During her early career in Hollywood, Pat Derby tamed tigers and coached cougars. After a breakthrough book, she co-founded a world- renowned sanctuary and proved to be circus elephants' best friend.
Derby, 69, died Friday night at her San Andreas home at ARK 2000, a 2,300acre refuge she created for elephants, tigers and other exotic animals – most of them circus or movie veterans.
The animal trainer turned activist had been diagnosed with throat cancer in July 2010. After remission, the cancer returned last fall, but Derby kept her illness private.
Ed Stewart, her partner for 37 years and co-founder of the Performing Animal Welfare Society, was by her side.
Derby served as PAWS president and tireless advocate. PAWS will continue under Stewart's leadership, according to an official statement from the nonprofit organization.
A celebration of Derby's life will be held at a later date.
"Pat Derby was a partner, leader, mentor, teacher and friend," the statement added. "She was the first to champion the cause of performing animals, and today, because of her tireless work and fierce determination, most animal protection organizations now have captive wildlife programs that address the issues of performing animals."
More than 36 years ago, Derby began her crusade while working with captive wildlife as a Hollywood animal trainer. She handled Chauncey and Christopher, Lincoln Mercury's famous "Sign of the Cat" cougars, and worked with animals for such TV shows as "Gunsmoke," "Lassie," "Daktari" and "Flipper."
But Derby also witnessed widespread abuse and neglect of performing animals. That prompted her to write the 1976 best-seller, "The Lady and Her Tiger," which launched her crusade.
In 1984, Derby and Stewart co-founded PAWS and opened a wildlife sanctuary in Galt the following year. PAWS became the first U.S. elephant sanctuary.
Today, PAWS operates three Northern California sanctuaries, including ARK 2000 in San Andreas. The refuges are home to eight elephants and more than 100 other exotic animals.
"Initially we did a lot of protesting, and peaceful leafleting, educating the public about animals in circuses," Derby told The Bee in 2001. "I really believe the public gets it now."