Rescued, sheltered, & rehabilitated wildlife for 43 years
LAKE HAVASU, Arizona––Wildlife Waystation founder Martine Colette, 79, died on January 23, 2022.
Reported CBS-Los Angeles, “Colette, who had been suffering from lung cancer, died at her Lake Havasu home, according to her publicist.”
Wrote Mike Barnes for Hollywood Reporter, “She died surrounded by friends, and one of her final remarks was, “Soon, I’ll be walking with tigers.”
Colette had lived at Lake Havasu since soon after Wildlife Waystation closed in 2019. The former Wildlife Waystation premises in Little Tujunga Canyon, just east of Los Angeles, were sold in 2021.
“The mother of all sanctuaries”
“Larger than most municipal zoos,” Barnes explained, “Wildlife Waystation was frequented and supported by Hollywood luminaries. Carol Asvestas of the American Sanctuary Association called it ‘the mother of all sanctuaries,’” as the inspiration for hundreds of other nonprofit wildlife care facilities founded and operated in emulation of the model pioneered by Wildlife Waystation.
“Under Colette’s direction,” CBS-Los Angeles mentioned, “the Wildlife Waystation benefited from its proximity to Hollywood and was on the receiving end of star-studded fundraisers such as the Safari Brunch often held at the Playboy Mansion. Over the years, she was recognized by city and state officials for her work in rescuing wild animals.”
Wrote 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.”
Daughter of diplomat
That was all the short version. ANIMALS 24-7 documented Colette’s animal rescue career and the rise and eventual collapse of Wildlife Waystation in depth and detail for approximately 35 years.
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 and at times himself an animal rescuer.
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.
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, in 1965, “and became plugged into the Hollywood scene,” Sahugan continued.
“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 divorce, remarriage, and a second divorce, appeared as “Marie” in the 1967 World War II-based television series Garrison’s Gorillas, and worked mainly in Hollywood costuming.
“Learned something about roofs”
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.
“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.
“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.
Building the film sets on the Wildlife Waystation premises “included building some permanent structures,” Colette recounted in a 2013 memoir, and brought electricity to most of the site.
Flash floods & board splits
Wildlife Waystation grew rapidly, but seldom without stress.
Flash floods roaring down Little Tujunga Canyon first hit Wildlife Waystation in 1978.
A June 1992 canine distemper outbreak that apparently arrived with sick raccoons and skunks killed 18 lions, tigers, and other big cats, forcing Colette to close the sanctuary to visitors and volunteers for almost a year.
Perpetual 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.
That controversy had barely simmered down when in 1995 two of the most storied episodes involving Wildlife Waystation occurred just a month apart.
The first began on August 8, 1995, when New York University primate researcher Jan Moor-Jankowski 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 his laboratory for closure, and began arranging for the 225 chimpanzees and 200 monkeys at Moor-Jankowski’s facility to be transferred to a notorious supplier of nonhuman primates to biomedical research called the Coulston Foundation, located in Alamogordo, New Mexico.
Before NYU could deliver all of the chimps and monkeys to Coulston, veterinarian James Mahoney sent 50 chimps to Wildlife Waystation, and sent many other chimps and monkeys to other sanctuaries.
The Coulston Foundation was finally bought out of existence in 2002 by Center for Captive Chimpanzee Care founder Carole Noon (1950-2009.)
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 escape-proof roofs.
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 concrete 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.
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 Wikieup, Arizona, that she called the Wilderness Edge Wildlife Reserve, intending for it to eventually accommodate many of the larger animals from Wildlife Waystation. That plan fell through, though, and Colette was charged 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.
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 Wildlife Waystation was ordered to stop accepting animals and to reduce the sanctuary population, which had reached 1,200 animals.
Then-California state assembly member Tom McClintock (R-Granada Hills) responded by asking California Governor Gray Davis to commission an investigation of alleged California Department of Fish & Game misconduct in connection with issuing and publicizing the order before Colette even saw what she was accused of.
With public opinion favoring 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.
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.
But several times that expenditure would have been needed to bring Wildlife Waystation into full compliance with all regulations, state officials said at the time.
Barrett, at the end of her court appointment, `along with 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
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, but 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 clearing himself of all the legal entanglements that had resulted from his attempt to help.
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
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.
A year later, in May 2016, Colette dismissed about a dozen volunteers for allegedly having unnecessary direct contact with Wildlife Waystation animals. The former volunteers contended they were fired for raising animal care issues.
More fires & floods
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 still on site.
Then came the 15,619-acre Creek Fire in December 2017.
“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.
Another round of flash-flooding in January 2019, partially due to the loss of Angeles National Forest vegetation in successive wildfires, proved to be the Great Flood that finally sank Martine’s ark.
(For more Wildlife Waystation history, see Wildlife Waystation closed & to be dismantled, after 43 years, Wildlife Waystation closure: where are the animals now?, and Eight ex-Wildlife Waystation chimps can’t sleep on cardboard in an alley.)