Longform

Beaver Fever! Sherri Tippe gives a dam about Colorado's beaver population

A beaver in its natural habitat.
A beaver in its natural habitat. Getty Images

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"They don't realize that beaver and trees evolved together over thousands of years," Tippie says. "The pruning of their teeth can actually stimulate the growth of the tree, but they don't know that. They just want it to look perfect. They think that what it looks like now is what it's always looked like and should look like. But nature is supposed to grow and ebb and flood and dry out, do that magical dance."

Although she has a bad knee these days and sometimes walks with a cane, Tippie knows a great deal about nature's dance. In a previous incarnation, she was an acid-dropping go-go girl who "danced with a message," she says. But she was still searching for a cause.

She was born in Oregon, the Beaver State. Her mother was the youngest of eleven, her father a handsome drifter. They met at a dance and married soon after. Mom had Rh-negative blood, which can lead to great complications in pregnancy. The couple had five children. Sherri was the only one who survived.

In the early 1950s, the family moved to Colorado — first to Englewood, then to a house on South Pearl Street in Denver. Sherri loved to catch nightcrawlers for her bus-driver father, who often took her fishing. She didn't like seeing the fish suffer and decided to do something about it. "He would put them up on the bank, and if they weren't dead, I would put them back in the water," she recalls. "That was one of the only times he hit me."

She struggled in school, academically and socially. But she had a knack for tap dancing, and that eventually led to jobs dancing in clubs. Sometimes that meant gigs at geezer joints like Sid King's Crazy Horse Bar, the raunchy burlesque house on Colfax; sometimes it meant working with rock bands, taking LSD and dancing in a bikini to "Inna Gadda Da Vida" at a Holiday Inn packed with college students in Laramie, Wyoming.

"I danced at Sid's, but I would not take my top off," she says. "I was small, and I had no tits, anyway. I thought people should connect to you because of your dancing. I believed what the music said, that whole thing in the '60s about working together and being able to trust people."

She went to Hollywood, one of the epicenters of the whole '60s thing. She dated Jimmy Griffin, the singer from Bread. She dated Gabe Kaplan, years before Welcome Back, Kotter. She danced for B.B. King and for the Leather Souls, a precursor of Three Dog Night. It was an exciting time for dancers with a message.

"You could go into a club and sit down with the Yardbirds," she says. "I sat on Jeff Beck's lap."

But sooner or later the music stops. Tippie returned to Colorado and went from dancing to being a hairdresser. (She still cuts hair part-time at the Arapahoe County jail, where a loyal customer base of prisoners makes short work of anyone who attempts off-color jokes about the Beaver Lady.) She racked up two failed marriages, decided to get sterilized at thirty and now lives with her elderly mother.

"I love being by myself," she says. "All men are is extra work."

Yet Tippie never lost her flower-power idealism about saving the planet. In the Reagan era, with Secretary of the Interior James Watt openly hostile to environmental causes and Anne Gorsuch dismantling the EPA and declaring war on coyotes, Tippie became closely allied with Cleveland Amory's Fund for Animals.

"Cleveland and I had some big conflicts," Tippie recalls. "I wanted to get involved in advocating for wildlife. But if you're anti-hunting — and Cleveland was — you can't get your foot in the door with state wildlife agencies."

Tippie discovered she had more in common with hunters than she'd realized — including a mutual aversion to professional trappers. Hunters would prove to be a vital constituency in several successful campaigns she worked on, including the 1992 drive to ban the spring bear hunt in Colorado.

"I'm not opposed to hunting," she says. "I like hunters; I don't like sportsmen. The animal deserves every bit of respect and reverence you can give it, because it's giving its life to feed you. You should be able to kill it quickly and not waste any part of it. And you should learn about the animal. It shouldn't be easy for you to kill it, because killing should never be easy."

She sighs, thinking about her late father and a deer carcass he brought home one night on his bumper. "I like to think he was an ethical hunter," she says. "The only way I can kill an animal is if it's hurt. If I had to kill an elk to eat, I'd be sucking on rocks."

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Alan Prendergast has been writing for Westword for over thirty years. He teaches journalism at Colorado College; his stories about the justice system, historic crimes, high-security prisons and death by misadventure have won numerous awards and appeared in a wide range of magazines and anthologies.
Contact: Alan Prendergast