When “Thriller,” the majestic 375-pound Bengal tiger that once roamed Michael Jackson’s Neverland ranch, died of lung cancer last month, the news went “viral.”
Since Jackson relinquished Thriller in 2006, she lived out her days at the Roar Foundation’s Shambala Preserve, a sanctuary near Acton, California for big cats founded in 1983 by Tippi Hedren.
Hedren, the cool, blonde actress who enjoyed her first star turn in director Alfred Hitchcock’s classic film, “The Birds,” fell in love with exotic felines while on a film shoot in Africa and became one of their most ardent advocates.
“She was such a feisty girl,” says Hedren, clearly relishing Thriller’s memory. “She broke convention for females of her species, stealing her brother’s food and getting away with it. It has been very difficult losing her — they really get into your heart.”
American Sanctuary Association
For nearly 15 years, Hedren has translated her passion for all things wild in her role as president of the American Sanctuary Association (ASA), the nonprofit organization dedicated to protecting thousands of abandoned, abused and neglected animals. The ASA operates out of an office in Las Vegas, Nevada, where Vernon Weir, its director, never knows what he will encounter on a day-to-day basis.
Within a short period of time, for example, Weir was asked to help 12 monkeys being retired from laboratory research, a 500 pound black bear kept as a pet in North Carolina, a raccoon in Florida whose hind legs didn’t function, 125 exotic birds, and four baby potbellied pigs that were seized from an abusive owner in Tennessee.
Then there were two monkeys, a leopard and a lemur from a notoriously neglectful private zoo in Arizona. The monkeys were being fed only weeds, and the leopard could barely stand upright.
It’s all in a day’s work for Weir, who has clocked more than 30 years as a professional in the animal protection movement.
“The objective was to create a system that separated the good sanctuaries from the bad ones,” says Weir, who was recruited to operate ASA at its inception in 1999. “Any place can call itself a sanctuary, but in reality many are just roadside zoos or hoarders, exploiting the animals for profit.”
Weir currently oversees a network of 37 sanctuaries that provide lifetime care to more than 5,000 animals throughout the United States. To receive ASA accreditation, each sanctuary meets stringent requirements for animal welfare.
“They cannot breed or sell animals, or exhibit them for profit,” says Weir. “They must meet the highest standards for animal care, with habitats suitable to the species, and social stimulation – like toys, and wading pools. When we visit, we make sure that the animals have good veterinary care, that their eyes are bright and clear, that their fur is healthy.”
Mindy Sue, a rhesus monkey who came from a bankrupt New Jersey research lab, was Linda Barcklay’s inspiration for founding Mindy’s Memory, a sanctuary in Newcastle, Oklahoma. Because of her years as a subject for experiments, Mindy was severely underweight and vomited constantly. Barcklay cared for her for years until she died of a stroke, and was deeply touched by her plight. Today, Barcklay provides lifetime care for 100 monkeys, her passion for the task undeniable.
“They are not my pets; they’re no one’s pets,” says Barcklay. “They have the company of each other. They groom, they play, they wrestle, they sleep. We feed them and we care for them, but that’s all. They are entitled to spend the rest of their lives in peace and not be asked to perform for somebody, or to be used in any kind of experiments.”
“Filled to the brim” is how Weir describes monkey sanctuaries.
“A lot of lab workers get attached to the monkeys and don’t want them to be just killed when the experiments are over,” says Weir. “The labs trust us because, since we just want to save them, we promise not to divulge where the monkeys came from. It’s a price we pay to secure a peaceful retirement for them”
Kari Bagnall says it’s particularly difficult because researchers want to place groups of retirees, rather than one at a time. “We have an ever-growing waiting list,” says Bagnall, who cares for 160 monkeys on 12 acres of land at Jungle Friends in Gainesville, Florida “Over the years, the ASA has been crucial in introducing us to foundations that award gifts to monkey sanctuaries, which are few and far between.”
Sybil Erden understands the human yearning to “bring wildness back into our lives,” but says that “hard-wired instinctive behaviors” of many animals make them unsuitable to live with humans.
“Sanctuaries remain the only option for many animals when their usefulness as entertainment, research, breeding or working animals comes to an end,” says Erden, who provides lifetime care for parrots, cockatoos, macaws and other exotic birds at Oasis Sanctuary in Cascabel, Arizona. Habitats for “free flight,” rather than cages, are the order of the day at Oasis.
“Primates, large reptiles, wolves, big cats and many other animals who are pulled from their environments for profit, or taken when their habitats can no longer support their freedom, have no other option. A sanctuary provides animals with the ability to be themselves,” says Erden. “The goal is for them to live out their lives in tune with their own natures. They become who they truly are…at long last.”
In the meantime, Tippi Hedren continues her quest for a ban on the breeding and sale of exotic felines in the United States. She says that Weir’s “vast knowledge” and the full energies of ASA members will be invaluable to her mission to see the 2012 “Big Cats and Public Safety Protection Act” signed by the President.
“No other country has so freely allowed the breeding and selling of wild animals as pets or for financial gain as the United States,” says Hedren. “So many magnificent exotic cats are subject to mistreatment and cruelty because of this, living their lives in captivity when they deserve to be born free.”