Wildlife Waystation – Magic Kingdom in our Midst

by Martha Michael

There’s a lot of science supporting the theory that people end up looking like their pets. And while studies mostly refer to the physical appearance of dogs and their owners, there’s one local example with a much broader sampling.

656250006 a huge male african lion panthera leo rests in its enclosure at a wildlife rescue facility – animal is a wildlife rescue – species is native to subsaharan africa
694920034 an arctic wolf canis lupus wanders about its enclosure at a wildlife rescue facility – animal is a wildlife rescue animal – species is endangered in its native habitat

Exotic animal sanctuary Wildlife Waystation is a lot like its founder, Martine Colette. They both have a magical quality about them that’s enigmatic – both rugged and hardy, but at the same time possessing a charming, refined quality – a combination that matches their location in the wooded hills of Little Tujunga, just minutes from Los Angeles.

The 40-year-old haven for animals including lions and tigers and bears (and more) provides comfortable housing for about 450 residents and is the home of their vigilant protector (Colette).

“We’d all like to live an ideal life,” she said. “For me, it’s living like this – in the middle of the forest, amongst the trees in a 1938 cabin. That, to me, is an ideal life.”

Colette took in her first animal in 1965 and established the rescue in a few different locations before moving to the current 160-acre property in 1976.

There are few enclosures, animals or trees she wasn’t directly involved with creating.

“I used to weld, I used to build cages,” she said. “I used to build den boxes. I hammered, I sawed … I drove tractors, I drove bulldozers. I dug ditches with Ditch Witches. There was nothing that went on that I was not a part of.”

The accommodations for the animals may appear similar to those in a zoo, but the founder is quick to point out that her four-legged residents are happy, healthy and, for the most part, they live longer than they would in the wild.

“As much as I would love to see everything living in the wild, the wild isn’t everything it’s cracked up to be,” she said. “The wild is pretty tough. Here you’ve got room service, maid service, dentistry. If something goes wrong the plumber comes in.”

The largest number of animals she has housed at one time is 1,250 and many of the furry and feathery residents are saved from poor and uncomfortable circumstances. There are wolves at the Waystation, for instance, that were being raised for their fur and several abandoned “pet fad” victims. Also, Collette was the first to take in chimpanzees used for biomedical research. There are currently 45 chimps living in a three-story colony at the Waystation.

“In the western United States, we are the biggest chimp sanctuary,” she said, adding that it’s easy for activists to lobby for animal rights, but it’s impossible to save these primates without financial support.

All of the animals at Wildlife Waystation receive enrichment, which may be toys, boxes with “surprises” inside, or even Christmas trees they can sniff and experience, just to spice up their lives.

And when there’s any objection to their housing, Colette points out the vast improvement from their previous circumstances, comparing life at the Waystation to upscale apartment living.

“These animals don’t lack for anything,” Colette said. “When somebody comes and says they need to be in bigger pens I say, ‘I agree with you.’ I say, ‘Would you like to buy it?’ … I’d be happy to build one.”

A 501(c)(3) nonprofit, the Wildlife Waystation gets no government money. It survives through donations, memberships, attendance at lunch and dinner parties and sponsorship of animals. Individuals can leave money to the sanctuary through bequests written into their wills.

It costs approximately $250,000 per month, or $3 million a year, just to maintain the animals currently housed there. That doesn’t include additions, upgrades or repairs.

“My goal is if I can have every animal sponsored, that’s money we don’t have to raise, and they can visit their animal at prearranged times,” she said.

Prices are on the website; adult membership is $50 for the year, and a portion of it is tax-deductible.

What many find the most entertaining way to contribute to the Waystation is by attending a Safari Dinner event or a luncheon tour. That’s when you get an exclusive experience with wild animals and a taste of Colette’s cultivated palate. The fine foods and wine served to guests in multiple courses on formal table settings is a practice that’s second nature to Martine Colette. In fact, it’s another perfect metaphor for the founder and her beloved nonprofit sanctuary: meeting very real, basic needs with first-class care.

Contact the Wildlife Waystation by calling 818-686-6681 or visit WildlifeWaystation.org.

Safari Parties
You can support the Wildlife Waystation by attending a Safari Party – which can be booked as a private engagement or you can join a group event already on the calendar. Upon arrival, you are led to a terrace for wine and other beverages, along with appetizers, and sometimes a volunteer is there with an exotic animal for you to see up close and personal.

These exclusive luncheon or dinner opportunities include a full tour of the Wildlife Waystation and end with a generous gourmet meal with founder Martine Colette. Dining outdoors at a formal table surrounded by trees full of twinkle lights ends your experience, which is at the same time comfortable, educational and other-worldly. Visit WildlifeWaystation.org for prices and details.