Wild tails about Wildlife Waystation

From ANIMAL PEOPLE, September 1998:

California––Three people from ANIMAL
PEOPLE spent nearly seven hours at Wildlife
Waystation recently, including five hours of
hiking up hill and down dale behind the seemingly
inexhaustible founder, Martine Colette,
viewing more than 1,000 animals. Yet we still
saw the most remote paddock for hooved animals
only from a distance.
The scale of the Waystation is overwhelming
to those who may be familiar only
with sanctuaries of ordinary size. Near
Sacramento, California, the Performing
Animal Welfare Society, for instance, reportedly
sheltered 38 animals as of September
1997, while the Farm Sanctuary site at Orlans,
California, had 47.

Wildlife Waystation at our visit had
more than 80 African lions, among about 300
total big cats, and a wide variety of just about
every other exotic creature who might turn up
in a police raid or be abandoned at a dog-andcat
shelter. There was even a binturong, a raccoon-like
Southeast Asian creature related to
civets, so rare we’d never before seen one.
Often Colette apologized to inquiring
coyotes, wolves, lions, tigers, chimpanzees,
orangutans, and bears because she
hadn’t brought them treats. An ostrich, who
did a mating dance for her, didn’t seem to
have food on his mind. He may have been
stimulated because Colette was carrying a peacock
feather she had picked up for the
youngest member of the ANIMAL PEOPLE
party, for whom she later climbed on the roof
of her home to fetch more.
Two weeks earlier, Colette was
bedridden with a prolonged illness. Staff and
volunteers called her by cell telephone every
two hours to make sure she took her medicine,
and came running with the dose plus water.
Her people warned that she might be fragile.
There was nothing fragile, though, about
either her stride or enthusiasm as she recited
animals’ histories and pecadillos.
Cage by cage, Colette checked
details. She called back to the office about any
problems she couldn’t quickly fix, such as a
leaking hose at one point and a clogged drain
at another. She picked up the one piece of litter
we saw there. She also dispensed praise to
the weary, including an exhausted cagebuilder
with a nervous rash, who explained––
when asked––that his crew had been shorthanded
all summer because of the rush to add
space for new arrivals.

Like most effective sanctuarians,
Colette is detail-oriented. A lapse in security,
as an observation tower overlooking the 160-
acre compound reminds, brings the risk that
animals might escape; an escape resulting in
human injury could doom the whole effort.
Some sanctuarians are control
freaks, believing that the only way to make
sure things are done right is to do them personally.
Some manage their organizations as
quasi-cults, or like military bases. Some are
crazy-making martinets. Others seem to
become every animal and staff member’s surrogate
Leading with charisma and positive
reinforcement, Colette seems more like everyone’s
girlfriend. Contrasting with the nervous
electricity of some animal protection organizations
and the dispiritedness of others, Wildlife
Waystation hums in the preoccupied manner of
people and animals who are absorbed in activity.
The people work; the animals variously
stalk visitors and each other, pounce shadows,
hide in tall grass, or sleep––except for a
troupe of 50 chimps recently received from
the disbanded Laboratory in Experimental
Medicine and Surgery In Primates (LEMSIP),
formerly at New York University. They spend
much of the day loudly and lewdly expressing
their opinions of humanity.

Colette recently completed negotiations
to trade small parcels of land with the
Angeles National Forest so that work can
resume on a new chimp house, interrupted in
early 1997 when through a surveyor’s error the
foundation turned out to be sticking slightly
over the property line. Because of that problem,
she found herself having to scramble to
create other quarters for the ex-LEMSIP
chimps on short notice. They were the largest
group of chimps ever retired to a sanctuary
from biomedical research. If she couldn’t
come up with something, she knew, they
would be sent to the Coulston Foundation,
which would sell or lease them to other laboratories.
Pulling the hay out of a
pole barn, the Waystation crew added cordons
of chain link fence and climbing structures. In
less than a week they converted the barn into
an interim chimp house which is probably
superior, from the chimps’ perspective, to
those of many well-regarded zoos. Able to
live in semi-natural family groups, they climb,
swing, play with plastic crates and other relatively
indestructible toys––and moon, flash,
flip off, and fling feces at their caretakers and
“Thank you,” it seems, is
not in an ex-lab chimp’s vocabulary.
Founded in 1976, Wildlife
Waystation has like most humane organizations
accumulated a vocal coterie of disgruntled
former staff and rivals. Accordingly,
while ANIMAL PEOPLE visited with a positive
impression of Colette’s work from her
prompt response to any and all inquiries,
going back many years, we also brought a
checklist of allegations and criticisms.
Notably, Colette was accused of letting
animals breed, keeping animals in cages
that were too small, accepting donated horses
only to feed them to large carnivores, and
being “too Hollywood.”
The allegation about breeding came
from the Waystation having accepted nine
pregnant animals from the defunct Ligertown
breeding compound in 1995, and from a handful
of failed vasectomies in animals who had
not previously shown mating behavior in many
years of residence.
In all, the Waystation has had 15
births of animals who were conceived on the
premises, in more than 12,000 animal years of
operation (multiplying the number of animals
in custody each year by the years the
Waystation has existed.)
The claim of keeping animals in
unduly small cages was belied on three counts.
First, there was the junk pile, awaiting a truck
that would take heaps of old caging materials
to a scrapyard. Acres of older cages, still
quite serviceable by the standards of most
sanctuaries, had been dismantled and retired
from service. Rusty, bent, or broken materials
were designated for metal recycling.
Many of the retired cages were
among those Colette welded together herself,
in the first years of the Waystation, when she
had little help, no money, and hardly anyone
really knew how best to house exotic species.
Even the American Zoo Association was just
beginning to draft guidelines.
Second, without being asked,
Colette showed us the last cage in use that she
had welded. It too was soon to be replaced,
she explained. It was small by current standards
for longterm care. Yet we saw a similar
cage of even older origin still in use at the
world-renowned San Diego Zoo. Millions of
visitors view that cage each year, apparently
without complaint, as it has never been mentioned
in anti-San Diego Zoo protests.
Third, Colette’s longest running battle
is with the California Department of Fish
and Game over enforcement of a regulation
that requires carnivores to be kept in roofed
cages. Colette prefers to keep coyotes and
wolves in habitats too large to roof.
Colette herself raised the complaint
about the horses. Like most zoos that house
large carnivores, she feeds deceased animals
to other animals, as appropriate to the natural
diets of their species. She accepts horses and
other livestock as Waystation residents.
Typically they are sent to the Waystation
because infirmity precludes their use for riding.
If a painful condition becomes incurable,
they are euthanized. ANIMAL PEOPLE
inspected the horses who were being evaluated
for euthanasia. Most horse owners would have
put them down or sold them to slaughter.

As to being “too Hollywood,”
Colette was working in Hollywood––and successful––when
she abandoned her career in
order to take care of animals.
Her father was a naturalist in the
Belgian diplomatic service. Raised as a citizen
of the world, spending time on most of the
continents, Colette made her first mark as a
costume designer.
Living in a fashionable part of
Beverly Hills, near Hollywood, she met
neighbors who had exotic pets. They sought
her help with animal emergencies, including
animal placement when big cats and other
creatures became too big to keep safely.
Eventually she took on the job of finding
homes for all the animals in a failed traveling
circus, sold most of her possessions, bought
an old ranch that was undervalued due to
restrictions on development of inholdings in
the Angeles National Forest, and––between
doing most of the on-site work herself––used
her Hollywood connections to raise funds.
Glamor events remain central to
Waystation fundraising, for instance a 1997
motorcycle rally sponsored by Easyrider, the
upscale bike magazine, with music by members
of the bands Santana and Bon Jovi.
But if being “Hollywood” means
seeking the limelight, that isn’t Colette.
Rarely attending conferences or in other ways
making herself better known in the animal protection
community, she was billed as one of
the key speakers at the 1995 No-Kill
Conference in Phoenix. On the eve of the conference,
however, the Ligertown animals
made a mass escape. Police and frightened
neighbors were reportedly shooting at anything
that even looked as if it might have been a big
cat. Colette skipped her chance at winning the
applause of peers in order to help round up 35
ligers and take them to the Waystation, where
they remain. Initially, they were evidence in
the court proceedings that closed Ligertown.
Now they, too, are officially home and safe.
Her mother, Colette jokes, wanted
a princess. Her father wanted a boy. She
became a tomboy who could play the princess,
in a three-room “palace” with peacocks on the
roof, tigers licking their chops just outside the
back window, and an orphaned infant chimpanzee
in the living room––in other words,
able to handle inescapable stress with rare
grace and humor.

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