Animal Protection > AR Interviews

With Kind Hands
The Satya Interview with Pat Derby

Pat Derby and Tammy
Pat Derby and Tammy

The Performing Animal Welfare Society (PAWS) is a place where abandoned or abused performing animals and victims of the exotic animal trade can live in peace and contentment. Founded by Hollywood animal trainer and author of In The Presence of Elephants, Pat Derby and partner Ed Stewart, PAWS maintains three sanctuaries for captive wildlife.

Pat has also pioneered the method of elephant handling that uses no bull hooks or chains. PAWS was the first facility to use this “non-dominance” technique successfully and the work of Derby has been a model for elephant handlers around the world. Kymberlie Adams Matthews had a chance to talk with Pat Derby about her path to sanctuary life, commitment to education and, of course, the animals.

Let me begin by asking you how PAWS came to be?

We basically founded PAWS in 1984 to get better standards for captive wildlife. Among our greatest concerns are the treatment of animals in traveling shows, animal acts, television and movies, as well as the problem of captive breeding, inadequate standards for captive wildlife and the exotic animal trade. I had worked with animals in movies and television including Flipper and Lassie and Disney films, as well as working with the famed Lincoln-Mercury cougars, Chauncey and Christopher. I always felt that there was something wrong with working animals for entertainment. I witnessed so much neglect and abuse. In the process of developing my own training methods based on love instead of fear, I was shocked to discover a profession rampant with cruelty, ignorance and lack of concern.

That is an incredible way to get into activism. What are some of your main campaigns?

We are really dedicated to the rescue of performing and exotic animals from cruel confinement and performances. And mostly now we are working on raising the standards for care. Right now there really are no standards—zoos have their own certain set of ethics, which are horribly lacking. And of course circuses and the entertainment industry have none at all. To make matters worse, there really are no regulatory agencies that do an effective job of monitoring the animals that work for these industries and captive wildlife.

So we try to strengthen laws on animals’ behalf; helping to mandate legislation that will ban ownership of wild animals and require permits to restrict their breeding. PAWS has also been involved in ensuring the ban of such elephant discipline techniques as electric shock, food, water, and rest deprivation, and punishment which results in the scarring or breaking of an elephant’s skin.

In 1999, Congressman Sam Farr authored and introduced PAWS’ Captive Elephant Accident Prevention Act (HR2929) into Congress, which would prevent the use of elephants in traveling shows and for elephant rides.

We also try to protect wild species and their habitat with international programs established in India, Mexico, Africa and Cambodia to diminish human/elephant conflict and to establish protected areas for wildlife.

You must come across some very horrible situations. Does PAWS ever conduct their own investigations?

Yes, we do a lot of that. If we get phone calls we try to track down the problem and report them to whatever agencies are available. But we spend most of our time trying to prevent those problems. We are constantly lobbying for better laws that would prohibit captive wildlife from being in private hands and laws that would ban the use of live animals in entertainment. Our thought is that it is better to prevent abuse than have to investigate and try to control it.

That makes perfect sense, nipping the problems before they bud. But just so our readers get an idea of the problems you deal with, can you tell us about a recent rescue case?

In November 2002, the California Department of Fish and Game seized ten tigers from a “pseudo-sanctuary” in Colton, CA, called Tiger Rescue, after finding tigers in filthy cages without water and suspecting the owner of illegal breeding. The Fund for Animals assisted the state by caring for the tigers and placing them in accredited facilities.

Then in April 2003, officials executed a search warrant on the Tiger Rescue owner’s residence and discovered 90 tiger carcasses, including 58 baby tigers dead in a freezer. Thirteen other cats were found barely alive. Then the state seized control of Tiger Rescue where 54 big cats remained. The Tiger Rescue property was deplorable. Staff and volunteers had to set up a make-shift triage—constructing shaded areas, fixing pens that were hazardous to the cats, and most significantly, providing medical treatment, food, water and professional 24-hour attention to rehabilitate them.

Last fall $250,000 was raised to build a sanctuary for the remaining 39 tigers who had not been placed. We came on board and committed to create a new ten-acre tiger habitat with dens, trees and swimming pools on their San Andreas property, where they will live out the rest of their lives under proper care.

We are committed to providing the best quality of care to these animals. It is frightening to think there are many stories similar to theirs all over the country because of the lack of enforcement of existing laws. Sadly, the Tiger Rescue facility had been inspected by regulatory agencies and seems to have fallen through the cracks. While these big cats were fortunate that The Fund came to their rescue, unfortunately there are over 10,000 tigers privately owned in this country—double the number of those in the wild in Asia. Most are bred and abused in order for their “owners” to try to “domesticate” them. Ninety percent die within their first two years of captivity.

Wow, was the owner of Tiger Rescue prosecuted?

Well, the Riverside County District Attorney’s office filed 63 charges—16 of which are felony animal cruelty charges—against the owner, and we were all hopeful that prosecution would come fast and harsh. But that was almost two years ago, and there has been no meaningful progress in the case.

It’s scary that people who love animals could have been donating to Tiger Rescue thinking they were a true sanctuary. How can people tell if a rescue group is legitimate?

Unfortunately, it happens too often. These false “sanctuaries” are professional scam artists. People should keep in mind that no animals in a sanctuary are ever sold, nor are their offspring or byproducts ever sold. Also, no breeding of animals occurs in the facility for financial purposes. And unescorted public visitation, as in zoos, is not allowed and the animals are not ever taken off sanctuary grounds for exhibition or education. Basically, at a sanctuary, no activities are conducted that are in conflict with the animals’ inherent nature.

You are a member of the Association of Sanctuaries (TAOS). Can you tell me a bit about that?

TAOS is one of the agencies who are trying to set standards. But the problem with setting standards is that you are always setting minimums, which means that nobody ever exceeds the minimum. So we are working on trying to encourage people to exceed them. To take the extra step.

Speaking of taking the extra step, PAWS has certainly done that with its sanctuary facilities. Can you tell us a bit about them?

Our original sanctuary is in Galt, CA, and sits on 30 acres of land. And of course we are big proponents of giving animals as much space as they can have and lives that somewhat replicate their lives in the wild. But we have always felt somewhat landlocked in Galt.

We opened our second sanctuary in 1996 at a large park—100 acres of land—that used to be a nuclear power plant. It is beautiful though. They offered us land because the power plant had been closed and they wanted to have a more benign use for the property. We have a lot of hoof stock there.

But the ultimate sanctuary is the one here in San Andreas, Ark 2000, which is 2,300 acres, with 100-plus acres for elephants covered in native California grasses, shrubs and huge oak trees, which provide year-round grazing. The mild climate, natural vegetation and large lakes are similar to their natural habitats and provide many opportunities for the elephants to engage in activities which stimulate natural behaviors. We also have two 20,000 square- foot barns stocked with all the equipment necessary to provide the best husbandry and medical care, including an indoor jacuzzi pool especially designed for elephants with arthritis and joint disease.

Although captivity is never a substitute for the wild, our sanctuaries are a large and beautiful home for victims of the captive wildlife industry. This sanctuary is currently home to Minnie, Rebecca and Annie, our three Asian elephants, and 71 and Mara, our two African elephants.

Do you allow touring of the sanctuaries?

No. To be open to the public would make us a zoo. We do have some special private viewings and they are mostly to educate the public of the inherent dangers and difficulties of having captive wildlife. People can visit the animals but also help prepare their food, feed them and learn about sanctuary life.

Getting back to the animals, can you share any of their personal stories?

Our main focus recently has been on elephants. We have always had elephants at our sanctuaries but with all the recent controversies we have actually expanded our elephant families.

I think our premiere elephant is 71, the first elephant that ever came to the sanctuary at four years old. And she was very sickly and wasn’t expected to live. One of us was actually with her 24 hours a day. Number 71 is now 23 years old, big and healthy and beautiful. She is probably the most tractable elephant in the world, she has no understanding that people can be mean or bad and she trusts everyone. She is sweet and gentle but she is still all elephant. And what I am so proud of is that she has no stereotypic behavior. Normally an elephant is the ‘product’ of whoever raised them. We get elephants here who are in horrible conditions—who have terrible feet, arthritis—and you look at them and think, don’t these people know what they are doing?

Today 71 is undoubtedly the only captive elephant who has never been chained or negatively trained. So in a way we are very proud of 71. I always say she reflects good parenting.

Where did she get her unusual name?

She was number 71 in a group of about 86 elephants whose herds were killed in a cull in Zimbabwe. She was in a group of elephants who were shipped to this country. They had so many that they gave them numbers instead of names.

Have most of the animals come from the entertainment industry?

A lot of the big cats and the primates come from people who had them as personal pets, which is absolutely the worst thing anybody can do—have an exotic animal as a pet. You have to have very skilled people to care for them. You can’t just raise them like you would a dog or cat. They require a lot of space. They can’t live inside, they need large enclosed areas. They simply were not meant to be in captivity and certainly not in the hands of people who do not understand their needs. And usually people who want to have an exotic animal as a pet have some ego issues [laughter] to say the least.

The trafficking of exotic animals for the pet trade is a huge problem.

Yes. The exotic pet industry, with the help of the Hollywood animal industry, has created a huge market for exotic animals to be sold as pets. PAWS has so many of these discarded animals. One of our black bears, Boo-boo, was born in a bear “puppy mill” in Ohio. Boo-boo was taken to a flea market and sold for $60 as a “real live teddy bear” for [someone’s] daughter. But Boo-boo, being a ‘real’ bear cub, destroyed many of their possessions and was not easily potty-trained. The family also had no idea how to deal with him. They finally chained him to a tree, where he became aggressive. They avoided him and even stood at a distance to toss him his food. By the time Boo-boo was seen by animal people, the collar that had been put on him as a cub was imbedded at least an inch into his neck.

It’s just so sad and confusing. When I was a little girl, I always wanted a pet monkey. I even had a make believe monkey-friend named Pete. But I also tried to fly and thought I wanted to be a mermaid when I grew up. I don’t understand how people don’t grow up to comprehend that wild animals are…well, wild. What is the one thing you would like people to take away from this interview?

We always say that although people think running a sanctuary is a wonderful thing, we would hope that in the future there would not be a need for them. We often say that we are working hard to put ourselves out of business. The happiest day of my life would be to see no captive wildlife at all and these animals in their natural habitat. People who are really concerned about wild or exotic animals need to support efforts to protect their habitat.

For information on the Performing Animal Welfare Society, visit http://www.pawsweb.org/.