Yesterday, I said goodbye to a dear friend of nearly thirty years. Tony Ringo Law was a wildlife animal trainer, photographer, painter and writer. More importantly she was someone with a huge heart, infectious smile and a willingness to help everyone and everything.
For those of you old enough to remember a television show called “Daktari”, it was Toni, along with then husband Ralph Helfer who owned and trained those wonderful animals that the country grew to love on a weekly basis – Judy the Chimp and Clarence the cross-eyed lion.
Daktari was filmed at Africa USA, a 600 acre wild animal ranch and training compound in Soledad Canyon, CA created by Ralph and Toni. Tragedy struck in 1969 when a powerful storm over Soledad Canyon resulted in severe flooding and mudslides, destroying the compound.
I met Toni somewhere around the mid-eighties. Her sister Stevie (also at one time a trainer) was my best friend who passed away at much too early an age. Toni gave me one of the more incredible moments of my life when she took me to the compound that housed movie star animals. Her lion, the face of the MGM logo lived there along with a couple of her hyenas, the Exxon tigers, the wolves from from the feature film Wolfen, the Mercury car commercial cougar, (Toni preceded Farah Fawcett as the the woman in the Mercury car commercial (now there’s a bit of trivia) and countless other famous animals.
Toni and I decided to take the two Exxon tigers out for a walk. There are no words to describe what it felt like to be standing in between the majesty of those two creatures with just a leash and a simple stick. The stick was there to put in front of them should they get playful and want to jump on us. That, of course would have resulted in an immediate lights out situation. We had to cross a two lane road in order to get up into the hills where they liked to walk. A car passed and after traveling a couple of hundred feet beyond us came to a screeching halt. The driver, straining to look back through the side view mirror must have thought he was hallucinating. It was an experience I will treasure always.
Original art from a June 22, 1968 TV Guide cover
Toni will be sorely missed by all who new her and never forgotten. If heaven exists, it is now a better place for both humans and animals.
An extension of each other