Movie star Tippi Hedren (“The Birds,” “Marnie”) is still the main attraction at any event involving her Shambala Preserve in Acton despite the mane attraction of the 50 big cats she has rescued.
On Monday she was promoting nascent federal legislation – that she influenced – called the Big Cats and Public Safety Protection Act 2012, which would stop the breeding of big cats across the United States.
“Hopefully there will be a law that says this is illegal to breed a serial killer and having it live in your back yard. And I am calling them serial killers, because that’s what they are,” said Hedren.
Since 1983 Shambala has been home to big cats, providing a lifelong sanctuary to lions, tigers, black and spotted leopards among other cats. She says the more than 50 big cats she has now have instincts that can never be changed.
“I love them more than my next breath, but they belong out in the wild doing what they’re supposed to do,” said Hedren.
However, instead of wild animals being kept in proper facilities like zoos and sanctuaries there are untold numbers of private owners with wild animals.
“We have no idea how many of these animals are existing in the United States,” Hedren said.
Hedren, her golden mane the rival of any of her animals, took the stage with U.S. Representatives Loretta Sanchez and Howard “Buck” McKeon and , who are sponsoring the bill.
Specifically the “Big Cats and Public Safety Protection Act 2012,” will ensure that lions, tigers and other dangerous big cats, which are bred to be sold and kept as pets or for financial gain in the U.S., do not threaten public safety, diminish global big cat conservation efforts, or end up living in horrible conditions where they can be subject to mistreatment and cruelty.
“Those who currently have big cats will be grandfathered in the sense that they can still have them as long as they have the correct place to have them. They can no longer breed them. And they must be registered so we know where these big cats are,” said Sanchez.
The bill will require all persons who currently possess big cats to register those animals with the United States Department of Agriculture. Hedren sees this as a major problem with the bill.
“There are over seven thousand facilities that the USDA has to check over with 105 investigators. It’s going to be extremely difficult,” said Hedren.
Although Hedren is used to the spotlight, she shared the stage with a former police officer who had a dramatic tale to tell about the threat big cats and other exotic animals pose to public safety.
Tim Harrison is the Director of Outreach for Animals whose mission is to train police officers, fire fighters and paramedics the proper behavior around wildlife. He is also the subject of an award-winning documentary The Elephant in the Living Room.
“I’ve taught police officers, fire personnel from all over the United States and there’s no training or course for any police or fire academy in the United States of America for any police officer or any public servant to handle any big cats,” said Harrison.
Harrison (visible on the right side of the DVD box) emphasized the lack of federal regulation regarding the breeding and ownership of dangerous animals. Across the country he said big cats can be bought at auctions, flea markets, through private dealers, through classified ads and off the internet.
“You can buy a tiger, but you can’t buy common sense,” said Harrison.
Harrison also gave a first-hand account of the horrifying results when wild animals get loose.
In October 2011, a menagerie of animals was set loose by their owner Terry Thompson in Zanesville, Ohio. Among the 56 animals he owned two wolves, six black bears, two grizzly bears, nine male lions, eight lionesses, one baboon, three mountain lions, and 18 Bengal tigers.
From left: Rep. Loretta Sanchez, Rep. Howard "Buck" McKeon, Tippi Hedren, Shambala Preserve Director Chris Gallucci.
“He decided to let all the cats and all the animals out. Turn them loose. And when he turned the animals loose he cut all the fencing in all the cages. So the animals couldn’t be put back in,” said Harrison.
Harrison, who says he arrived on the scene at Zanesville two and a half hours after the initial shootings began, says first responders are not trained to handle a situation reminiscent of the movie “Jumani”. To add to the danger, Harrison says Thompson set up a booby trap.
“He did something very bizarre. He covered himself in chicken. De-thawed chicken. Put it all over his body and shot himself in the head. With this situation, he set up a situation where the animals would be feeding off him,” said Harrison.
Now the cats were put in a position of having to protect their food source against police and fire fighters. Without dart guns at their disposal, first responders had to take down 49 of the animals with deadly force.
Harrison says he’s grateful there is a public safety component to the bill.
“It’s always the cops, firemen, and animal control that show up first. And ain’t nobody knows how to handle these things or are trained to do it,” said Harrison.
To see national news coverage of the Zanesville, Ohio tragedy (warning for disturbing images), click here.
Harrison says he learned from a USDA officer in Ohio that she’s responsible for monitoring 700 big cats out of 2,000 in the state. The threat of strict legislation has made many owners go underground creating a greater mystery as to how many big cats and exotic animals are out there.
Congresswoman Sanchez believes legislation is imperative.
“On the face of it this legislation seems to be what we call a no-brainer. Why wouldn’t you do that?” said Sanchez.
Sanchez and Hedren agree that while California is in the forefront on the issue, this is a problem across the nation.
For a look at how California stacks up against other laws governing the private position of exotic animals, click here.
According to Sanchez the outlook for the Bit Cats and Public Safety Protection Act of 2012 will depend, like all bills, on financing.
“There is always a corresponding cost to any new laws,” Sanchez said.