Rising Up: Wildlife Waystation Escapes Disaster

Despite reports of confusion, lack of leadership, or plan, sanctuary successfully evacuates in the face of the Sand Fire

By Eddie Rivera, News Editor

Part two of a two-part series

Editor’s note: Last month, The Foothill Record published the first of a two-part series detailing a host of accusations and complaints regarding the leadership and management of the Wildlife Waystation in Little Tujunga Canyon. A rapidly growing number of volunteers and former employees spoke out against founder and former executive director Martine Colette, with concerns about her treatment of those who disagreed with her policies, and with what they saw as her “privileged” arrangement with rent, salary, and various expenses paid to her.

We attempted to contact her or her staff at the Wildlife Waystation for a response last week, but were rebuffed over the phone. The Waystation’s office administrator, Allie Delgado, was furious that we were calling and refused to allow us to speak to anyone. We asked if we could send email questions to Colette directly. Delgado responded, “You can, but if I were her, I would not answer them.” So we sent our questions.

The following day, new Waystation executive director Susan Hartland called back and informed us that the Waystation would not be responding to any of our questions, a number of which had to do with emergency and evacuation plans.

And then the Sand Fire broke out.

In a chaotic Saturday of fear, flames, and confusion, a massive volunteer effort took place at the Waystation that would eventually remove nearly all of the 400 animals from danger. We spoke to a number of participants about their experiences on Saturday, the worst of the fire days for the Waystation. The varied experiences drew a picture of heroism, frustration, and confusion, as the fire closed in and the Waystation attempted to evacuate.

The calls first began to go out on Friday. The Sand Fire had suddenly grown from 100 acres to 10,000 acres, and it was heading south to Kagel Canyon. With very little backup equipment, transport, or cages of their own, the Waystation began putting out social media calls on Facebook on Friday evening and into the weekend. The Waystation needed places to put animals, they needed flatbed trucks and trailers, and they needed medicines. Also, they needed veterinarians.

Hundreds of volunteers from near and far responded, either in person or by coordinating logistics or by arranging services. The Waystation, by many witness accounts, was overwhelmed and unable to handle many of the responses.

Paul Lee Padgett, a photographer and filmmaker from Irvine, and a longtime supporter of the Waystation, was on the set of a film shoot when he saw the urgent calls for help. He hopped into his Corvette and drove 90 miles an hour north to the site.

“I prayed for a safe and fast trip, and it was like the Red Sea parted,” he said.

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When Padgett arrived, the line of trucks and trailers and gawkers had stretched from Osborne and Foothill in Lake View Terrace, all the way up the road to the Waystation. Seeing no way up the canyon, Padgett cornered a police officer, showed his National Geographic media credentials, and was eventually given a police escort to the Waystation.

Padgett quickly gathered as much information as he could. What was needed? What do you have? How much medicine? What kind? He then drove back down the hill to a restaurant parking lot, where he immediately set up a command post. As a pilot, former rescue diver, and disaster-relief specialist-contractor who has actually seen an F5 tornado, he knew the drill, so to speak.

“I set up a strike force,” he told The Foothill Record. “I lined up trucks and trailers, according to what was needed.” Padgett also received help from the staffs of state assemblymember Patty Lopez and other elected officials.

The calls for help kept going out on Facebook. An urgent request was sent out for a large air-conditioned warehouse or airport hangar to house the Waystation chimps. For at least an hour, messages were traded: There was no facility; yes, there was a facility. We need it now, we don’t need it now. We need it NOW.

Finally, Signature Flight Support at Van Nuys Airport notified the Waystation that they had cleaned and prepped a large hangar to house the chimps. They waited for a call back.

Back at the Waystation, former experienced volunteers and employees who had been let go by Colette arrived to help. They were turned away.

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“There didn’t seem to be anyone in charge,” said former employee Michael Rapp, who was asked to leave the site. He bemoaned the lack of any emergency plan or supplies, saying, “`They asked for manpower, crates, vehicles, medication, places to take the animals, and money. What plan could they possibly have had? The plan was to beg everyone on Facebook.’”

Rapp went home and monitored the situation as best he could on social media.

Tracy Samcyzk saw the frantic messages on Facebook early that Saturday morning, rushed to the Waystation, and then asked what was needed. She had an SUV, but she knew that would not be enough.

“They told me they needed a trailer, so I went to U-Haul and rented a flatbed trailer and came back.”

Samcyzk joined the long, slow line of cars, trucks, and trailers waiting to go up the hill. At the Waystation welcome center, all was confusion.

Samcyzk and other volunteers began asking, “Where can we go? What can we do? What do you need?” Eventually, after waiting more than 4 hours in line, Samcyzk and others simply moved up into the parking lot area.

“No one knew anything.” she said. “Everyone was, `I don’t know.’” Among those asked and failing to answer was Executive Director Hartland.

“I would ask her something and she would say, `I don’t know, but I will check.’ And there would be no follow-up,” Samcyzk recalled.

Samcyzk acknowledged that the situation was stressful, adding, “We knew they were working hard, but there was just no communication anywhere. It was hard to know anything. There was no way we could help.”

Eventually Samcyzk was told that her trailer was needed, and she positioned it to be ready. Then, she said, she was told by a staffer, “We have to evacuate, but don’t worry, all the animals are out.” This was at about 3 p.m. Confused, Samcyzk headed out, but stopped when she saw Hartland.

“Look,” Samcyzk told Hartland. “I’m not trying to be an a—hole, but all the animals are not out. You’re lying. Are you sure we have to evacuate?”

Hartland, confused, reportedly said, “I don’t know.”

Samcyzk slammed on her brakes and said, “You’re lying. I can see animals from here, I can see wolves, I can hear the chimps, I can hear the peacocks, they’re down there.”

As Hartland responded, Samcyzk noticed a sheriff’s deputy standing nearby and asked, “Do we need to evacuate?” The deputy responded, “no.” Samcyzk eventually left in the early evening, frustrated at the lack of organization. She had been there all day.

Apparently, the confusion over evacuation arose when the fire department reportedly told Hartland they could stop evacuating at that point. That critical message was never communicated, thus the confusion.

Meanwhile, Signature Flight Support (at the Van Nuys Airport) continued to wait for the phone call to prepare for the arrival of the chimps. The call would never come. Said one former employee, who was closely watching the situation unfold, “There was no plan, there were no transport cages, no transport vehicles, no accredited facilities to take the animals to, and no working generator in case of power outages.”

The final successful evacuation would not be completed until late Saturday. There are differing accounts, however, as to whether or not any of the chimps were eventually evacuated, or left to be sheltered in place. At 3:23 p.m. the Waystation had posted on its Facebook page, “The bears have been loaded and headed to safety now!” But at 9:30 p.m, a volunteer leaving the site had reported that bears, along with other animals, were still at the Waystation.

Meanwhile, Padgett was thinking, as he saw flames crest the ridge above Little Tujunga Canyon and begin to head down at about 1:30 in the afternoon, that staff and volunteers had about 10 minutes before they would have to leave, if the fire didn’t stop.

And then the flames suddenly, inexplicably stopped.

“We were two-thirds surrounded by flames at that point,” Padgett said later, in a phone interview. “I seriously thought there might be a moment where we would literally have to leave the animals to save ourselves.”

The moment came and went.

Still, the gargantuan task of sedating and transporting the exotics—lions and tigers—as well as moving out the entire menagerie, had been ongoing. According to Padgett, between 12 to 17 veterinarians, led by Waystation vet Rebecca Walser, along with vet technicians, were attempting to calm the animals. The temperature was over 100 degrees, likely higher in the compound, and a generator stopped working. There were no phone lines, poor cell-phone reception, and little food and water.

Said a former employee, “They had a perfectly good generator that they had purchased five years ago from a foundation grant, along with a truck. The generator could have powered the whole facility.”

According to the employee, the generator had not been used since its purchase, and it sat rusting in a nearby canyon. (According to the same employee, Metabolic Studios, a division of the Annenberg Foundation, provided a $183,810 grant to the Waystation shortly after the 2009 Station Fire, part of which was used to acquire the generator.)

Down in the compound, veterinarians and vet techs were sedating animals. Questions began to arise as to the number of actual veterinarians there, as opposed to vet techs, who are assistants and not allowed to administer sedatives.

But the number of available facilities and supplies continued to become available from other animal organizations, including from Tippi Hedren’s Shambala Preserve in Acton to Cesar Millan’s facility in Santa Clarita, to the Los Angeles Zoo (which was on standby but received no animals), and a host of similar groups in Southern California.

As the afternoon turned to evening, and tempers and temperatures rose and fell, one person was missing from the scene—Martine Colette. Reportedly hospitalized for knee surgery four weeks ago, she was, according to more than one witness, not on the Waystation property over the weekend. According to unconfirmed reports from Waystation volunteers, Colette had been attending a Safari fundraising dinner at her home at the Waystation on Sunday evening. (Colette was reportedly among all the employees asked to evacuate on Friday morning. Her return time is still unconfirmed.)

More than one volunteer we spoke to expressed gratitude at her absence. And, as Padgett admitted, “She would have been a hindrance.”

On Monday, as the fire headed north with only 25 percent containment, Waystation staff held a meeting to assess the weekend and create a working emergency plan.

At the same time, the Waystation’s Facebook page administrator was busily removing negative comments from that page.

According to Stephanie Brady, who monitored the page, “I had read a comment (from Anna Marie Travers Reams) saying that the evacuation shouldn’t cost a lot because if you have permits for animals, you have a responsibility to have all the necessary supplies along with a plan to evacuate.”

As Brady explained, “There were nine comments to her comment, all essentially saying the same thing, including some people’s first-hand experience of being up there and the chaos they saw.”

There were 42 comments following Reams’s initial comments. Eventually only 18 comments remained, all of them positive.

“It was total chaos,” said Padgett, of the weekend. “There was a 25- to 30-year-old antiquated plan they were trying to work from. They had trucks that weren’t maintained that broke down once they got up on the road.

“They need new leadership and new energy,” Padgett continued. “They need to change their stuck, antiquated ways. Martine is stuck and resistant. I’m an expert in this. Emergency training changes constantly, so if you’re not evolving with that, you’re in trouble.” Padgett added, “They need to ask Tippi Hedren and her people, to see how they do it.”

Padgett also recommended mandatory emergency training courses for the volunteer staff at the Waystation, saying, “There is no way in hell you can be successful at something like this if you don’t have a plan that you have reviewed and gone over.”

Padgett is also, of course, grateful and relieved that a tragedy was avoided over the long, chaotic weekend.

“If you want to talk about divine intervention,” he recalled, “if you look at aerial photos, there is a cutout circle where the Waystation is. That fire should have burned that place to the ground.”

Still, Padgett acknowledges that the Waystation accomplished its mission. As he reportedly told Hartland, “There might have been hiccups, and things that you would never do again, but tell your team that you accomplished your objective. All of those animals lived.”


'Rising Up: Wildlife Waystation Escapes Disaster' have 3 comments

  1. August 5, 2016 @ 4:40 pm Dave W

    There is much not mentioned in this article. How can it be given the plethora of wrongdoings at the hands of Colette. She manages to find a majority of enabling board members. Those who do not either leave voluntarily or are forced to leave. I commend the author for what he did manage to include and, no doubt, the research he did.
    Here are a few additional items I was told about over the years: The public’s been misled that these animals reside on 160 some acres when they only have around 30. Considering the number of animals they claim reside there, that should tell you how small their enclosures are. When I was there, they were, indeed, very small. Colette would brain wash volunteers and those taking tours (even when they were not allowed to give tours yet she had those tour takers sign up as “volunteers” for the day to circumvent the order) that the animals do not need the space since they do not need to hunt and they just sleep. Many have mentioned that she used labor, paid for by donations, to operate her for profit cattle business (the back forty). We also heard she used monies donated from a license plate fund to improve the road in the back forty. That money, per a State vote, was supposed to be used to improve a different road for public access, amongst other things (certainly not her for profit private cattle business). Once informed, the assembly woman who made the motion demanded an investigation on the apparent misuse of the funds.This is all I could find on the action. http://articles.latimes.com/1985-07-09/local/me-8217_1_wildlife-waystation In the eighties and nineties she encourage irresponsible horse ownership by soliciting people to “retire” their old horses that could no long be ridden. She’d say they will live out the rest of their lives in pasture and when their time comes they will be humanely euthanized. Well, those horse were not allowed to be on pain meds or euthanized humanely. They were placed in rugged terrain which is very painful for lame horses. The horses could sense the number of predators and were quite stressed. They were shot and fed to the big cats. The govt shut down their slaughter house around 2000. I also heard she has the skins of the big cats (many have stated to have seen them and said donor money paid for the taxidermist). Then there is the question of ownership since, from what I heard, it was donations that went towards mortgage payments and the title should have been the foundation’s. If so, they she should have only been reimbursed the down payment she allegedly made.. I do hope a forensic accounting of Colette’s monies received over the years is conducted, amongst other investigations. It does seem like the animals and the donating public have been short changed over the decades. People need to know that the animals can and should be placed elsewhere, better places that do exist. I know of one facility that could have taken all the big cats during its 2000 closure and that place is phenomenal. Ms Colette, during that time, stated they would have to be killed if the place closes. The forest should be given back to the native wildlife It’s time Colette be fired and these imprisoned animals be allowed to live out their years in more humane places that would put the animals’ wellbeing before her own.

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    • August 7, 2016 @ 7:53 pm Anna Reams

      I agree completely with this account. I have been in the wildlife field for over 20 years rehabilitating and releasing native wild animals. The county shut the way station down from taking in native wild life 20 years ago, because of violations and fire dangers on the property,is when I became aware of their situation and Martines stone walling of making any changes for the better for the animals.These violations still have not been addressed. The laws governing native and exotic wildlife are not the same they are much stricter concerning natives. The exotic trade still falls between the cracks. But sanctuaries who rescue these animals that are trying to give the animal a better quality of life in a captive situation, do not need a regulation to dictate how that is supposed to be done, they do it because they care about the animals and create a safe place and in the event of evacuation,they have supplies cages and a plan.Because they care and are proactive.This is the second fire that they have been through..still no evacuation plan and only 1 road out for that evacuation. And when you look at the statistics on how much of a salary Martine draws per year and the shambles that the animals are forced to live out their lives in it is inexcusable. This thread in my opinion needs to be circulated and not stopped until that place is shut down or under new management, and the people can do that faster than the government agencies,just by the sheer volume of our collective voices.

      Reply

  2. August 7, 2016 @ 8:24 pm Lynn

    I know one of the vet technicians that showed up everybody was being turned away she even had drugs to help all the animals as requested… I heard at the End by a volunteer who was up there they did not get out the chimps they were not removed and several other animals did not but they were told they were there apparently.
    There wasn’t enough food for the volunteers up there as one of them said who was stuck up there 48 hours and needed to leave to get to her family was not allowed there is a huge control trip issue between people up there that needs to be simmered down and somebody who actually is in charge needs to take charge there should definitely be an evacuation plan which there was not there was a lot of misinformed information I think it was more to protect themselves there were several volunteers apparently who were begged to stay but needed to leave there was people being sent up with animal medical exotic knowledge that we’re not allowed up to relieve those people do to other people stopping them saying that we don’t need anybody else they’re definitely needs to be something fixed in that place because not only were the animals compromise by the place but the volunteers were as well the animals should always have the evacuation plan in place and there should not have been a Scramble for help the place needs to be investigated further for the animals welfare and health something’s not right and hasn’t been for a long time and I think everybody knows that.
    Great job to the volunteers who all stepped up and took care of that place because without them I think the place would have been in major disaster more then it was.

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