There was something familiar about driving down the canyon dirt road that leads to Shambala Preserve. It made me smile. It was videographer Pamela’s and CatChannel Managing Editor Nikki’s first visit, but it was my second. I had been there 2 1/2 years earlier with another crew to videotape an interview with Tippi Hedren and this time it was for her graduation speech for Cat College.
As we passed the big-cat enclosures on both sides of us, Pamela was almost childlike in her enthusiasm. She kept saying, “I have to get a picture for my boyfriend!” She had never seen big cats up close before.
I felt a sense of pride in being able to say such things to her and Nikki as, “Here’s Boo! He’s a spirited black leopard who will give you some great photos!”
The tigers and lions didn’t seem shy at all as we neared their enclosures. They didn’t really acknowledge or look at us either. It was good to know that we were no interruption to what they did naturally — sleep, eat, groom and roar. It was still exciting for me to get such an up-close look at these beautiful felines.
A content-looking cougar looked down at us from her high perch and a gorgeous, spotted leopard hissed at us. That was about as much acknowledgement as we received from the animals.
And why should they acknowledge us? They’re wild animals — predators designed to thin out omnivore herds who might otherwise deforest the planet and throw our ecosystem off balance if left to produce unchecked. They are not house cats. To confine them as pets is a prison sentence to them and extremely dangerous to us.
The cats of Shambala were rescued from mistreatment, neglect and exploitation. They now have a safe haven where their needs are met and they’re given the respect that they deserve.
My feelings certainly weren’t hurt that the cats didn’t interact with us, as exciting as I think that would have been. There was the incident in which Boo lunged at the fence when Pamela tried to take a picture of him, but I was picturing the more positive interaction I had with tigers Shatari and Shere Kahn, who were 18 months old and not fully grown on my first visit. Their chuffing sounds, indicating they were pleased to see us, and friendly gestures of rubbing their faces against the fence when I approached with my crew, are memories that make me smile to this day. The encounter meant so much to me that I’ve decided to adopt one of them. I’m having a hard time choosing which one to adopt, though, because I have pictures of each of them posing for the camera with me just a couple feet away (separated by a fence, of course).
At the end of our visit, we received hugs from Tippi and her brilliant photographer, Bill Dow. The rest of the staff also made us feel so welcome. They made us feel like old friends.