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Friend of At Least One L.A. Zoo Elephant Dies

Pat Derby saves elephants, and she already had one of the escapees from the Los Angeles Zoo living with her at ARK 2000 in the Mother Lode. She was prepared to take on all the zoo's elephants.

Pat Derby, founder of Ark2000, a 2000-acre refuge for elephants in the Mother Lode where at least one of the alleged pachyderm victims of the Los Angeles Zoo lived out her last days in happier refuge, has died.

Pat Derby died February 15 at 69 from throat cancer, with her long-time companion Ed Stewart at her side.

She and her former husband Ted Derby were famed animal trainers in Hollywood and after working a stint in the late ‘60s with movie animal trainer Ralph Helfer who had a place in an isolated canyon north of Newhall, they opened up their own place, first in Placerita Canyon in Newhall.

One of their most famous animals was Clarence the Cross-Eyed Lion, star of the television series Daktari. The cougar in the long-running Lincoln-Mercury television ad was one of theirs. The Derbys could get their animals to do things no one else could do, and not with the traditional whips but with something they called “affection training.” 

Pat met Ted Derby in San Francisco nightclubs in the mid-60s. She had a revue act and sang. He was her drummer.

But what really drew them together was their love of animals.  Even after their marriage ended, they kept working together and inevitably they would end up running animal orphanages, a court of last resort for wild animals that otherwise would have been euthanized. Most of the animals had had tragic histories--sold as “exotics,” many of their bears, lions, wolves, jaguars, lions, Bengali tigers and falcons had been horribly mistreated.

They tried to support their beasts with the “working” animals in movies. And they made good money because they were the best there was. But the creditors were always at the door--especially the butchers. 

Eventually, after a long series of travails, Ted Derby was fatally shot by someone for a variety of murky reasons near Tehachapi in 1976, and most of the animals went to be the first occupants of the Wildlife Waystation in the Angeles National Forest.  

That same year, Pat wrote a book called “The Lady & Her Tiger” and Hollywood celebrities came to her support. Kim Basinger and her then husband Alex Baldwin helped raise the millions of dollars to acquire the Mother lode land for ARK2000, and Pat Derby set about protecting some of the world’s myriad of abused elephants.

ARK2000 is about 350 miles north of Derby’s old stomping grounds around the Los Angeles basin. It’s in the Mother Lode on the western side of the Sierra, the great California  mountain range thrust up to the skies from an ancient seabed a mere hundred million years or so ago. The eastern side of the range is rocky and steep and sheer. The western side where gold was discovered in the Mother Lode is a land seemingly made pastoral by trees and flowers and lush, west green meadows, although the gentleness of the land is a bit misleading, since the Mother Lode is the result of the grinding of two great continental plates.

ARK2000 is half way between  Angels Camp and San Andreas in Calaveras County, immortalized in Mark Twain’s tales of the Gold Rush. 

Although she was many hundreds of miles away from the Los Angeles basin when she died, Derby was a character in the great controversy about the Pachyderm Forest at the Los Angeles Zoo only resolved by a Superior Court judge in the city’s favor this year. 

Retired game show host Bob Barker had offered $1.5 million to bring Billy the Elephant from the zoo to the Mother Lode where he could  join Ruby, a former Los Angeles Zoo elephant already in happier circumstances at  Ark2000. Folks like Cher and Lilly Tomlin showed up at Los Angeles council meetings where there was furious arguments about the zoo and its beleaguered elephants.

Actress Betty White, also an animal lover, defended the zoo’s treatment of its elephants, despite the opinion this year by Superior Court Judge John L. Segal saying the elephants were treated badly, and had been forced to live terrible, almost abusive lives. But Segal stopped just short of saying their treatment was so bad the zoo pachyderm forest should be closed down. This killed Barker’s plans to send Billy to ARK2000.

Despite the the title of her best-selling book in 1976, this was where she first confessed her biggest love was for elephants. “It had to begin with elephants. I was born in love with all elephants; not for a reason that I know, not because of their  individual qualities– wisdom, kindness, power, grace, patience, loyalty -but for what they are altogether, for their entire elephantness.”

A direct descendant of the great English poet Percy B. Shelly, Pat was born in England and came to seek her fortune in America when she was 19. So there was a lot of thinking and philosophy behind her love of animals. There were a couple of writers who formed her views. One was Konrad Lorenz, whose pioneering work on imprinting in ducks in such volumes as “King Solomon’s Ring” confirmed her own observations with the animals she was always collecting. Then there was Dr. John Lilly, who wrote about the brains of whales and porpoises.

Derby’s experiences was primarily with land animals, and ultimately she concluded, “People just aren’t willing to accept the act that our brains may not be the best ones. When you spend time with elephants, you realize the way they communicate with very sophisticated systems of calling one another and sending messages every days, in ways that put them way ahead of us.”

She noted that homo sapiens have spent centuries tormenting the largest creatures on earth, the elephants, as well as the largest animals in the sea, whales. What she wanted to do with ARK2000 was attempt to try and make up for “the terrible years they have spent among us.”

But she also noted, it is not just the size of animals that matters. She pointed out that many researchers believe dolphins have more highly developed brains than our own, and that despite the fact people deride the intelligence of birds, “many birds are highly intelligent.”

And she added, “We go to church. We study, we meditate, always trying to seek the truth about ourselves, to discover ourselves, to find peace. People make millions and kill themselves. Elephants just have that inner peace. You just look at them, and wonder, where does it come from.”

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Lionel Rolfe is the author of several books, including “The Menuhins: A Family Odyssey,” “Literary L.A.,” “The Uncommon Friendship of Yaltah Menuhin and Willa Cather” and “Fat Man on the Left,” all available on Amazon’s Kindle store. He will sign his latest book, “The Misadventures of Ari Mendelsohn: A Mostly True Memoir of California Journalism” at Skylight Books, 1818 N. Vermont Ave. in the Los Feliz section of Los Angeles, on March 30 at 5 p.m. The new books is available from Amazon digitally and in paper.

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