Originally published at Inside Philanthropy, October 24, 2014.
TV legend Sam Simon’s life has taken a tragic, but also heartwarming and kind of fascinating turn. Faced with terminal cancer, he’s giving his money away, in part by buying up captive animals from places like roadside zoos and circuses.
Simon is best known as co-creator of the The Simpsons, but has been a writer on several iconic TV shows, including as showrunner of Taxi at age 24. He’s also gained a reputation as a colorful character — he’s a competitive poker player, a professional boxing manager, and a serious art collector. And while he’s been described as “unpleasant and mentally unbalanced,” he also seems to have big heart, especially when it comes to animals.
So it’s not too surprising that since he received the diagnosis of terminal cancer in 2012, he’s engaged in an impressive, shit-stirring spree of philanthropy. He’s a huge donor to a few animal welfare groups, including his own Sam Simon Foundation, which adopts dogs and pairs them with veterans, the hearing impaired, and people in assisted living.
But he also has what he’s called a “new hobby in the twilight of my life,” working in coordination with PETA to buy animals in captivity from places like roadside zoos and circuses. We’re not talking about dogs and cats here; he’s saved bears from Georgia, an elephant from India, a race horse. Judging from a recent feature on Simon in Vanity Fair, he loves it.
I’ve got sun bears, moon bears, grizzly bears, Syrian bears, brown bears,” Sam tells me as we approach the Wild Animal Sanctuary a few hours later. “I have 11 bears in Dallas and 23 in Colorado—but they just had six cubs.” There are also two rescued chimps at a sanctuary in Florida, a racehorse in Virginia, and some 500 chinchillas rescued from a chinchilla ranch in California. If all goes well, an elephant will soon join the roster.
His animal buying spree has landed him some headlines and a bit of trouble.
Over the summer, Simon was reported to have teamed up with PETA to secretly purchase Valediction, a racing horse that has been owned by two top trainers who were disciplined for mistreatment. Simon and PETA President Ingrid Newkirk set up a front man to purchase the horse for $60,000, then the animal rights group presented formal charges that the owners were abusing the animal, backed by undercover surveillance.
After the purchase, Simon told NBC News:
“I got a phone call from Ingrid [about] an abused thoroughbred,” he said. “I say yes to everything she asks me.”
Then there’s the chinchilla ranch. Over the summer, Simon and PETA arranged a similar deal, in which one of Simon’s attorneys arranged for him to buy a San Diego facility that housed 422 of the adorable little guys. Again, PETA followed up with charges that the owner was raising them for fur. The 90-year-old former owner is now suing Simon and PETA for conspiring to disparage her.
Sam Simon has said that the reason he gives to animal rescue is that he sees the impact. In a Hollywood Reporter interview, he said he used to give to conservation groups, but felt like they were “treading water” and not making any discernible impact. You buy an animal, however, the animal is safe.