If a cat has nine lives, Wildlife Waystation had dozens
SYLMAR, California––Wildlife Waystation, the often embattled prototype for dozens of other sanctuaries for former exotic pets and animals used in laboratories and entertainment, has closed, after 43 years, nearly four months after the reportedly forced retirement of founder Martine Colette.
Colette continued to live on the property among about 475 resident animals, a third of the Wildlife Waystation population at peak. The inventory at closing included lions, tigers, alligators, wolves, owls, exotic birds, and 42 chimpanzees.
California Department of Fish & Wildlife managing animal relocations
Litigation continues over the remaining assets of Wildlife Waystation and Colette’s role, past and present, in Wildlife Waystation management.
The California Department of Fish & Wildlife in an August 13, 2019 prepared statement said that two days earlier it had been “notified by the Wildlife Waystation that their board of directors had voted to surrender the facility’s CDFW permit voluntarily and to close the facility.
Wardens were “on site,” the California Department of Fish & Wildlife said, “actively ensuring that daily operations remain smooth at the facility, and working with animal welfare organizations to place the animals into other facilities.”
“Some animals will be moving out as early as tomorrow,” California Department of Fish & Wildlife spokesperson Jordan Traverso told Louis Sahugan of the Los Angeles Times, “but it’s going to be a long process because there are so many, and some of them are old and in primary care.”
“Extensively damaged” by fire & flood
“The California Department of Fish & Wildlife will maintain oversight of the facility until all animals are placed appropriately,” the agency statement added, pledging that the California Department of Fish & Wildlife personnel involved are “working collaboratively with Wildlife Waystation staff to ensure the best possible care during this transition.”
Founded in 1976, Wildlife Waystation “was extensively damaged in the 2017 Creek Fire and again in flooding in early 2019. Wildlife Waystation leadership is unable to repair the facility to current standards,” the California Department of Fish & Wildlife summarized.
“Media and the public are asked to please refrain from traveling to the property,” the California Department of Fish & Wildlife statement finished. “The property is closed until further notice and access will not be granted. There is very limited road access and no cellular reception.”
“It was bad”
“It was bad,” Lockwood Animal Rescue Center cofounder Matthew Simmons told Patrick Healy of NBC4 News on August 14, 2019.
This was two weeks after Simmons’ two-and-a-half-month stint as Wildlife Waystation interim chief operating officer came to an abrupt end through an unexplained board action on July 29, 2019.
“There were animals on the property they did not have access to — the road had washed out,” Simmons continued. “I mean, there were crates not staged for animal evacuation. We had fire season coming down on top of us and fire abatement had not happened. So all of that was going on while we were also trying to fix a failing organization. It became insurmountable.”
Simmons and his wife Lorin Linder in 2008 cofounded the 20-acre Lockwood Animal Rescue Center, located about 75 miles straight north.
Simmons recommended moving
Explained Healy, “Colette retired before Simmons was brought on board, though she remained on the property. Until recent days she had expressed hope that the Waystation could continue operating.
“Simmons,” whose hiring was announced on May 22, 2019, “said he concluded that with so many structures in need of repair or upgrade, the best solution would be to move the affected animals to other receptive sites. He launched a relocation program. He envisioned the Waystation transitioning to a sanctuary for native species, he said. He believes he was forced out by allies of Colette,” who were “not ready to let go of the Waystation’s original mission ‘to rescue and provide sanctuary for exotic animals from around the world as well as native wildlife.’”
Elaborated Healy, “The Waystation issued a statement, dated July 29 and attributed to three board members, that announced a planned review of ‘non approved & non authorized activities & transactions by staff,’ but did not specify what they were, nor make any reference to Simmons, but did acknowledge the departure of veterinarian Rebecca Richard.”
Lawsuit by former board member continues
The Wildlife Waystation page on Facebook announced that Colette had retired on May 2, 2019, three days after her eightieth birthday, according to some public records, though others suggest a 1942 birth date.
Whether Colette retired voluntarily or was forced to step down was unclear.
Critics of her management told ANIMALS 24-7 that her resignation was compelled by a series of investigations by the USDA Animal & Plant Health Inspection Service, California Department of Fish & Wildlife, California Attorney General’s Office, and Los Angeles County.
A lawsuit filed against Colette and Wildlife Waystation in 2016 by longtime board member Peggy Summers is alive and moving toward trial. California Court of Appeals associate justice John Segal in April 2019 reversed a Superior Court ruling that Summers lost standing to sue after the remainder of the board terminated her board position.
“Disdain for any rules but her own”
Summarized Los Angeles Times reporter Louis Sahugun, “Over the years, Colette charmed Hollywood celebrities into opening their wallets for her cause. Yet even some of Colette’s supporters described her as occasionally abrasive, with a fierce love of animals and a disdain for any rules but her own.”
Apparently born in China during the early years of World War II, though often reported to have been born in France, Colette was the daughter of a Belgian diplomat who spent much of his career in Africa.
Colette in 1995 told ANIMALS 24-7 that she was pushed toward show business by her mother, who stressed dancing and music lessons, but said she had preferred traveling with her father, an amateur naturalist.
“Dad was the kind of person who would buy a snake to save it from vendors, and tip natives for bringing in sick or injured animals,” she recalled to ANIMALS 24-7.
Friend of Daphne Sheldrick
Colette “lived most of her childhood in Nairobi, Kenya,” Sahugan wrote. “As a teenager, she worked in trapping camps, where lions and other animals were taken before being shipped to zoos abroad.”
The late Kenyan wildlife conservationist Daphne Sheldrick recalled to ANIMALS 24-7 in 2000 that she met Colette, three years younger, at a boarding school they both attended in Nairobi. They shared their love of animals and adventure. Both married much older men within a few years after graduation.
While Daphne married David Sheldrick, the founding warden of Tsavo National Park in Kenya, and founded the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust after his death, Colette married a “famous American writer,” as she always described him. The writer was actually not very famous, but he was the author of several commercially successful books and wrote scripts for at least three action-and-adventure television serials.
“Colette moved to Los Angeles with her then-husband,” her first of three, as each marriage disintegrated within six years, “and became plugged into the Hollywood scene,” Sahugan continued.
Inspired by a puma
“A mountain lion in a 5-by-5 cage drew her pity at a 1965 show at the Pan-Pacific Auditorium and became her first refugee,” Sahugan wrote. “Within 10 years, Colette had accumulated a house full of beasts and a yard full of wild cats, spurring her move [in 1976] to Little Tujunga Canyon and the opening of the Wildlife Waystation.”
In the interim, Colette went through two marriages and divorces, appeared as “Marie” in the 1967 World War II-based television series Garrison’s Gorillas, and worked mainly in Hollywood costuming.
Wrote Colette in a 2013 memoir, “I had to very quickly become a welder, carpenter, plumber, electrician, butcher and fund-raiser, and I’ve certainly learned something about roofs.
“During a major windstorm several years ago,” Colette explained, “12-foot sheets of metal were taking off like parasails. We were afraid someone would get decapitated! Fortunately, our construction skills have improved over the years.
Junkyard building materials
“Originally, there was only the house where I lived and a small block house for a staff of about four people,” Colette said. “I did all the cooking in my kitchen. Everybody did everything. Of course, we were always short of money for materials.
“An occasional six-pack helped induce a local junkyard to save the best stuff for us: chain-link and pipe, etc.
“I brought with me approximately fifty animals,” Colette recalled, “and within a few weeks, I received another twenty-seven when an animal trainer died. We soon began to receive injured or orphaned native wildlife. We took care of all the baby animals who came in and began our rehabbing program. Word of mouth about our work spread through local animal shelters and veterinarians, and we just continued to grow.”
Colette appeared as herself in the 1982 Paramount film White Dog, a controversial fictionalized depiction of the use of dogs trained by white racists to attack black people on sight during the integration era of the 1950s and 1960s, and of the futility of efforts to retrain the dogs.
Though the Ku Klux Klan usually used pit bulls to drive black families out of “white” neighborhoods, White Dog features a white German shepherd.
Due to the controversies over White Dog, and the deaths during production of several key personnel including the original director and script writer, the film was completed and released four years after much of it was made at Wildlife Waystation.
“The location deal included building some permanent structures,” Colette recounted. “This was a major step in our growth. Paramount brought electricity across the creek [that formed Little Tujunga Canyon and often floods it] and left us with the arena, some small structures in Western Town and on Chimp Hill, and built our office and health center.
“Another milestone was hiring our first full-time staff veterinarian, Silvio Santinelli.”
Flash flood & distemper
Flash floods roaring down Little Tujunga Canyon first hit Wildlife Waystation in 1978.
“We lost our water supply, power, sheds, lumber piles and supplies. Even large oak trees were pulled up by the roots,” Colette remembered. “Our little creek became a raging torrent, four or five feet deep, and we had no bridge. To get food and supplies to the animals on the other side, we had to string a rope to keep from getting swept away and carry everything across.
“With a half-mile section of Little Tujunga Canyon Road wiped out, we were marooned for six weeks. We had no trash pickup and food was brought in by helicopter. One sick little coyote even had to be choppered out to a vet.”
A June 1992 canine distemper outbreak that apparently arrived with sick raccoons and skunks killed 18 lions, tigers, and other big cats at Wildlife Waystation, forcing Colette to close the premises to visitors for almost a year, a blow to fundraising that also precluded use of volunteers to do any sort of work on site.
1994 board split
Conflict over accountability issues between Colette and other people integrally involved in Wildlife Waystation appears to have first gone public with the July 1994 resignation of sponsorship chair Diana Higashi and five other board members.
The resignations burst into local media weeks later, coinciding with the November/December 1994 fundraising season, but appeared to have simmered down by mid-1995, when two of the most storied episodes involving Wildlife Waystation occurred just a month apart.
The LEMSIP chimps
On August 8, 1995, the USDA Animal & Plant Health Inspection Service confirmed to New York University officials that renowned primate researcher Jan Moor-Jankowski had reported bad conditions at another NYU lab, leading to NYU being charged with 378 violations of the federal Animal Welfare Act.
One day later, NYU dismissed Moor-Jankowski, marked LEMSIP for closure, and began arranging for the 225 chimpanzees and 200 monkeys at the LEMSIP facility to be transferred to the Coulston Foundation.
A notorious supplier of nonhuman primates to biomedical research formerly located in Alamogordo, New Mexico, the Coulston Foundation was finally bought out of existence in 2002 by Center for Captive Chimpanzee Care founder Carole Noon (1950-2009.)
Meanwhile, veterinarian James Mahoney quietly relocated many of the LEMSIP chimps and monkeys to sanctuaries before NYU could deliver them to Coulston.
(See James Mahoney, DVM, “the Oskar Schindler of laboratory primates,” dies at 77.)
Wildlife Waystation received the first eight chimps, and took in 50 in all.
In September 1995 Colette was scheduled to speak at the first No Kill Conference, in Phoenix, Arizona. Instead, Colette explained in making her apologies for a no-show, she was asked to help Idaho law enforcement try to recapture 46 lions, tigers, and “liger” hybrids who had escaped from the former Ligertown compound near Lava Hot Springs, Idaho.
Seventeen wandering big cats were eventually shot in the vicinity. Another 27 big cats were relocated to Wildlife Waystation.
Ligertown owners Robert Fieber and Dotti Martin, who had previously run afoul of wildlife authorities in Oregon, eventually served 11 days in jail for related offenses.
Coyotes & bobcats
In the background, Colette waged a running conflict with the California Department of Fish & Game over the use of coyote and bobcat pens that were built without the escape-proof roofs the state regulations required of carnivore housing.
Colette reasoned that since coyotes and bobcats are native to the Angeles National Forest, and Wildlife Waystation had no close neighbors, an escape, if any ever occurred, would do no harm.
Nonetheless, the California Department of Fish & Game, beginning in 1997, annually withheld renewal of the Wildlife Waystation operating permits, conditional on the caging being brought into compliance with regulations.
There was also a costly conflict with Angeles National Forest when one corner of the foundation for new chimpanzee quarters was accidentally poured on the wrong side of the Wildlife Waystation property line.
In addition, there were issues pertaining to polluted runoff from Wildlife Waystation reaching the creek.
Ironically, many of the Wildlife Waystation animals had actually been delivered to the sanctuary by California Department of Fish & Game agents, after having been impounded for being kept or trafficked in violation of various state and federal laws.
Arizona move never happened
Colette in 1999 acquired a 160-acre property in Wikeup, Arizona, that she called the Wilderness Edge Wildlife Reserve, intending for it to eventually accommodate many of the larger animals from Wildlife Waystation. Colette submitted plans for the new facility to Mohave County, Arizona, in October 2000.
Taking animals there, however, was delayed, Colette said, by conflicting Arizona Game & Fish Department and USDA inspection rules. This led to Arizona charging Colette with illegal transport of wildlife in March 2000, after she stopped at the Arizona site to treat a sick tiger cub she was bringing to the Waystation from Texas.
That in turn led to Colette losing interest in doing anything in Arizona.
Within the same time frame, five-year Wildlife Waystation board member Kathy Riordan, daughter of Los Angeles mayor Richard Riordan, resigned and reportedly cancelled a November 1999 fundraiser at her home that in previous years brought in as much as $100,000.
Offsetting that loss, the Sharon Disney Lund Foundation responded to the uproar by donating $100,000 to the Waystation to make improvements. Lund, who died in 1993, was daughter of Walt Disney.
Closed by California Dept. of Fish & Game in 2000
The ongoing friction with the California Department of Fish & Game came to a boil on April 7, 2000, when a team in Hazmat suits closed Wildlife Waystation sanctuary to visitors, citing a scathing report prepared by consultant Diana Grenados.
Wildlife Waystation was ordered to stop accepting animals and to reduce the sanctuary population, which had reached 1,200 animals.
Copies of the Grenados report were shared with media, days before Wildlife Waystation founder Martine Colette received it, and a week, Colette said, before she got a list of her alleged offenses.
The Los Angeles Times in particular vividly amplified Grenados’ allegation that Wildlife Waystation put staff and visitors at constant risk from badly caged carnivores and mythical feces-flinging HIV-positive chimpanzees––even though James Mahoney flew to California to personally assure media and the public that none of the LEMSIP chimps had ever been HIV-positive.
Complaints about ground squirrels, peacocks, cat piss, & Spanish-speaking staff
Grenados further asserted that Wildlife Waystation had become dangerously overrun by ground squirrels, wild coyotes, and feral peacocks, whom she said should be “controlled.”
Grenados complained that she could smell the 125 resident big cats’ urine, when––like all cats––they marked their territory.
Grenados also claimed to have questions about veterinary care and drug handling, which she had not asked of staff, and about the use of Spanish by purportedly undocumented resident workers.
Grenados further issued a litany of complaints about the presence of self-mutilating parrots, at least some of whom had been surrendered to Wildlife Waystation by their owners because of their habit of plucking their own feathers out; native birds and reptiles housed with compatible members of non-native species; and other animals who still showed the evidence of the neglect and abuse that they endured before coming to the sanctuary.
Grenados’ chief qualification to write the report seemed to be that she had been operations manager and collections director at the Lindsay Wildlife Museum in Walnut Creek, California, 1984-1999, leaving for undisclosed reasons. Part of her job there was managing a “lending library” of about 80 small mammals such as rabbits and guinea pigs. For $5.00, children could take the animals home for 48 hours.
When California Department of Fish & Game general counsel Michael R. Valentine on April 14, 2000 finally sent Colette a list of “concerns,” rather than charges warranting the closure, Valentine made no direct mention of Grenados and omitted any mention of most of her claims. Valentine focused on just the dispute over cage design and the water quality issues.
Then-California state assemblyman Tom McClintock (R-Granada Hills) asked California Governor Gray Davis to commission an investigation of alleged California Department of Fish & Game misconduct.
McClintock also demanded the immediate resignation of regional California Department of Fish & Game supervisor Mervin Hee, who had apparently hired Grenados.
A sidelight of the debacle was an apparent attempt by California Equine Council founder Cathleen Doyle to exploit the situation to force Colette to bury horses she had euthanized, typically after extensive efforts to save them, instead of feeding the remains to the Wildlife Waystation carnivores.
Doyle eventually admitted that she had issued numerous allegations about Waystation horse care without ever visiting the Waystation.
Much later allegations surfaced that Colette had improperly spent Waystation funds on the care of her personal horses.
With public opinion coming down mostly in favor of Colette, Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Floyd V. Baxter on September 21, 2000 appointed then-American Humane Association western regional office director Gini Barrett as “special master” to supervise bringing Wildlife Waystation into compliance with all applicable laws and regulations.
Barrett, as a former president of the Los Angeles Board of Animal Regulation, knew the regulatory bureaucracy inside and out.
Said Colette, “I am thrilled to death, because this lady is qualified.”
At that point the California Department of Fish & Wildlife had kept Wildlife Waystation closed for 110 days. After Barrett was appointed, Wildlife Waystation was again allowed to receive furbearing mammals and nongame bird species.
Reopened in 2001
Through Barrett’s efforts, Wildlife Waystation reopened for Sunday afternoon public tours in January 2001, after a nine-month closure and $2 million worth of repairs to cages, the perimeter fence, kitchen and hospital facilities, and drainage.
But several times that expenditure would have been needed to bring Wildlife Waystation into full compliance with county, state and federal regulations, state officials said at the time.
Barrett, at the end of her court appointment, eight-year Wildlife Waystation general manager Bob Wenners, and Wenners’ wife Diana, a key volunteer, in 2002 disassociated themselves from further involvement.
Enter Bob Lorsch
But financier, entrepreneur and reputed political fixer Bob Lorsch in early 2003 stepped in to try to complete the job of bringing Wildlife Waystation up to code in all respects.
Lorsch, recounted Los Angeles Weekly “City Beat” columnist Marc B. Haefele in January 2007, “founded a big phone card company called SmarTalk that cratered in the  dot-com meltdown with accusations of insider trading. Bill Gates reportedly claims Lorsch helped make Microsoft Windows 1.0 a huge success. He’s a friend of astronauts and wants to sell billboard ads on space shuttles. He donated a pavilion at the Museum of Natural History, and has hosted high-end political fundraisers for politicians including presidential aspirant and right-wing U.S. Senator Sam Brownback of Oklahoma.”
Haefele also reported that Lorsch’s father and Colette dated and lived together.
Before Lorsch became involved, Haefele summarized, “Wildlife Waystation was investigated by a special county interagency task force, presided over by the County Counsel’s office. Critics of Wildlife Waystation allege that Lorsch’s high-level intervention caused the county to dissolve this force. Lorsch didn’t acknowledge he had done so, but characterized the force as a horror, and said, ‘Every time the Waystation tried to fix something, they were hit with a citation.’”
Exit Bob Lorsch
Lorsch resigned on July 1, 2007, after four and a half years of exasperation. Four other Wildlife Waystation board members resigned at the same time.
Lorsch then spent another four years trying to clear himself of all the legal entanglements that had resulted from his attempt to help, finally succeeding in December 2011.
Meanwhile, without Lorsch and the others, Wildlife Waystation rapidly lurched toward insolvency. At the end of August 2007, Colette laid off general manager Alfred J. Durtschi, Wenners’ successor, and also laid off 24 of the 48 Waystation caretakers and groundskeepers.
“We are $1 million in debt, and we have no funds left,” Colette told Los Angeles Daily News staff writer Dana Bartholomew.
The 2009 Station Fire
But Wildlife Waystation survived, also surviving a forced evacuation during the 2009 Station Fire, then the largest ever in Los Angeles County. Razing 160,577 acres, 89 homes, and 120 other buildings, mostly within Angeles National Forest, the 10-day Station Fire turned at the ridge overlooking Wildlife Waystation, swept over the rolling hills to the north, and was stopped at the fence lines of the DELTA Rescue and Shambala sanctuaries in Acton.
Both DELTA Rescue and Shambala had acquired the firefighting equipment and water storage capacity to fight a wildfire successfully, precautions that Colette had allegedly ignored.
2011-2012 saw Wildlife Waystation back at the verge of bankruptcy, again according to Colette in another series of desperate appeals.
The next major personnel crisis came in May 2015, when Colette fired seven-year trainer Mike Rapp during a dispute over how a bobcat should be handled.
According to the pending lawsuit filed by former board member Peggy Summers, “Subsequently, when a volunteer entered the bobcat’s enclosure under Colette’s supervision, the bobcat swiped at the volunteer, drawing blood. The bobcat then lunged at the volunteer, causing injuries to the volunteer’s face, head and arms. The volunteer eventually had to be taken to a hospital emergency room, where multiple stitches were required.”
A year later, in May 2016, Colette dismissed about a dozen volunteers for allegedly having unnecessary direct contact with Wildlife Waystation animals.
The 22,000 acre Sand Fire in July 2016 caused Wildlife Waystation staff and volunteers to evacuate more than 70% of the estimated 400 animals on site.
The Creek Fire
Then came the 15,619-acre Creek Fire in December 2017.
“About two dozen Contra Costa firefighters,” sent 360 miles south from the northeastern San Francisco Bay area, “surrounded Wildlife Waystation,” reported Matthias Gafni for the Bay Area News Group. “About two-thirds of the animals were evacuated. However, some of the larger, more difficult animals had to remain, as the fire burned into the property,” eventually encircling it.
“We’ve experienced fires near the Waystation in the past, but the Creek fire was the first that reached inside the property and even came close to our animals,” Colette acknowledged afterward in a prepared statement.
“The fires blazed on all sides and a large part of the property was burned,” Colette said. “Without the heroic efforts of the fire crews and sheriffs over several days, including helicopter water drops of thousands of gallons in the early morning hours, these abandoned and injured wild animals would have died.”
January 2019 flood was the finale
The January 2019 flooding, in part resulting from the loss of Angeles National Forest vegetation in successive wildfires, apparently used the last of the Wildlife Waystation’s many more than nine lives.
The last of many colorful episodes involving the Waystation––and one of the most dangerous––came in early March 2019, when a small herd of bison escaped and had to be walked two miles back to what remained of the sanctuary, Colette recounted in one of her last fundraising videos posted to YouTube.