Martine Colette, who founded the Wildlife Waystation outside Los Angeles and ran the animal sanctuary for more than four decades, died Sunday of lung cancer at Lake Havasu, Ariz., a publicist announced. She was 79.

In 1976, Colette opened the Wildlife Waystation, a 160-acre refuge in the Angeles National Forest near Sylmar and Tujunga. Under her direction, it rescued more than 77,000 animals, representing 200-plus species, before it shuttered in August 2019.

Larger than most municipal zoos, the Wildlife Waystation was frequented and supported by Hollywood luminaries including Betty White, Mickey Rooney, Mick Fleetwood, Hugh Hefner, Dyan Cannon, William Shatner, Nicollette Sheridan, Jack Hanna, Dennis Hopper, Kate Linder, Rex Lee, Stefanie Powers, Lou Ferrigno, Alex Trebek, Jo Anne Worley, Loretta Swit and Jillian Barberie.

Carol Asvestas of the American Sanctuary Association called it “the mother of all sanctuaries.”

The daughter of a Belgian diplomat, Colette at a young age observed wildlife while traveling with her father in Africa. During these formative years, she witnessed the horrors of trapping camps, hunting and exploitation of animals around the world.

In 1965, after making the move to Hollywood and building a costume design business, Colette rescued her first animal, and she built the model for how to take in and rehabilitate abandoned and injured animals. The Wildlife Waystation grew to enjoy an international reputation, with animals from Ireland, New Zealand and around the world given refuge there.

Colette organized and led a caravan to aid in the rescue of 27 big, maltreated cats from the Ligertown Game Farm in Idaho and was the first to accept chimpanzees from biomedical research. She also hosted class field trips and organized outreach programs to schools and kept her place going through fires, floods and bureaucratic challenges.

“It’s not an option to just say, ‘Oh, well, this month I can’t do it,’” she said. “You have to go on, and you have to do it.”

Colette was named a designated animal expert for the City of Los Angeles and was honored by the California Department of Fish & Wildlife and the California State Assembly for her years of service.

She died surrounded by friends, and one of her final remarks was, “Soon, I’ll be walking with tigers.”

Though her facility closed, two hybrid wolf-dogs and 16 chimpanzees are waiting new homes with the support of California Fish & Wildlife.

Plans are underway for a memorial this spring. Donations in her memory may be made to the Wildlife Waystation website.

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