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?
Chet Cooper: I’m good.
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. (laughter) 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.
The Shambala Preserve: Shambala is a Sanskrit term meaning place of peace/tranquility/happiness—for all beings
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 Shambala is home to over 40 big cats: lions, tigers, cougars, black and spotted leopards, servals, bobcats, and Asian leopard cats. 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!” (laughter)
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. (laughter) 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?
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. (laughter)
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?
Martirosyan: Prrrr. (laughter)
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.
Cooper: I saw a picture where the lion had a suitcase in the background, and apparently he’d just moved in.
Hedren: No, that was a trunk (laughs).
Cooper: How far do you live from the preserve?
Hedren: I live right on it. I’m in a part of my house right now where I can look out at three tigers, and across the river are two lions all in great big compounds, and then there’s another lion and a tiger. The preserve is about a mile long. So I hear them roaring all the time.
Cooper: That must be amazing.
Hedren: It’s absolutely beautiful.
Cooper: I don’t suppose you hear sounds like that other than in Africa, but even then the concentration there might not be as dense.
Hedren: Sometimes when one of them starts to roar, they all start talking. I’m building a room onto my house, and there’s a squirrel running around in it right now, and my cat’s sitting right here, not even looking.
Cooper: So you’ve got an open-door policy? (laughter)
Hedren: I do; I welcome everybody.
Cooper: Do you have coyotes?
Hedren: Not in the preserve. We run a tight ship, because we don’t want to have any possibility of them getting into the compound.
Cooper: How many species do you have?
Hedren: Well, let’s see, we’ve got all of the big cats, and oh, gosh, the lesser cats as well.
Cooper: Do you have any elephants?
Hedren: No. They lived out their lives with us. They were the most thrilling animals to get to know.
Cooper: Would you take some elephants now?
Hedren: Yeah, but we’d have to take the lands that the elephants were using and put compounds on them. We have 32 undeveloped acres, so we’d have to spend a huge amount of money to build an elephant enclosure. Anybody can put up a little pen and enclose them, but that’s not what we do here.
Cooper: What is the most endangered type of cat that’s on the property right now?
Hedren: Actually, they all are. The lions are certainly endangered. They’re diminishing in numbers in Africa to the point that is truly frightening. When I started working with these big cats, I think there were 20,000 lions, and now there’s less than 5,000 in Africa. The tigers are diminishing in numbers. It’s people. We’re going to breed to the point where we won’t have any space. And that’s what’s happening. I started talking about it 30 years ago, and people said, “You can’t talk about that.” And I said, “Well, we’d better.” And look what’s happening to our world.
Cooper: That’s why China’s had its one-child-only policy. But even that’s not enough.
Hedren: It’s so out of hand that it’ll never be okay.
Cooper: Is there any breeding of the cats?
Hedren: Absolutely not. We’re totally against breeding these animals because they should not be in captivity. They are apex predators. Top of the food chain. Among the most dangerous animals in the world. Who makes a pet out of that? The Roar Foundation, founded in 1983 by Hendren, supports Shambala. The mission: to educate about the dangers of private ownership of exotic animals.
Cooper: So you spay and neuter them?
Cooper: I’m just thinking about your cats not having offspring. I guess this came up in my mind when you were talking about the low numbers in Africa, that the species is dying off and needs cats to be put back in.
Hedren: Unfortunately, animals born in captivity don’t have a mother to teach them how to live in the wild. So there’s no way they can be returned. There was a very wealthy man who had a family of gorillas, and he played with them. It seemed so adorable and darling, but then he took them over to Africa to live, and they were all murdered by other gorillas.
Hedren: It was a nightmare. Throughout the whole TV show on it, I thought, “This isn’t going to end well. I know it isn’t.”
Cooper: Someone did a documentary on it?
Hedren: It was on 60 Minutes.
Cooper: He must have felt bad about that?
Hedren: He said he was gonna do it again. He was a rich kid.
Cooper: A strange response to a tragedy like that.
Hedren: It’s unthinkable.
Martirosyan: Is there anything you want to share, any projects in the works?
Hedren: The project that I have is to stop the breeding of these animals in captivity, and to keep Shambala going. I call it my “magnificent burden” because as long as there’s an animal in need, I want to be here for it. When we have our weekend safaris—which you must book in advance— we talk to everybody about the issues, and how they can help. It’s a wonderful afternoon. We take you on tour and our guides are highly educated. We come back to the lake where we bring a picnic, and people can ask me questions. I always say, “Do not go to a circus if it has animals in it.” I know that I have been effective in getting people to stop going to these circuses. I feel very good about that.
Cooper: How often do you have these events?
Hedren: Once a month. And in the summer, along with afternoon safaris, we have a sunset safari that’s extremely popular.
Martirosyan: It sounds lovely.
Hedren: And we have a tasting of my wines and—
Cooper: Wait, wait, wait, what? You have wines?
Hedren: Oh, you like wine?
Cooper: Lia’s a wino.
Hedren: That’s okay, so am I. (laughter) So there’s wine and a dinner. We always have a celebrity guest, and the two of us get up on the dais and you can ask us questions. It’s always fun.
Martirosyan: Do you have entertainment with your wine?
Hedren: The celebrity guest and I are the entertainment, and the roaring of the cats.
Cooper: Lia’s available to sing opera.
Hedren: Really! I have a fear of singing, so I envy you, Lia. For a long time I had a fear of singing, and it finally occurred to me why: When I was a little girl, I liked to sing, and there was a singer who came on the radio all the time. She’d sing, “When the moon comes over the mountain, every beam brings a dream back of you.” Kate Smith was her name. Do you know of her?
Martirosyan: Doesn’t ring a bell.
Hedren: She was popular in the ‘30s. So I remember my parents had a little dinner party one evening, and I opened the kitchen door and started singing, “When the moon comes over the mountain…” I was about four years old. And everybody laughed.
Hedren: And I felt they were laughing at me. Isn’t it amazing, those feelings? So as an adult, I could never sing in front of anybody.
Martirosyan: That’s pretty deep.
Cooper: Lia, did you have the opposite experience when you started singing?
Martirosyan: (laughs) No, I just didn’t give a damn.
Hedren: There you go! There you go! That’s what it takes. That and a voice.
Cooper: In raising your family, did you take any of that experience of what you perceived as negativity and try to be more encouraging? Because it seems like you’ve got a very successful family.
Hedren: Oh, I do, don’t I? And beautiful, too. My birthday was 10 days after the operation, and my whole family came out for my birthday. Our photographer took a picture of us and I thought, My God. No studio could put a family picture together like this. I have my neck brace on in the picture, but who cares?
Cooper: With the Baby Boomer generation, there are so many people who are aging and having different issues, so there’s more discussion about it than ever in history. Eventually that’s going to create a shift, and generations coming up behind the boomers will benefit by having more understanding of the later years.
Hedren: Absolutely. I concur. Look at what’s happening to Dakota.
Cooper: I haven’t seen “Fifty Shades of Grey”.
Hedren: I haven’t seen it either.
Cooper: I don’t know if you should, from what I’m hearing.
Hedren: I don’t know. Maybe some day I will. She was just out here on Sunday. We just love each other so much. I don’t know why I’m so hesitant about seeing it, but Melanie is, too.
Cooper: I don’t have children, but to see your child in things that are kind of provocative… I might have to close my eyes through certain parts. But they don’t have a problem watching your movies?
Hedren: No. (laughs) The Birds is a little frightening for kids, but for different reasons.
Cooper: Lia, did you ever see The Birds?
Martirosyan: I did. It’s pretty intense.
Hedren: It’s very, very frightening, and what made it even more frightening is that we used real birds.
Martirosyan: How did you feel about how the birds were treated during the filming?
Hedren: I so respected the bird trainer, Ray Berwick, because he loved those birds, and protected them.
Cooper: How did they do the scenes where the birds banged into the glass?
Hedren: Those were fake birds thrown at the glass. One of the ravens was so sweet that Ray wouldn’t teach him all the bad things to do, like peck people and dive-bomb. That raven became my buddy. He’d come up and sit in my dressing room on the set, play with my makeup, and throw it on the floor. I’d walk around on the set with him on my shoulders.
Cooper: Have you had any birds on the preserve?
Hedren: A flock of ravens live here, and of course they’re meat eaters, so they’re lucky to have a home where we serve 300 to 400 pounds of meat every day.
Cooper: But they don’t eat enough to where it upsets the big cats?
Hedren: No. Many of the cats just look at them. The birds know which of the cats they can steal from, and which they can’t. In the spring you see the birds trying to teach their young about which cats are okay to steal from. And you know how some teenagers are, “I can do this,” and of course those are the birds that get killed.
Cooper: Where do you get the meat?
Hedren: It’s a scientific recipe created by a zoological veterinarian. The beef has all the minerals and vitamins the animals would get if they were living in Africa. It’s a major task, to be feeding those cats all the time, but our animals are extremely healthy. We have very, very few sick ones.
Cooper: How many times a week do they eat?
Hedren: They’re fasted twice a week, and when they do eat, it’s like 15 to 20 pounds per animal. When they’re out in the wild and make a kill, they gorge themselves. But they’re not in the wild here, and we don’t have a situation where they can make their own kill.
Cooper: And do they go to a gym?
Hedren: (laughs) They don’t need exercise; all the muscles are built in. The only exercise they get in the wild is when they go out on a kill.
Cooper: I’ve always found it so incredible that in the wild, animals exercise for short periods of time during the kill, and the rest of the time they hang out sleeping or having sex.
Hedren: Isn’t that what we’d all like to do?
Cooper: I keep trying to figure out how I can do that.
Hedren: (laughs) People say all the time, “What do you do to get them to exercise?” But they don’t need it. They don’t run for fun. The only animal that I had that ran was a liger, his father was a lion and his mother was a tiger. They have a gigantism gene in them, and grow to be huge.
Martirosyan: A liger. Cute.
Hedren: When Patrick came to live with us from a place in the Chicago area, he was around 600 pounds, a great big guy. The man who had him couldn’t afford to keep him any more. So he came in at 2:30 in the morning, and I went up to the quarantine area to meet him. I went every day to talk to him for the 30 days he was in quarantine. When that time was up, and he could come into the preserve, I put his compound next to my house, so I could continue to sit and talk with him. We became really good friends.
The first time he went into his compound, he looked at the size of it, because apparently in the place where he lived in Illinois, he could only take three steps one way.
Hedren: It was awful, from what I understand. And when I opened the gates for him to come into this three-quarters-of-an-acre compound, his eyes got big, he looked at me, and then turned and ran the length of it, just because he could. It’s the only animal that did that. They’ll run if they’re playing, or if they see something they want. But otherwise, they don’t exercise to keep their beautiful shapes. It’s just in them.
Cooper: Do you know who the next celeb will be at your sunset safari?
Hedren: We haven’t had a meeting about that yet. If you ask them too far in advance, a movie may come up or something else and then they can’t do it. So we generally just book them a month in advance.
Joe Kusumoto Photography