Founder of PAWS sanctuary is fondly recalled at memorial

03/30/2013 12:00 AM

03/31/2013 1:27 PM

She was the voice of creatures unable to speak for themselves, from abused circus elephants to tigers mistreated on Hollywood movie sets.

On Friday night, hundreds of people from across the country gathered in Sacramento to pay tribute to Pat Derby, who dedicated her life to improving the plight of captive animals.

Derby's memorial service at the Crest Theatre in downtown Sacramento drew animal advocates from near and far, including Academy Award-winning actress Kim Basinger, Animal Defenders International directors Jan Creamer and Tim Phillips, and former major league baseball manager Tony La Russa.

Derby, who with life partner Ed Stewart founded the internationally renowned Performing Animal Welfare Society, a Northern California sanctuary for retired animal entertainers, died of cancer last month at age 69.

Her legacy includes helping to pass legislation to protect captive creatures in California, court victories that led to changes in the treatment of elephants in circuses, and PAWS, which has raised millions of dollars for the rescue and care of retired and mistreated animals.

"Pat lived for animals. She never wavered. She never slowed. She never stopped," said Stewart, who will continue to run PAWS from its sprawling ARK 2000 refuge in the hills of San Andreas. "Now it's up to all of us to continue her dreams."

Derby would not have wanted a solemn memorial, Stewart said. "No sad music!" she told him before she died. "Celebration!"

And so it was at the Crest on Friday night.

TV celebrity Bob Barker, who helped bankroll ARK 2000, said PAWS will continue to thrive despite its founder's death.

"This is perhaps the finest sanctuary in the world," he said. "Don't be concerned about its future.

"Good Lord, watch over Pat Derby and her wonderful animals."

Radio personalities Kitty O'Neal and Rob Stewart hosted the event, which featured a performance by the children's group Le Petite Cirque, speeches by Barker and others, and DVD tributes by U.S. Rep. Sam Farr, D-Carmel, and actress Lily Tomlin.

In the lobby of the stately theater, friends and admirers told stories about Derby's energy and determination to improve the lives of animals. Elephants were her favorites.

"She did it before it was hip," said Barbra Liberty, a longtime volunteer for area animal agencies, as guests sipped wine and nibbled on bruschetta. "She made a huge difference."

As she spoke, Basinger and comedian Kevin Nealon, both PAWS supporters, talked to Derby partner Ed Stewart and posed for pictures.

Derby started the PAWS empire with a small sanctuary in Galt in 1984 and spent the last few months of her life in San Andreas, looking out at the compound and its elephant residents as they grazed and slept in the sun, Ed Stewart recalled.

"I will always remember Pat in black rubber boots, jeans and a flannel shirt, leading a new elephant into a large enclosure for the first time," he said.

"That was when all of the fundraising and the paperwork paid off. That was her perk."

Call The Bee's Cynthia Hubert, (916) 321-1082. Follow her on Twitter @cynthia_hubert.

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