“Soon, I’ll be walking with tigers”
Wildlife Waystation’s Founder, Martine Colette, has passed away
It is with the heaviest of hearts that Wildlife Waystation announces the passing of our beloved founder, Martine Colette.
Born to a Belgian diplomat and his wife Laura in 1942, Colette developed a deep appreciation of nature during her childhood, which brought her face to face with the animals she grew to love and protect. At a young age, she observed wildlife while traveling with her father in Africa and ventured into the villages to learn from the locals about their native fauna. 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.
In 1965, after making the move to Hollywood and building a successful costume design business, Colette rescued her first animal. Working in the entertainment industry, she was no stranger to watching exotic animals go from fashionable pets to dangerous, unwanted houseguests. When no zoos had the interest or space to take them, people would refer to her as “the girl from Africa” to surrender their exotic pets. Once her house in Los Angeles could no longer comfortably hold her growing family of exotic species, she realized there was a surplus of animals desperately in need of sanctuary, and she needed to expand.
In 1976, Colette purchased 160 acres of land outside of Los Angeles in the Angeles National Forest and officially started the Wildlife Waystation. Her calculations had been correct—there was a dire need for homes for the influx of surrendered exotic animals. The sanctuary grew exponentially, rescuing animals from the pet trade, and entertainment industry, and even receiving and rehabilitating native wildlife brought to her by California Fish and Wildlife. At its peak, in the 1990s, thousands of animals were being cared for at any one time. And, under Colette’s direction, the Wildlife Waystation became internationally recognized and known. Animals from Ireland, New Zealand, around the world, and across the country sought refuge at the sanctuary. Colette organized and led a caravan to aid in the rescue of 27 big, maltreated cats from the infamous Ligertown Game Farm in Idaho.
In 1995, Colette was the first to accept chimpanzees from biomedical research. After initially agreeing to take in 16 chimpanzees from LEMSIP (Laboratory for Experimental Medicine and Surgery in Primates), Colette raced against the clock to expand facilities to receive an additional 32 chimpanzees in desperate need of placement before the biomedical facility closed. Well aware of the horrible past these primates had endured, Colette became an outspoken advocate for chimpanzees, forming some of her closest bonds with her newest sanctuary residents. Colette was an expert in chimpanzee behavior and referred to them as her “hairy children” while always recognizing they were not pets and respecting the chimps’ inherent need to integrate into their own chimpanzee family groups and hierarchy.
Martine Colette has been the recipient of numerous awards and accolades, including being named a Designated Animal Expert for the City of Los Angeles; California Fish and Wildlife Certificate for 20 Years of Dedicated Service; and the California State Assembly Certificate of Recognition for 22 Years of Tender Loving Care to the Animal World.
To many, Colette wrote the book on how to take in and rehabilitate abandoned animals. Carol Asvestas, a board member of the American Sanctuary Assn., called Colette’s refuge “the mother of all sanctuaries.” Colette is credited for changing the entire culture of the welfare and sanctuary of animals. Today, other sanctuaries have drawn on her model. The Wildlife Waystation was the first of its kind, offering safe haven to over 77,000 animals throughout the 43 years Colette ran it. Wildlife Waystation became one of Los Angeles’ most iconic sites, drawing Hollywood’s most elite as it was the place whose gates were always open for the city’s abused, unwanted, forgotten, and abandoned animals.
While her legacy lies in the animal lives she saved, Colette was beloved amongst those in the animal world and beyond. She was a born storyteller, captivating her audience with colorful stories and flawless delivery. She believed the future of the animals she loved so dearly depended on the younger generations seeing the value in nature. She hosted class field trips and organized outreach programs to the local schools in order to keep the “magic” of animals alive in the hearts of children everywhere.
Colette was a fearless, magnetic, and a natural-born leader with a quick wit and unmatched sense of humor. Her giant heart never allowed herself to turn away from an animal in pain. She put the well-being and safety of the animals above everything else, even when it came at her own expense or physical safety. Her bravery inspired others who worked alongside her to do the same. She stood her ground and fought to protect her legacy through multiple fires, severe floods, and numerous bureaucratic challenges. She worked every day to protect the animals under her care, once saying, “it’s not an option to say ‘oh well, this month I can’t do it.’ You have to go on, and you have to do it.” That kind of determination was at the heart of who she was.
Even during her last weeks, as she fought valiantly against cancer, she still received phone calls from others asking for help placing animals. Colette drew from her wealth of knowledge and vast connections. The last of the animals she saved will be placed in new homes thanks to her even after she’s laid to rest.
In one of her final comments, as she was surrounded by friends, Colette said, “Soon, I’ll be walking with tigers.” Those of us from Wildlife Waystation know she’ll be walking with thousands of other animals, as well.