Pet column: The elephants are weeping
Special to the Tribune
Last week a pioneer in animal welfare died at her renowned sanctuary near Sacramento. Pat Derby, a Hollywood animal trainer, used love and trust to train Flipper, Lassie, the Lincoln-Mercury Cougars and many other performing animals, including animal actors on the sets of “Gunsmoke,” “Daktari” and “Gentle Ben.” She crusaded against abusive treatment of animals in entertainment and advocated for the circus elephant in particular. The Positive Reinforcement Training now in general use undoubtedly evolved from Derby’s success. Pat wrote that she developed her own methods, “affection training,” and was stunned by the abuse and neglect she saw among other animal trainers in the entertainment industry. Her 1976 autobiography “The Lady and Her Tiger” was the first to expose the cruel treatment of performing animals.-
In 1985, with partner Ed Stewart, and with the financial support of aware Hollywood friends like Amanda Blake (Miss Kitty on Gunsmoke), Derby founded the Performing Animal Welfare Society sanctuary, the first designed to care for elephants. Located in Galt, it became a model for how to provide for the possibility of natural animal behavior in captivity. Derby felt that although the animals were safe and loved in her sanctuary, they were still captive and that was inherently wrong. The animals who could never be released back into the wild at least were free from cage confinement, starvation, beatings and chaining – which was their life in roadside exhibits, stage shows, zoo exploitation, as victims of exotic pet owner ignorance and neglect, on big-game shooting ranches and trafficked in the horrific black market trade.-
The Performing Animals Welfare Society became the lead voice calling attention to the plight of animals in captivity. Pat appeared in front of Congress and was a frequent guest at animal cruelty workshops. She willingly shared her unique knowledge so that others could learn to recognize the tricks of the performing animal trade and participate in rescue and prosecution. Derby advocated for all performing animals, but especially exotic species like elephants, apes, monkeys, lions and tigers. A second 23,000-acre sanctuary in San Andreas, Ark 2000, is a retirement community for more than 100 exotic animals.-
It is legend how elephants responded when Pat was present. In her book, Derby explained, “It had to begin with elephants. I was born in love with all elephants, not for a reason that I know, not because of any of their individual qualities – wisdom, kindness, power, grace, patience, loyalty – but for what they are altogether, for their entire elephantness.” As a child in Sussex, England, Pat became fascinated with the circus elephants but dismayed at how the were treated. She recalled “Elephants bring out a fury in many men as no other creature does: a rage to dominate and to hurt.” Derby recounts how each circus visit she would find at least a moment when she could be alone with an elephant: “I would be standing alone in that shadow that was home, between those scratchy, gunny sack feeling legs, while a trunk touched my face with a cold, sticky daintiness to see who I was and as far over me as the ceiling of my parents’ bedroom, a heart like an oven roared and flamed. I was never afraid. I breathed the elephants in as they breathed me in, and I disappeared into their rumbling tenderness – so much so that I could never understand how my father knew where to find me, nor how he could see me at all when he came looking.”
As a singer and dancer, Pat Derby understood what it was to be a performer. Later, with her husband, Ted, she bred, trained and rented out performing animals. The couple went through ethical and moral dilemmas trying to maintain their stable of actors in a national economic crisis. They parted amicably after long, repeated debate about acceptable methods to train them. The hard financial times brought Pat to her final decision that she must act to protect performing animals. “The Lady and Her Tiger” ends with: “If I’ve tried to do one thing in this book, it’s been to combat the romantic nonsense that so often leads people to try raising wild animals. I hope that it also holds something of the kindness and courage of gorillas, the deep humor of elephants, the old-fashioned family responsibility of wolves, the sweetness of cougars, the joyous silliness of Siberian tigers. And the acceptance and understanding of who they are, and what is right for them that belongs to all animals, no matter what we do to them, as it should belong to us all.”-
– Provided by the Lake Tahoe Humane Society and Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals to help “Keep Tahoe Kind.” Dawn Armstrong is the executive director.