She began as an animal trainer in Hollywood, but went on to campaign for their freedom from zoos and circuses and to establish one of the most respected sanctuaries in the world for rescued elephants. This week, at age 69, Pat Derby died at her home in Sacramento, close to the elephants who loved her at the Performing Animal Welfare Society (PAWS).
In her Hollywood days, Derby worked on TV shows like Flipper and Lassie. But like the renowned Ric O'Barry, whose career began with training dolphins for Flipper, but gave it all up to dedicate his life to protecting them, Derby left Hollywood and helped pass new laws in California protecting the animals on movie and TV sets.
In her autobiography, The Lady and Her Tiger, she wrote:
I was born in love with all elephants, not for a reason that I know, not because of any of their individual qualities – wisdom, kindness, power, grace, patience, loyalty – but for what they are altogether, for their entire elephantness.
In 1984, with her partner Ed Stewart, Derby founded PAWS on 30 acres in Galt, California. Today, that's just one of three sanctuaries, the society operates. And together, Pat and Ed pioneered ways of working with elephants that involved no use of force or any of the torture weapons still commonly in use by elephant "trainers" in the entertainment world.
Pat was born in England as Patricia Shelley, and is a direct descendant of the 19th Century writers Mary Shelley, the author of Frankenstein, and poet Percy Shelley, both of whom were anti-vivisectionists and vegetarians. Percy Shelley wrote:
“How unwarrantable is the injustice and the barbarity which is exercised toward these miserable victims.“They are called into existence by human artifice that they may drag out a short and miserable existence of slavery and disease, that their bodies may be mutilated, their social feelings outraged. It were much better that a sentient being should never have existed, than that it should have existed only to endure unmitigated misery.”
A good synopsis of Pat Derby's life can be found in Animal People in the form of a review by Merritt Clifton of her book. He writes:
There are few people ... who have done more than Pat Derby to encourage rethinking every aspect of keeping captive wildlife, from animal actors to zoological conservation. The Lady & Her Tiger narrates the experiences that reinforced her intuitive and inherited beliefs with the depth of background that has required the captive wildlife industry to sit up and pay attention, and–at times–to jump through hoops to avoid her wrath.
And he adds, referring to her work to fight off the people hired by a major circus owner to cause trouble at PAWS:
Perhaps Pat Derby will some day write the rest of her story, at least a portion of which would read like a spy novel.
Alas, that day is not to be. But, since we all know that elephants never forget, Pat Derby will long be remembered by the inhabitants of the sanctuaries she built for them.
Indeed, the next arrivals are expected to be the three elephants at the Toronto Zoo – due to be flown to PAWS this coming spring.