BOOKS: A Lady & Her Tiger
From ANIMAL PEOPLE, March 2011:
The Lady & Her Tiger by Pat Derby with Peter S. Beagle
Performing Animal Welfare Society (P.O. Box 849, Galt, CA 95632),
1976; reprinted for PAWS. Paperback, 263 pages. $10.00.
Performing Animal Welfare Society cofounder Pat Derby did not
see the modern animal rights movement coming 35 years ago, when her
memoir The Lady & Her Tiger became one of the books that launched it.
Published by E.P. Dutton in May 1976, six months after Peter
Singer’s Animal Liberation, and 20 months after Cleveland Amory’s
Man Kind?, The Lady & Her Tiger won an American Library Association
award and was a Book of the Month Club selection. Reissued as a
Ballentine paperback in 1977, The Lady & Her Tiger ensured that the
treatment of performing animals was prominent on the nascent animal
rights agenda–but Derby remained a Hollywood animal trainer, albeit
in the doghouse with much of her profession after exposing their
methods, for another eight years.
Merging animal training businesses with Ed Stewart in 1980,
Derby and Stewart at last gave up on training wildlife and cofounded
the Performing Animal Welfare Society in 1984, to oppose animal use
in entertainment and to provide sanctuary care for life to their own
Derby had already taken in animals who were retired by other
trainers or were given to her by people who could no longer handle
exotic pets for at least 20 years, and had already tried twice
before to operate nonprofit sanctuaries, but her previous efforts
had tried to support themselves with revenue from paid admissions,
gift shops, and traveling animal acts. PAWS has by contrast been
sustained from the start almost entirely by donations, solicited
primarily by direct mail. Because it has never promoted itself as a
visitor attraction or as entertainment, PAWS has given Derby the
philosophically consistent platform for critiquing the performing
animal industry that she appears to have wanted all along.
Yet only after the emergence of the animal rights movement,
after the formation between 1977 and 1984 of most of the major
national animal advocacy organizations of today, does Derby appear
to have recognized the opportunity she had prepared herself for all
Derby in 1976 exhibited no awareness, either, of her status
as one of the few people whose lives link the first beginnings of the
humane movement to the animal rights movement. Yet she was a
proto-animal rights activist almost by heredity.
Born Patricia Shelley, in Sussex, England, Derby is a
direct descendant of Percy and Mary Shelley.
Percy Shelley, remembered mainly as a poet, also wrote at
least two tracts against eating animals, A Vindication of Natural
Diet and On the Vegetable System of Diet. “How unwarrantable is the
injustice and the barbarity which is exercised toward these miserable
victims,” Percy Shelley wrote of animals raised for slaughter.
“They are called into existence by human artifice that they may drag
out a short and miserable existence of slavery and disease, that
their bodies may be mutilated, their social feelings outraged. It
were much better that a sentient being should never have existed,
than that it should have existed only to endure unmitigated misery.”
Mary Shelley authored Frankenstein, published in 1818, when
she was barely 19 years old. “My food is not that of man,” declared
her tragic hero, Dr. Frankenstein’s monster. “I do not destroy the
lamb and kid to glut my appetite; acorns and berries afford my
Percy and Mary Shelley remained vegetarians, animal
advocates and anti-vivisectionists throughout their short lives.
Their beliefs persisted among at least some of their descendants.
Born more than 90 years after Mary Shelley died, Patricia Shelley
was raised a vegetarian and detested hunting from her first memories.
Her mother was a bird rehabilitator. Patricia Shelley debuted as an
actress, starring as Juliet in a production of Romeo & Juliet, soon
after her father died. Emigrating to New York at age 15, she sang
as well, and enjoyed some early theatrical success.
Patricia Shelley, by the time she was 17, was already
touring nightclubs as the star of The Gimmicks, a retro jazz band.
ANIMAL PEOPLE found old newspaper clips confirming her possible
trajectory toward stage and screen stardom–but her career took an
abrupt turn when she met former animal trainer Ted Derby, nine years
her elder. Attracted by his background in working with animals,
she encouraged Ted Derby to return to animal training, and
accompanied him as his training career resumed.
Though Patricia Shelley continued to act and sing at times,
including after she married Ted Derby in 1964 and became known to the
world as Pat Derby, her life refocused on animal care. The first
half of this time was largely an informal apprenticeship. Employed
in relatively menial capacities by some of the biggest names in
Hollywood animal handling, Pat Derby learned as much as any of them
could teach her, but soon found that few people knew very much.
Among her early disenchantments was learning that Walt Disney
was an ill-tempered grouch with relatively little understanding of
animal needs and behavior. Disney produced hundreds of films,
animated films, and television programs with strongly pro-animal
messages, but tended to expect animal actors to perform on cue like
people, with the same ethos that the show must go on, regardless of
Despite this early disappointment, Pat Derby worked more for
Walt Disney Studios than for anyone else, particularly on sets for
Lassie. Eventually Pat Derby discovered for herself the principles
of positive reinforcement training–which at the time was practically
unknown to anyone, and for many years afterward was undercut by the
incorrect belief, persisting among some trainers, that animals must
be starved to respond adequately to food rewards.
Pat Derby’s reward for challenging the prevalent Hollywood
way of training animals, despite many on-set successes, included
frequent conflicts with colleagues, directors, and producers. Ted
Derby, who seems to have been only half convinced by Pat’s
achievements, joined her in starting their own company to provide
animal actors. When that struggled financially, they briefly
operated a couple of roadside zoos, and produced an animal show for
the San Diego Zoo. Their one consistent success was training
Chauncey, the puma who for more than a decade promoted the
Ford-Mercury Cougar lion of automobiles.
Both Derbys were repeatedly bitten by animals. Pat suffered
several broken noses and a painful chronic back injury. Their most
painful failures, however, were the financial collapses of their
first nonprofit ventures. The first collapse obliged them to raise
$50,000, a high sum now, astronomical then, to redeem their
animals from creditors who claimed them through bankruptcy.
After the bankruptcy of one of their first employers as an
animal-handling duo, Pat had witnessed animals being auctioned to
all comers, including a taxidermist who shot a friendly tame female
grizzly bear as she sat waving to visitors from her cage. Fearing a
similar fate for the animals after the second collapse of a
Derby-&-Derby nonprofit, Pat reluctantly had euthanized all those
she could not afford to keep.
Meanwhile Pat and Ted Derby split largely because Ted Derby
continued to rely on electroshock to control animals, a technique
Pat considers ineffective and cruel.
The Lady & Her Tiger ended, in a sense, before most of the
Pat Derby story began. It also skips over or omits much that in
hindsight was significant. Early in Pat Derby’s training career,
for instance, she worked for three weeks on the set of the Flipper
television series alongside then-dolphin trainer Ric O’Barry.
O’Barry became a vegetarian during a 1968 visit to India, turned
against dolphin training, and made his first abortive attempt to
liberate a captive dolphin on Earth Day 1970. Whether O’Barry and
Pat Derby influenced each other in any way is never mentioned.
Indeed O’Barry himself is never mentioned, though the two were and
have remained on parallel paths.
Only three animal advocacy organizations are mentioned in The
Lady & Her Tiger–the American Humane Association, for ineptitude in
monitoring animal use on film sets; the Humane Society of the U.S.,
as employer of Sue Pressman, an early advocate for captive wildlife
whom Derby clearly admired; and the Fund for Animals, the
beneficiary of a fundraising auction of a Mercury Cougar at which
“Cleveland is a charming, clever, genuinely dedicated man,”
Pat Derby observed, “but he and I favor different ways of promoting
conservation of wild animals. Like most of us, he tends to preach
to the converted and scream damnation at the rest. I don’t think it
works–you can’t get the average hunter to stop killing animals by
calling him a sick, vicious barbarian. I think you have to get him
somehow to like or identify with a single deer or bear, or whatever
it is that he kills. That may sound crazy and hopeless, but
otherwise it’s just words, just numbers, like six million Jews and
all the starving children in India who’d love to eat your
cauliflower. Numbers don’t make us care, and neither does hellfire.
Individuals sometimes do.”
Among Pat Derby’s most telling insights in this passage is
the phrase “Like most of us.” I have personally conflicted with Pat
Derby at least twice for “screaming damnation” at the wrong
people–at people who basically agreed with all of her pro-animal
messages–and she has screamed damnation at me, too. There are few
people, however, who have done more than Pat Derby to encourage
rethinking every aspect of keeping captive wildlife, from animal
actors to zoological conservation. The Lady & Her Tiger narrates the
experiences that reinforced her intuitive and inherited beliefs with
the depth of background that has required the captive wildlife
industry to sit up and pay attention, and–at times–to jump through
hoops to avoid her wrath.
Perhaps Pat Derby will some day write the rest of her story,
at least a portion of which would read like a spy novel. According
to filings from a series of bitterly fought court cases, Feldman
Entertainment, owner of the Ringling Bros. Circus, from 1988 to
1998 spent $8.8 million to employ a small army of spies to try to
disable the Performing Animal Welfare Society and PETA. The
operation was reportedly directed by Clair E. George, deputy
director of operations for the Central Intelligence Agency from July
1984 through December 1987.