- Associated Press - Sunday, December 4, 2011

LOS ANGELES (AP) - The disabled grizzly bears Huck, Jake, Pete and Mike arrived after a drive-thru animal park closed in 1985.

Drifter the tiger came as a cub after being seized in a 1997 Chicago drug raid.

Booie, the smoking chimp, was brought here in 1995 at age 28 when he was no longer needed for testing vaccines at the New York University School of Medicine.

Through the years, 76,000 animals have come and gone _ all welcomed by Martine Colette, founder and director of the Wildlife WayStation, one of the first animal sanctuaries in the country and, at one time, the largest.

Some of Hollywood’s biggest stars have rallied around the WayStation in the past decade. Still, the fate of its remaining 420 animals is endangered by a drop in donations, rising upkeep and food costs, and the inability to pay staff.

“If the WayStation does not find a way out from under the horrific financial burden it is currently facing, caused by the current recession and disastrous economic downfall, then all these animals that came to us for safe haven are in real jeopardy,” Colette said last week.

It’s a problem that extends well beyond the cages and enclosures on her property 30 miles north of downtown Los Angeles. Times are hard for all nonprofits, especially donation-driven sanctuaries, said Adam Roberts, executive vice president of Born Free USA, a California-based animal welfare and wildlife conservation organization.

In recent months, the Wild Animal Orphanage in San Antonio closed because of overcrowding and lack of money. A Florida man lived in a cage with two lions for a month to raise money for his rescue center.

In Ohio, a man released dozens of lions, tigers and other animals from a private preserve before killing himself. Sheriff’s deputies had to track and kill nearly 50 runaway animals. Authorities aren’t sure of his motive, but he and his wife owed at least $68,000 in unpaid taxes.

Colette, 69, seems like an unlikely rescuer.

Born in Paris, she traveled with her Belgian diplomat father when he went on safari. Friends, colleagues and customers of her Hollywood costume and design business knew she had been to Africa and Asia, and they were always bringing her unwanted or unsuitable animals.

“They’d say, `This ocelot is trying to eat our Chihuahua.”

She took in her first animal in 1966 and a decade later found herself living with 50 animals in a three-bedroom house. Something had to give, so she sold her business, bought 162 acres in Tujunga Canyon in the Angeles National Forest and incorporated the Wildlife WayStation in 1976.

It was meant to be a place to treat and rehabilitate injured animals before returning them to the wild. But you can’t release lions and tigers in this country and some animals were too sick to ever go back _ an eagle blind in one eye, the crippled grizzlies and the lab chimps.

She did not believe any animal in need should be turned away, no matter the problem, no matter the cost. It didn’t matter if an animal was wild, tame, hurt or handicapped. Whether it was a hummingbird in a matchbox or 27 lions and tigers from an illegal game farm in Idaho, she embraced them all.

“When pot-bellied pigs were in demand, we had 146 come in at one time. There were a lot of ostriches when they were billed as the next white meat,” she said.

For 35 years, Colette has had her hand out, gathering donations for her ever-changing stable of creatures. Hollywood has often rallied to her cause.

Betty White has been a supporter from the beginning. In 2001, Hollywood elite, including Brad Pitt, Bruce Willis, Russell Crowe, and Johnny Depp put together a CD called “Hollywood Goes Wild” to try and raise money for the WayStation. Sharon Stone made a YouTube plea for donations in 2009.

Colette’s plea has never been as urgent as last week’s.

She’s had to lay off about a third of her staff, which has ranged from 42 to 50 people, and she wonders how she’ll cover the $142,000 it costs a month to feed and care for the animals.

Problems extend to complying with environmental and permit regulations.

A decade ago, the WayStation had more than 1,100 permanent residents and 5,000 animals dropping in each year. But state officials banned public tours and barred the refuge from accepting new animals after waste was found in a stream and chimpanzees had contagious diseases.

A few years later, Los Angeles County refused to reissue its permit until roads were repaved, sewers replaced and electrical wiring upgraded.

The sanctuary acknowledged the environmental violations and started working on the expensive upgrades, tapping out its emergency fund.

Colette, who had hoped to retire, is open to a merger or partnership that would make money without exploiting the animals.

Someone suggested a wedding chapel on the picturesque grounds. Colette mused about a mountaintop restaurant.

“Everybody talks about how fabulous it is to come out here and listen to the lions roaring and the chimpanzees and tigers calling.”

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Online:

Wildlife WayStation, http://www.wildlifewaystation.org