Pat Derby, Hollywood animal trainer turned animal rights activist, dies at 70


In this Feb. 26, 2009 file photo, Pat Derby, founder and director of the Performing Animals Welfare Society is seen at the ARK 2000 Sanctuary near San Andreas, Calif. Derby, a former Hollywood trainer, has died at age 69, her organization said Monday. (Rich Pedroncelli/AP)
February 21, 2013

Pat Derby could coax Willie the bear with a handful of jelly beans, make Christopher the cougar twitch his tail on command, and even kiss Rijo the tiger.

But when it came to Walt Disney, she had less patience. Ms. Derby, a Hollywood animal trainer turned animal rights activist, once walked out on him in the middle of filming for “Walt Disney’s Wonderful World of Color” after he subjected her bear cub to two hours of retakes under the hot studio lights.

She always got along better with animals than people, anyway, she often said. “I am not a natural at public relations,” she once wrote.

Ms. Derby, 70, who later devoted her life to protecting and rescuing exotic and performing animals, died Feb. 15 at her home in San Andreas, Calif. The cause was throat cancer, said her longtime partner, Ed Stewart.

Their home in San Andreas, southeast of Sacramento, was the site of a 2,300-acre animal sanctuary they established in 2000.

In the 1960s and ’70s, Ms. Derby was known in Hollywood circles as a trainer of anteaters, tigers and grizzly bears. She worked on the TV shows “Flipper,” “Lassie” and “Gunsmoke” but later quit to become one of the most vocal critics of the abuse of animals in show business.

Her 1976 book, “The Lady and Her Tiger,” was a stinging exposéof the industry’s practices and angered much of the Hollywood elite. Her organization, the Performing Animal Welfare Society, or PAWS, became a leading voice calling attention to the plight of animals in captivity and operated one of the first sanctuaries for former wild animal pets and performers in the United States.

Ms. Derby could be a formidable force defying anyone she perceived to be mistreating animals. She made friends of some zoos and foes of others.

She once called the Hollywood chapter of the American Humane Association, which certifies films using animals, little more than a public relations firm for movie studios. Another time, she saw video of a circus elephant in Oregon being struck with a rod. Two days later, she was at the circus organizers’ door with TV cameras.

Patricia Bysshe Shelley was born June 7, 1942, in East Sussex, England. Her father was a University of Cambridge professor. In her book, she wrote that she was related to the English poet Percy Bysshe Shelley.

At 15, she moved on her own to New York City and dabbled in ballet and theater before moving to California.

She met animal trainer Ted Derby at a San Francisco nightclub where they were both performing. He showed her pictures of himself tumbling with tigers and kissing bears; they married in 1964.

The couple worked as a team, training wild animals for TV and movies, pioneering “affection methods” that avoided causing pain for the animal. They kept their menagerie first at a ranch in Newhall, Calif., and later in Buellton, Calif., where they set up a roadside zoo to make enough money to feed the animals. But the couple clashed over his insistence on using an electric cattle prod as a training tool and divorced in the mid-1970s, dividing the animals between them.

With no room to care for them, Ms. Derby was forced to euthanize many of the animals for fear they would go to unkind owners. It was an experience that haunted her for years.

In 1976, Ms. Derby was at a Cleveland auto show working with Christopher, her cougar in Lincoln Mercury ads, when she met Stewart, whose brother was a local manager for the car company. Stewart had never owned a cat or dog, but when the feisty, fire-haired Derby asked him to clean Christopher’s dressing room, he obliged.

They eventually moved to a ranch in Mendocino, Calif., taking Ms. Derby’s dozen remaining animals with her. They intended to give them room to roam until their last days.

But call after call came about abused elephants, tigers purchased as pets, and retired zoo critters with nowhere to turn. The couple formed PAWS in 1984, lobbied the state for stricter standards for animals in captivity and helped to pass a related law the next year. They also opened their first animal sanctuary.

To anyone who knew her well, Ms. Derby was simply an “elephant lady.” She nursed them back to health, often sleeping next to the huge mammals in the barn. She fought to end their use in traveling shows such as circuses, a practice she considered cruel.

“I cannot imagine living without elephants,” she told a Modesto, Calif., newspaper in 2004. “Unless they could all go back to the wild and live there.”

— Los Angeles Times

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