Ghana, left, and Zaire, who were rescued from an exotic animal farm in Idaho, doze at the Wildlife Waystation north of Los Angeles’ Lake View
Ghana, left, and Zaire, who were rescued from an exotic animal farm in Idaho, doze at the Wildlife Waystation north of Los Angeles' Lake View Terrace. (Michael Owen Baker Staff Photographer)

The images of slaughter flashed around the world - of regal lions piled atop Bengal tigers killed at a menagerie in Ohio.

The carnage of nearly 50 innocent creatures especially hit those who love wildlife. But few felt the loss more deeply than Martine Colette, who for 35 years has cared for exotic animals at her sanctuary in the Angeles National Forest.

"It's so sad," said Colette, founder of the Wildlife Waystation north of Lake View Terrace, as cockatoos squawked across Little Tujunga Canyon. "It was a tragedy, to see these bodies just piled up, thrown on the lawn.

"It was heartbreaking - it actually made me cry."

By now, the details of Tuesday's tragedy in rural Ohio are well known. A 62-year-old ex-con who collected exotic pets freed them and took his own life.

The animals scattered through the night. And reluctant sheriff's deputies set out on a big-game hunt that dropped 48 of Terry Thompson's animals.

Among the dead were 18 rare Bengal tigers, 17 lions, six black bears, two grizzly bears, three mountain lions and a baboon. One monkey was reported missing.

The Buckeye State, which allows residents to own dangerous pets, was ranked by the Humane Society as one of the worst five states in regulating dangerous animals.

California, however, is one of 18 states that bans the private ownership of large cats, primates and dangerous reptiles, as well as wolves and bears and other exotic species.


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"California has the strongest wildlife laws in the United States," said Fish and Game spokesman Andrew Hughan. "Any exotic species, you just can't have it.

"If you want to establish a sanctuary, it's fine, as long as you can comply with multiple laws, regulations and permits."

Hundreds of facilities that bill themselves as sanctuaries, exhibitors, educators and Hollywood rental companies have state and federal permits to house dangerous animals.

In Los Angeles County, the U.S. Department of Agriculture lists 75 exotic animal exhibitors, including nine for exotic big cats.

They include the elephant, rhinoceros and tiger at Serengeti Ranch in Acton; the jaguar, leopard and puma at Cougar Hill Ranch in Littlerock; and the pride of seven lions at Hollywood Animals in Santa Clarita.

"I would definitely say that Los Angeles County is an epicenter for ownership of exotic animals, mainly because of Hollywood," said Catherine Doyle, of In Defense of Animals, in Los Angeles. "But they're not always good for the animals."

While the USDA inspects exhibitors once a year, the state Department of Fish and Game requires permits for sanctuaries, educational facilities and rehab centers for exotic species.

The state also requires they be inspected by veterinarians twice a year, and that operators file an emergency action plan.

While some critics say such oversight is minimal, others decry any ownership of exotic animals, even for them to star in Hollywood.

"A wild animal belongs in the wild," said Melya Kaplan, founder of Voice for the Animals, which has advocated closing the elephant exhibit at the Los Angeles Zoo. "There's no reason to have wild animals in entertainment or to have them as pets."

It was six years ago that a 350-pound tiger named Tuffy escaped an animal sanctuary in Moorpark. After a month on the lam, it was shot and killed by federal officials near an elementary school.

While prosecutors had hoped for a 14-month federal prison sentence for its owner, Gert Einar "Abby" Hedengran received eight months of house arrest for obstructing justice and not keeping proper records.

"To get a tiger for a pet is a recipe for disaster," Colette said. "Wild animals do not belong in people's backyards. They should be handled in a professional environment, with proper husbandry. There must be checks and balances. There must be a protocol for inspections.

"And the only way you can do that is to be an exhibitor."

If anyone knows about plans and permits, it's Colette, whose Wildlife Waystation ran afoul of ever-more-stringent local, state and federal laws more than a decade ago. 

The nation's largest exotic-

wildlife sanctuary had long taken in the abandoned, abused and injured at its 160-acre refuge.

Generations of school kids trekked up winding Little Tujunga Canyon Road to ogle opossums, chimpanzees and the king of beasts.

Then in 2001, the Waystation was closed to visitors when the county ordered it to widen roads, fix its sewage system and upgrade its water system for fighting fires. Soon afterward, it admitted to violating 300 federal animal-welfare laws.

Four years ago, the Waystation nearly closed for lack of funds, but was saved by an infusion of public help.

With its former budget cut in half to $1.5 million, the Wildlife Waystation now cares for 375 exotic animals with the help of 400 volunteers. Its USDA inspection record has been unblemished since 2008.

But until it can obtain county permits, it cannot re-open to the public, Colette said, or accept many rescued animals.

It will take about $250,000 to make the upgrades needed for a conditional-use permit, which she hopes to apply for by early next year

"We're almost there, we're almost there," said Colette, a former costume designer for the likes of Eartha Kitt, Earth, Wind and Fire and the fringe-leather look for Michael Jackson. "The future, if we can, is to go back to doing what we've always done - rescue, rehabilitate and care for wild animals."

Sixteen years ago a convoy of trucks left the Wildlife Waystation on a rescue mission to Idaho.

An unknown number of lions and tigers had escaped from a squalid exotic animal farm - similar to the one in Ohio - where 18 had been shot by police.

The Waystation took home three tigers and 24 lions, one of which was only 6 days old.

Now, Colette looks in on Zaire, Katatanga and Ghana, three lions from that rescue. Zaire, a male, nudges Ghana, a female, in a seeming nod of affection.

But Colette, who learned about animals as a girl eyeballing zoo traders in Africa, knows better.

"Actually, she came in and pushed him. She took his space, and now he's letting her know."

dana.bartholomew@dailynews.com