Animal sanctuary continues to grow after losing founder

02/10/2014 12:00 AM

02/10/2014 8:53 AM

In her final weeks, as cancer sapped her strength, Pat Derby would gaze out the window at the elephants and other wild creatures that inhabit the sanctuary she founded in the golden hills of Calaveras County.

Lying in her hospital bed in the living room of her home at her ARK 2000 compound, she no longer could chirp out greetings or groom the pachyderms, bears and big cats that occupy the spectacular 2,300-acre haven she created for retired performing animals.

Derby died a year ago at age 69, leaving management of the massive refuge to her life partner, Ed Stewart. He has pressed on, adjusting to his new role as the face of an internationally known sanctuary that the longtime couple built and operated together.

“This is her legacy,” Stewart said, as he stood under brilliant blue skies last week watching Maggie, a refugee elephant from a zoo in Alaska, munch on oak tree branches at the property southeast of Sacramento. “This is the dream that she had, and she made it a reality. It’s up to us to continue it.”

The nonprofit refuge, the largest of its kind in the world, continues to function smoothly under the direction of Stewart, more than two dozen employees and a small army of volunteers. Stewart, shy and soft-spoken, not only maintains the sprawling property and tends to animals but also has taken on the roles of media spokesman, conference panelist and vocal activist, tasks that Derby handled for decades while her partner worked mostly behind the scenes.

At 62, Stewart is tall and sturdy, with a face that remains boyish. “I still get out to the barn at 7 every morning, I work hard all day and I go to bed very early,” he said. “In that way, not much has changed.”

In other ways, of course, nothing is the same.

Stewart met Derby when she was working as a Hollywood animal trainer in the late 1970s. Derby had grown disillusioned with animal training techniques and wanted to bring about change. Stewart, working for his brother’s car dealership at the time, joined her in the cause. They founded the Performing Animal Welfare Society in 1984.

“We never really planned to have a sanctuary,” Stewart said. “Our plan was to get legislation passed, to raise awareness about animal cruelty and hold the industry accountable” for the treatment of animals that entertained in circuses, zoos and other attractions.

Then along came Elsa, a tiger that had been held as evidence in a cruelty case. “Animal control asked us to take her,” Stewart said. “So we had a sanctuary.” Word spread, and animals kept coming.

PAWS still houses dozens of smaller, sicker creatures at its facility in Galt, including primates, mountain lions and bobcats. The couple launched the Calaveras County compound in 2000 to accommodate larger animals, particularly elephants.

ARK 2000 is now home to 21 tigers, 11 elephants, seven bears, four lions and a black leopard, many of them former circus performers and zoo residents. It is designed to simulate natural habitats, with wading pools and varied terrain. Its elephant barns are equipped with heated stalls and therapeutic pools. Closed-circuit cameras monitor animals around the clock.

Besides caring for the animals, PAWS investigates reports of abused performing and exotic animals and assists in investigations by regulatory agencies that oversee captive wildlife. Stewart has traveled the world to advocate for animals and speak out against practices such as the ivory trade.

“Pat and I did everything together for 37 years,” said Stewart, tears welling in his eyes as he sat in his living room recliner on a recent day, an arm’s length from the green chair where Derby spent her evenings. “I miss talking to her. Working with her. Things like trimming elephant feet.

“The elephants loved Pat,” he mused with a smile. “She would stand next to them and feed them while I would file and trim their feet. Routine maintenance. Very romantic.”

Now their modest manufactured home, decorated with mementos from their travels, is too quiet at night. The compound too dark. The kitchen, where Derby prepared vegetarian dishes, is seldom used for cooking these days.

Derby, a force of nature with her lilting voice and coppery hair, was Stewart’s perfect counterpart, he said. He was always “the practical one.” Derby, he said, was the dreamer who never balked at accepting an animal in need or navigating obstacles such as money and distance.

During more than 30 years of working together, they led numerous successful efforts to shut down poorly run breeding facilities and sanctuaries, and raised millions of dollars for the care of captive animals. Derby sat on state committees that set standards for the care of captive wildlife, and initiated congressional hearings on federal enforcement of the Animal Welfare Act. She and Stewart filed complaints and lawsuits over the treatment of circus animals, one of which resulted in Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey agreeing to donate its retired elephants to PAWS and to pay for their care.

“Pat never took ‘no’ for an answer,” Stewart said. “Failure was never an option.”

And so it continues at ARK 2000, which operates on an annual budget of about $3 million, funded mostly through private donations. The past year “has been pretty good” for the nonprofit financially and otherwise, he said, despite the loss of Derby.

But for Stewart personally, life after Derby remains a work in progress.

Her battle with cancer began in the summer of 2010, when she felt a lump on the side of her neck, Stewart recalled. The lump turned out to be a swollen lymph node and a symptom of a cancer that apparently originated on her tongue. The treatments that followed were harrowing.

“Pat was not the world’s best patient,” Stewart acknowledged.

Derby was claustrophobic and terrified of needles, and would rather have been just about anywhere but in a doctor’s office or hospital. She suffered burns from radiation treatments, and hair loss from chemotherapy. A misplaced feeding tube caused a systemic infection that nearly killed her. She longed to be close to the animals, Stewart said, but he forbade much contact because her immune system had been hammered by the treatments.

“I was so exhausted at times that I really wasn’t functioning,” he said. “But that’s OK if you can see light at the end. We had hope.”

Once Derby’s chemotherapy was complete, “We thought we were done,” Stewart said. “We thought she had beat it.” Derby resumed many of her former duties.

Then, in March 2012, her body was racked by fevers that chilled her to the core, even as Stewart draped her in blankets and cranked up the heat. A few months later a scan showed that the cancer had invaded Derby’s liver.

“Things went very fast after that,” Stewart said. “We all knew what was happening.” Hope for Derby’s survival was fading. Hospice care would be the next step.

In her final weeks, Stewart said, Derby enjoyed watching old movies and cooking shows, and gazing out at the sanctuary and the animals they had saved. He built a fountain outside their living-room window so she could watch finches play in the water. She died at home last February.

“Pat appreciated all of nature, the grasses and flowers and animals and birds,” said Jackie Gai, the veterinarian at ARK 2000. “She’s still very much here. Everywhere I go, I see her and I feel her presence.”

Derby would have been pleased, said Stewart, with the progress of ARK 2000’s newest residents: three African elephants that arrived from Canada three months ago and are still getting accustomed to their spacious new surroundings. Named Iringa, Thika and Toka, the pachyderms had lived at the Toronto Zoo, unable to graze, roam or engage in “natural elephant behavior,” Stewart said.

Now they wander for acres, navigating hills, splashing in ponds and using their trunks to toss clouds of Calaveras County dirt onto their backs.

“Pat always wanted a place where elephants could disappear into their surroundings,” Stewart said, scanning the horizon for his new charges.

In the afternoon sunlight, he pointed into the distance, where Iringa vanished behind a cluster of trees.

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