The Birds and its box-office success propelled her to stardom. Shambala even features a replica of the iconic jungle gym from the movie to remind visitors of her roots.
She continues her acting career today and her daughter Melanie Griffith and granddaughter Dakota Johnson have followed in her footsteps.
Having booked the three-hour Safari Tour offered one weekend a month, I ventured through Soledad Canyon until I spotted the Shambala banner marking the secluded entrance. The banner is only displayed on visitation days long enough for pre-registered guests to assemble and sign in. Reservations are required and drop-ins are not welcome.
The program began with an introduction by Executive Director, Chris Gallucci, aka “The Elephant Man.” He has been affiliated with the preserve since inception.
Safari Guide and Volunteer Coordinator, Lisa Winkler, introduced us to the big cats. She recited a brief biography of each one and we listened as we watched them roam and play in their exercise yards. As we trekked along, we heard lions roaring messages to each other from opposite sides of the facility.
One of the first tigers we met was Sabu, whose previous home was Michael Jackson’s Neverland Ranch. Sabu and his famous sister, Thriller, moved to Shambala in 2006, prior to Jackson’s death in 2009. Thriller died of lung cancer in 2012, but her memory lives on.
We learned that all of the exotic felines were refugees of a circus, zoo, or private citizen. Unless rescued, they could no longer be cared for in a respectful manner. None of the cats are treated as pets, but they are sure fun to watch, even if it is through the chain-link fence surrounding their habitat.
There were 30 big cats living at the facility – including lions, tigers, bobcats and servals – which is not as many as the first time I visited when they had a few elephants too. The decrease in population is a good thing because, thanks to Hedren’s activism, fewer big cats are being bred to be sold as a pet or for financial exploitation.
The program concluded with a Q&A. Many guests brought a picnic lunch to eat while listening. Chris Gallucci answered questions and expounded on Shambala’s mantra of no buying, selling, breeding, trading or commercial use. After the Q&A, I bought some souvenirs.
It was a great Safari and I didn’t need a passport, a visa, or even a shot. Just call me Bwana.