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Big cat animal preserve in Acton readies for fire

August 31, 2009 |  9:41 am

Lions, tigers and fire -- oh my!

Flames are roaring across the street from the Shambala Preserve, an exotic animal center in Acton. But the 64 lions, tigers, leopards and other big cats that live here are staying put.

As firefighters beat back flames and helicopters fly overhead, a big male lion is sunning himself, said Chris Gallucci, vice president of operations.

The area around the preserve is under mandatory evacuation order, Gallucci said, but the crew at the preserve has decided to stay and fight the fire, if necessary.

"We have everything to fight fires on this property," Gallucci said. "Our plan is to hold in place. We have done this for 40 years. We are very good at what we do."

The preserve has dozens of steel evacuation crates ready to go in case the 64 big cats need to be moved. It also has equipment to beat back flames: A 22,000-gallon water tank, a lake and a complete fire road around the 80-acre site, Gallucci said.

Evacuating 64 big cats could clog Soledad Canyon Road, the only road that runs through the canyon area, Gallucci said.

"If you just panic and run, you're not being too professional," he said. "Dealing with exotic animals is completely different. You can't put the public at risk. We don't want to have the fire department and police department aiding us when they're trying to protect other people."

Gallucci said workers conduct a full-scale fire drill every six weeks, firing up their pumps and dropping them into the lake to make sure the water shoots out of their hoses. Despite the many fires since the preserve opened in 1976, officials have never needed to evacuate the animals, nor use the equipment, Gallucci said.

The center's entire crew has stayed on site since Friday, Gallucci said, including actress Tippi Hedren, who founded the preserve. Hedren, who starred in Alfred Hitchcock's "The Birds," was on Soledad Canyon Road this morning, monitoring the flames and talking to firefighters, Gallucci said.

The fires and smoke do not scare the big cats, Gallucci said.

-- My-Thuan Tran

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