Best known for her roles in Alfred Hitchcock’s Marnie and The Birds, Tippi Hedren was well down the runway as a model, when she caught the legendary filmmaker’s attention in a TV commercial one day. That set her on a path to appear in over 80 films and TV shows. Mother of Melanie Griffith (Something Wild, Working Girl) and grandmother of Dakota Johnson (Fifty Shades of Grey, The Social Network), Hedren’s greatest passion is animal rights. More than three decades ago she founded Shambala Preserve, an 80-acre wildlife habitat at the edge of the Mojave Desert in California. The preserve later became home to Michael Jackson’s Bengal tigers, Sabu and Thriller, after he closed his zoo at Neverland Valley Ranch. Hedren was also instrumental in the development of Vietnamese-American nail salons in the 70’s, when she was an international relief coordinator visiting displaced persons in Sacramento. The Vietnamese women there expressed interest in her painted nails, and she not only employed her manicurist to teach them the trade, but also helped them find jobs. That experience became the focus of Happy Hands, which won Best Documentary Short at the Sonoma International Film Festival in 2014. Hedren recently spoke with ABILITY’s Lia Martirosyan and Chet Cooper.
Tippi Hedren: How are both of you?
Lia Martirosyan: I’m doing okay.
Cooper: I hear you’re on the mend from surgery. What happened?
Hedren: It was a long, tedious operation on the vertebrae in my neck. Very boring.
Cooper: Are you familiar with all of the subjects we cover?
Cooper: We cover long tedious operations on the vertebrae in the neck.
Hedren: (laughs) That’s the most wonderful thing you could have said.
Oh, how funny! Well in that case I’ll go in-depth about it.
Cooper: I’m joking, but it’s not that far off; we actually do cover some spinal health.
Hedren: There are some really good points to touch on: Because of my age, they put me through rigorous physical testing to make sure my body could withstand the 10-hour operation that it would take to fix me. As I went through all those tests, I thought, Thank God I workout every day. Every single day before I get out of bed I do lower body exercises. I have this whole routine.
Matirosyan: Good for you.
Hedren: I had gone to the doctor because of extreme headaches that I’d had all my life. Then, about five years ago, I was hit by a deluge of water at a studio down in San Diego when the air conditioning system broke. I had just had an operation to try to stop the headaches, where the doctor put a four-inch titanium plate in my neck with eight emerald-green screws in it.
In fact, they were so pretty that I asked him if I could have one so that I could wear it on the outside, and show everybody what was on the inside.
Cooper: As a necklace?
Hedren: (laughs) You are funny! I’m gonna use that. So anyway, my doctor said that the only reason I was able to complete the movie just two months after my operation was because I was playing the part of an older woman dying of cancer who uses a walker. And when the water hit all I could think of was my doctor saying, “Don’t fall because you’ll whiplash.” Well, I didn’t fall, but my headaches came back.
Cooper: Have they figured out what caused the headaches?
Hedren: We don’t really know because that surgery didn’t stop them. However, when the results of the MRI on my head and neck came back, my doctor asked, “Tippi, how are you holding up your head?” because my vertebrae were so deteriorated. When I was young, I was a figure skater who fell a lot and whiplashed. And then when we started caring for the big cats, they would tackle me, and I would whiplash. How I survived all of this is pretty amazing. And of course age itself is a great deteriorator of your body.
Cooper: So the surgery was basically—
Hedren: —for reconstruction. My doctors were brilliant, Dr. Kayvanfar and Dr. Melamed at Henry Mayo in Valencia. With all the anesthesia going into my body, they said it would take something like a year before it was all of out. Isn’t that scary?
Martirosyan: Sure is.
Hedren: They had me up and walking the day after. I could hardly believe it, and I’ve been walking ever since. But the recovery is still taking a long time. I have a unit that I have to carry with me 24/7 that increases bone density in my neck. But there are cadaver bones in my body. Somehow they created this new vertebrae, in part, by taking a little chip out of my left hip. It was an amazing procedure.
Cooper: You’ve got a little bit of cadaver and a little bit of hip put together to mimic what you had?
Hedren: Yes. The suture in the back of my neck is 7.5 inches long, and that 7-inch plate has 12 screws in it.
Martirosyan: That’s amazing, do you feel it?
Hedren: I don’t feel it, but it has limited my motion. I’ve had to wear a great big neck brace when I sleep. For the first month I had to wear it 24/7, but now when I’m around my house, I don’t have to wear it. When I’m in the car I have to wear it, so consequently I can’t drive, because you have no motion whatsoever. If it hadn’t been for me taking care of myself, and keeping my weight down: I weigh 103, and I’ve never gone over 110 in my life.
Cooper: Exercise is so important. I interviewed Kirk Douglas after his stroke, and he had a full-out gym in his house. He believed that lifelong exercise made his recovery so much better than most patients his age.
Hedren: I so believe in it.
Cooper: People forget that you don’t need to go to the gym to exercise.
Hedren: I have something like a ballet barre in my
bedroom, and I use that as part of my exercise routine, too.
Martirosyan: What movie were you working on when you got hurt?
Hedren: It was a TV series. I don’t even remember the title of it.
Cooper: —the memory’s all washed away.
Hedren: (laughs) I have another month of lying low, recuperating, and not running around the preserve. But it’s okay because I need this time for myself.
Cooper: Other than the ranch, what other activities or hobbies do you enjoy?
Hedren: Actually, my life pretty much revolves around the preserve. I do a lot of work trying to educate people about animal rights. I’ve been working very, very hard in Washington to get federal bills passed. I was successful in getting the Captive Wildlife Safety Act passed, which stopped the interstate trafficking of big cats.
Cooper: Good for you!
Hedren: That’s a baby step, but an important one. It’s working, because the great numbers of cats that were in need of sanctuary has diminished, which is very important. And the bill that I have now in Congress has to be reintroduced because Congressman Buck McKeon retired this year, so now I have to find another representative who believes in the issue. That’s what it takes, somebody who really, really cares and understands the problem. That bill is the Big Cats and Public Safety Protection Act.
There are a lot of people who really care about this issue. That’s been of prime importance because I don’t have that kind of money to pay lawyers. They are exorbitantly expensive. So everything has been done on a pro bono basis. But with this surgery, I haven’t really been able to do much of anything for a while. I’ll be getting back to it soon because the exotic animal business is huge here. In fact it’s so big that the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service compare the money made on it to what people get selling illegal drugs.
Martirosyan: There’s something you don’t hear everyday.
Hedren: When there’s a lot of money involved, things can get very nasty. With the first bill I had, the Captive Wildlife Safety Act, my life was threatened.
Cooper: I feel ignorant here, but where’s the money?
Hedren: In the breeding and selling. California has good laws against buying big animals, but most states don’t have any laws whatsoever.
Martirosyan: Which opens the door for what kind of abuse? What happens?
Hedren: There are now laws that say that you can’t use animals for financial exploitation, but there’s another law that’s trying to get footing that says people can use an animal for up to about 16 weeks, something like that, for photographs with people, take them to malls, and all of that. I’m not quite sure what happens to the animals afterwards, which is the scary part, because a lot of them will go to a canned hunt, which is abominable. Do you know what a canned hunt is?
Cooper: I can imagine.
Hedren: It’s a guaranteed trophy. They set it up for you to bag a lion or a tiger or whatever wild animal you want, so these “big brave killers” come in and get a guaranteed head for their wall, or rug for their floor. It’s abominable. So they just keep breeding the animals. It’s so obnoxious.
Martirosyan: What’s your view on circuses?
Hedren: I hate them if they have animals in them. I’ve been working very, very hard all these years and lecturing circuses about the out-and-out cruelty to the animals, especially with the elephants. Now Ringling Brothers has decided, “Oh, well, we feel that this is terrible for the animals.” Well, it’s been terrible since they first brought these animals from Africa and India and wherever to put them in circuses, beating them into submission, and into doing stupid tricks. The animals are constantly on a chain, and never get time to be an elephant. And now Ringling Brothers is not going to be using them—after another three years because they say they have contracts to fulfill. Then they’ll be housed in a beautiful place in Florida, where people can come and watch them. But it’ll be the same thing that they go through in the circuses, the same training and brutality. It’s unconscionable what happens in the circuses if they’re using animals. I mean the people who fly around on a trapeze have a choice, but the animal would never choose to be there.
Cooper: Is that where you got most of your animals?
Hedren: They were privately owned or confiscated by the Department of Agriculture, which goes around and tests various facilities. But there are over 7,000 of them—I’m not quite sure if that number is still the same—that they have to check out. And there are 103 inspectors. So judging from that, a lot of them are not being checked out.
Cooper: A long time ago, I remember hearing about a fundraiser you were doing. I’m not sure if it was for elephants or what.
Hedren: You have to get the money somewhere. We have fundraising events constantly, and I do phone fundraising. Since I started this I’ve never taken one dime as president and founder of the Roar Foundation. Even when we were doing the movie that started all of this, I never took any money because the production needed it. I just put my salary back into it. It’s hard raising money, though. You run out of friends.
Cooper: “Oh, no! Tippi’s calling again!”
Hedren: “Oh, no, don’t take that call!”
Cooper: So the movie was called Roar. Can I watch it online?
Hedren: I’m not sure.
Martirosyan: When did you first discover your passion for animals?
Hedren: At birth. I’ve always been fascinated by animals because they’re brilliant. And they’re all perfect at what they do. It’s inbred in them, from the little ant that drives you crazy in your kitchen, to the elephants and whales. And they all have personalities, like the little dog or cat that you adore.
Cooper: What about the human animal?
Hedren: That species could use a lot of work.
Yeah. I think that the human is probably the most cruel being on our planet.
Cooper: We’re definitely an interesting species. We can calculate cruelty, it seems. Most of the animal kingdom doesn’t set out to hurt any other animal; they kill to eat. Every so often you’ll see something strange, like an animal playing with its prey before it kills it.
Hedren: You’re talking about the animals that I rescue, yeah. The psychopaths of the animal world. I guess that’s what they are. They will kill with absolutely no thought behind it. They have no remorse gene and they have no—
Hedren: No, they’re serial killers. That’s why they shouldn’t be bred as pets because they don’t have that conscience gene. I can’t tell you how many close calls I’ve had with these animals over food. It’s frightening.
Cooper: In the early years, did you find yourself trying to create more of a distance between the animals?
Shambala is home to over 40 big cats: lions, tigers, cougars, black and spotted leopards, servals, bobcats, and Asian leopard cats.
Hedren: Oh, we don’t have any contact with them at all.
Cooper: Not even in the beginning?
Hedren: In the beginning we did, and seven of us got hurt. And after the seventh one I said, “No more. There will be no more contact. None.” I wish you would come and see us. They’re not in little cages. I would never do that to an animal. They’re in big areas. Some of them are three-quarters of an acre. We have holding areas where we entice animals to come and have their meals, and while they’re locked in, the crew goes in and does the cleaning and any repairs needed in their compound. And once that’s done, the gates are opened and the cats go back to their regular space. We have a river that runs through the preserve because water is very important to the tiger, to lie in, to sit in. But we have no body contact with any of them. And you know what? They don’t miss it.
Cooper: It’s not like a domesticated cat.
Hedren: No, they don’t care about us.
Cooper: We might come out some time. We’re a little concerned about Lia coming out, though, because if it’s feeding time, she might try and snack on a tiger.
Hedren: Let us know and we’ll warn them ahead of time.
Martirosyan: Be careful when I’m hungry.
Hedren: Oh, that’s funny! So you’re a feline at heart, are you?
Hedren: I’ve been on an amazing journey with these animals. When we first started our movie, we had a lion come to visit us every now and then, a working lion. So we did a whole series of publicity shots. We had no idea what we were doing. None. And so we did all of these incredible shots with this wonderful lion, and every now and then somebody gets a hold of these pictures, puts them in magazines, and writes stories about us. And they’ve said that the lion was living with us. He was never living with us. They print a bunch of lies and it’s maddening....
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from the Avril Lavigne Jun/Jul 2015 Issue:
Danny Woodburn — A Happyish Guy
China’s — Hou Bin
Chris Hendricks — Music to my Ears
Tippi Hedren — Birds, Tigers, Lions, Oh My!
Avril Lavigne — Fly High with Special Olympics
Special Olympics — Karl from South Africa and Mati from Israel
in the Avril Lavigne Issue; Ashley Fiolek — Thrill of the Race!; Humor — Sleepy Time; Geri Jewell — The Heart of Boxing; China’s — Hou Bin; Long haul paul — Nuts to MS; Chris Hendricks — Music to my Ears; Tippi Hedren — Birds, Tigers, Lions, Oh My!; Blake Leeper — Fast and Furious and Fun; Danny Woodburn — A Happyish Guy; Avril Lavigne — Fly High with Special Olympics; Special Olympics — Karl from South Africa; Special Olympics — Mati from Israel; ADA — 25 Years of Progress; ABILITY's
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