Martine Colette, the founder of Wildlife Waystation, a sanctuary for exotic animals that ran for 43 years just outside the Los Angeles city limits, died on Jan. 23 at a hospital in Lake Havasu, Ariz. She was 79.
The cause was lung cancer, said Jerry Brown, her publicist and friend.
Waystation, which Ms. Colette created in 1976 in the Angeles National Forest, was among the first sanctuaries of its kind for exotic animals that had been abused, abandoned, orphaned or injured. It would rehabilitate them and, if possible, return them to the wild.
After financial difficulties and staff turmoil in recent years, Ms. Colette retired in 2019, and Waystation was closed. During the sanctuary’s existence, its website said, it rescued more than 77,000 creatures, including Siberian and Bengal tigers, lions, leopards, jaguars and camels, as well as native wildlife, including foxes and various reptiles and birds.
Many of the animals were castoffs from the pet trade, traveling roadside attractions or research labs; others had been brought in from the wild. Some came from nearby Hollywood, where they had been used on the sets of movies and television shows and taken home as pets, only to become a nuisance or a danger to the homeowner.
Ms. Colette helped California develop many of its rules and regulations involving exotic animals, including restrictions on bringing them in from the wild and keeping them in homes. She was designated an animal expert for the city of Los Angeles, and Waystation became a model for similar refuges throughout the world.
Ms. Colette had moved to Hollywood with her husband, the first of three; all the marriages ended in divorce. (Information on survivors was not immediately available.) She built up a costume-design business there and even had bit parts in a couple of movies and in an episode of the television series “Garrison’s Gorillas.” In 1965, she rescued her first animal, a mountain lion she had seen in a five-by-five-foot cage at an animal show.
Within a decade, The Los Angeles Times reported, she had accumulated a house full of beasts and a yard full of wildcats. At that point, she sold her costume-design business, moved to Little Tujunga Canyon and opened Wildlife Waystation, which, at 160 acres, was larger than most municipal zoos.
The sanctuary earned an international reputation, and needy animals were sent there from around the world. Ms. Colette brought schoolchildren to Waystation and conducted outreach programs. In one of her more storied adventures, she organized and led a caravan in 1995 to help rescue 27 big cats from a ramshackle game farm in Idaho.
But the sanctuary had longstanding problems, including overcrowding and unsanitary and unsafe conditions. Authorities barred it from taking in any more animals in 2000 and closed it to the public; it reopened nine months later, after it had made $2 million in upgrades and reduced the animal population.
Despite support from Hollywood, Waystation, which had an annual budget approaching $3 million, struggled financially, and management of the facility became increasingly difficult. Numerous staff members resigned or were fired in later years, and the sanctuary faced the constant threat of natural disasters; a major fire wreaked havoc in 2017, followed two years later by massive flooding.
Ms. Colette resigned as president and chief operating officer in May 2019 and moved to Arizona a few months later, the board of directors voted to close the facility for good.
The California Department of Fish and Wildlife stepped in to oversee the care and relocation of more than 470 animals, including lions, tigers, wolves, owls, alligators and chimpanzees.
Eighteen chimps and two hybrid wolf-dogs are awaiting placement, a spokesman for the department said by email on Wednesday. Eleven of those chimps are likely to be sent to new homes later this year, he said, while money is being raised to find homes for the remaining seven.
Martine Diane Colette was born on April 30, 1942, in Shanghai. Waystation’s website said that her father was a Belgian diplomat and that she was raised in Nairobi, Kenya, where she attended boarding school. She spent much of her childhood traveling with her father throughout Africa.
“It was during these formative years of witnessing the horrors of trapping camps, hunting and exploitation of animals that she recognized her life’s true calling,” the website said.
Ms. Colette had a special affection for chimpanzees, having rescued many of them from research labs, and she formed close bonds with them; the Waystation website said she called them her “hairy children.”
Among her last words, the website said, were these: “Soon I’ll be walking with tigers.”