Posted by: kcullen75 | March 1, 2013

Pat Derby

In 2011 I was fortunate enough to spend a week at the PAWS sanctuary in California. It was the first time I met the founders Pat Derby and Ed Stewart. In spite of their workload each day as well as Pat’s ongoing illness, they were incredibly generous to me with their time and energy. I was immediately struck by their honesty and openness, and also by their genuine love and affection for all the animals in their care and as much so, for each other. It was a joy to watch and came with no ego or agenda attached. I was endeared to them even more by their insistence that what they ran was a prison for prisoners (as they saw the captive wild animals in their care) despite the fact that they had built what to me was the first sanctuary I had come across that was deserving of it’s name. I may live to regret not taking Pat’s offer to come and work for them, but I will always feel blessed for having the short time I had to get to know them both. 

Reading Ed’s tribute to his partner this morning really brought that home, and if you haven’t read it yet I would like to share it with you below.

 

It has been almost two weeks since I lost my partner of 37 years-and-one-day, Pat Derby. Our anniversary was Valentine’s Day. I’ve been keeping myself busy, spending some time alone, and doing needed, but mindless, jobs around the Sanctuary. The entire time I’ve spent thinking about what to say to PAWS’ friends and supporters about the incredible Pat Derby. I told our staff I would write a short piece about Pat for our next e-alert.

 

Pat lived for animals. She never wavered. She never slowed. She never stopped. 

Obviously, she made her mark on the world – there have been lengthy stories about her life in the New York Times, the Washington PostDetroit Free PressLos Angeles Times, and almost every other major news outlet across the country and many from around the world.

 

Ed, Pat and Christopher

I met Pat in February, 1976, at the Cleveland Auto Show. She had the contract with Lincoln Mercury to do live appearances with “Christopher” the cougar at major shows around the country, a plum job for an animal trainer. My brother was the Lincoln-Mercury merchandising manager in Cleveland and he asked me if I wanted to work part-time at the show, mostly to make sure the models (female) were on time. That sounded good to a single, 24-year-old, so I agreed. He then told me about the woman from California with fiery red hair, who performed with the live cougar. The word around the car company was that she could be “a real pain in the neck.” She was very demanding in regard to the cat’s needs: she wanted carpeting in his room, air-conditioning, 24-hour security, etc. My brother wasn’t kidding. Pat wanted the best for her animals. 

It turned out that I was far more interested in the red head with the cougar than the female models. That March I moved to California, and a series of events over the next several years, put us on the path to creating PAWS. 

Pat’s book, “The Lady and Her Tiger”, written with Peter Beagle, was released later in 1976. It chronicled her time as an animal trainer in Hollywood, and documented behind-the-scenes abuse on film sets, and at animal company compounds. She never regarded the book as an exposé. She merely noted what she saw, and described her frustration with the “animal business” – a term Pat despised. 

As she said in her book,

Pat was born in love with all elephants.

 Needless to say, Pat was instantly a “persona non grata” in the commercial animal world, and that was fine with her. Her critics said she was never a good trainer, anyway. That, too, was fine with her. Ironically, years later, in a book by the producer of the television shows “Flipper” and “Daktari”, Pat was mentioned as “the best female trainer I ever had.”

We slowed, then stopped any commercial work with animals in the early 1980s. We hated everything about it. All of Pat’s animals were retired, including Christopher, and we were now working to support them. Things were quiet. 

In 1983, a young animal trainer who had read Pat’s book, arrived on our doorstep and told of horror stories going on in Hollywood, much like the ones Pat had seen a decade before. Pat was back in action. We went to Sacramento, met a young Assemblyman named Sam Farr (now Congressman Farr), and the fight was on. The result was AB 1620, landmark legislation for captive animals in California. 

Pat wouldn’t back down from a war. She fought the biggest and richest circus, the most successful Las Vegas animal acts, the Hollywood movie industry and one of the strongest lobbies in Washington – and she won. Pat never had a staff of attorneys, or a big public relations department, or even a personal assistant. There was never enough money with which to battle; it was like fighting gladiators with a pocket knife. . . but Pat was never afraid, because she was right.
 

Pat with baby elephant 71

In 1984, Pat and I started PAWS to fill a void. There was (and still is) a disclaimer used at the end of movie credits that said something to the effect of “no animals were harmed in the making of this movie.” That message meant little in 1984, and it means little now. There was no oversight of training compounds, or training methods for wild animals used in movies. PAWS soon joined the “Coalition to Protect Animals in Entertainment” to investigate cruelty allegations in Hollywood. 

An abuse case involving a tiger, lion and orangutan at a movie training facility resulted in the death of one of the animals. PAWS, and Pat’s good friend, Sue Pressman, investigated the case and the exhibitor lost his USDA license and paid a fine of $15,000. The quote from the humane organization’s president, which was supposed to protect movie animals said, “What you do in your backyard, really is not my business.” Pat Derby made it her business for the next 28 years. 

Pat’s first mission was to educate animal rights/welfare organizations about the reality of captive wild animals’ lives. There was no “anti-circus” movement when PAWS started, no one knew much about “surplus animals” from zoo breeding programs. Circuses beat and whipped elephants and nobody knew what to do. The public thought working animals were always well cared for and happy. Now, almost every animal organization in the world has an anti-circus campaign. That was Pat’s intent.
 

Pat and Ed with 71

I recently worked with a young person from one of the largest humane organizations in the U.S. on a bear rescue. When I mentioned Pat Derby’s name, the person said, “Who is Pat Derby?” I was shocked, but realized that Pat was in this for the animals only. She never pulled rank on anyone. Pat often worked with third or fourth tier employees from other groups, rarely speaking to a CEO. She could have had a giant ego, she had none. 

Pat and I never intended to operate an animal sanctuary. We cared for the animals left from the commercial days (most that Pat rescued) and the plan was to let them live a good life and die of attrition. Pat maintained her USDA and California Fish and Game permits, and at that time there were few, if any, qualified facilities to take wild animals in need. The county brought a lioness, a humane group brought a wolf (both “temporary”), and in August of 1986 the sick baby elephant, “#71”, came. The lioness, the wolf, and 71 all stayed at PAWS their entire lives. 

Our sanctuary has grown from 30 acres in Galt, California, to 2,300 acres at ARK 2000. Pat’s dream for PAWS was to one day have a place where “the elephants’ butts would disappear over the hill.” Thanks to Pat’s perseverance, PAWS, and the elephants, tigers, lions and bears have just that. There is no “state of the art” for wild animals in captivity, but ARK 2000 is pretty special.

 

Pat was, by far, the best animal person I’ve ever known. Her empathy for wild animals in captivity and her understanding of their behavior will never be matched. When she walked through the sanctuaries, every animal would respond to her voice. Even the most abused and confused animals would be confident in Pat’s presence.

 

I will always remember Pat in black rubber boots, jeans and a flannel shirt, leading a new elephant into a large enclosure for the first time. That was when all of the fundraising and the paperwork paid off. That was her perk.
 

1980s – Pat with friend Bob Barker

PAWS has been through tough financial times, but nothing dampened Pat’s optimism. When our friend of 28 years, Bob Barker, retired from TV, she was rejuvenated. I recently told a reporter that “Pat Derby was a Ferrari and Bob Barker put gas in it.”

Over the years, hundreds of “pseudo-sanctuaries” – a term Pat coined – have sprung up around the globe. Some breed animals, take them to do shows, and even sell animals. PAWS’ largest rescue operation was from a tiger pseudo-sanctuary. Pat always cautioned well-intentioned people, who are fooled by these facilities. She said, “if you are not working to solve the problem, you are the problem.”

I was Pat’s protector, sometimes physically, for 37 years, and her biggest fan. Sometimes, when people die they are unduly given “hero” status. Pat really was a hero. She could have done absolutely anything she desired. She could have been an actress, a top chef, an author, or run a Fortune 500 company. She was an expert on classic literature, music and art. Her grammar, vocabulary and writing skills were astounding. She was beautiful and entertaining.
 

Christmas in Galt

Pat could have easily made a living on late night television doing guest appearances like Jack Hanna from the “scientific” zoo community, but she wanted people to respect animals, not laugh at them.

 

People who choose to help animal causes are often criticized because “they do nothing for humans.” Pat Derby turned that ridiculous argument upside down. In 1986, she was one of the first women in the world invited into Rotary International. She was elected president of the Galt Rotary Club in 1992, and served on many District 5220 committees (Central California) throughout the ’80s, ’90s and into the 2000s. She helped organize food drives and toy drives in Galt, and chaired the Ambassadorial Scholarship Committee for many years. The members of the Galt Rotary Club affectionately referred to Pat as “Conan the Rotarian.”

 

Several producers have wanted to make a movie of Pat’s book. We declined, because live animals would have to be trained and used in the production. It was simple. If there was a “right way” of using wild animals commercially, WE would have done it. Pat stuck to her guns. The only movie about Pat Derby’s life would have to be animated. 

PAWS remains a solid organization. Pat and I have put together extremely dedicated and strong individuals to take PAWS into the future. Many of our key people have worked with PAWS for 15 years or more. I want to thank our veterinarian, Dr. Jackie Gai, as well as ARK 2000 manager Brian Busta and his animal care crew, for doing such a great job while Pat was sick. I look forward to working with each of you for many years into the future. 

Pat spent the last two months of her life in the house, overlooking the elephants at ARK 2000. She knew they were grazing on the mountain and sleeping in the sun. She could hear the construction at the site of Alexander the leopard’s new, spacious enclosure, which made her very happy. We discussed current projects and planned for the future. She didn’t like to hear people say how proud she should be of all she had accomplished. . . her work wasn’t finished. Now it’s up to all of us to continue the incredible dreams of Pat Derby. 

We should all take a piece of Pat’s ability, sincerity and confidence; there was plenty to go around. She was the best person I’ve ever known. She was a genuine “animal protection super-hero”, and I am so proud of her. Pat was not bitter, or sad, near the end. The only tears on her face were mine when I said, “goodbye.”

I want to thank all of you for making Pat’s life so productive. I miss her.

 
 
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Responses

  1. love love for everthing thank you

  2. Why don’t you reconsider working there? Sounds like a great place.

  3. – I am glad you were able to spent time at PAWS and meet Pat Derby.
    She will undoubtedly stay deeply in our memories as an icon for the animals.
    Ed’s tribute is beautiful !!!


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