Inside one of the nation's top carnivore sanctuaries

Pat Craig walks along a fenceline of his 240-acre spread outside Keenesburg, visiting with some of his latest arrivals. He calls to them in a falsetto, much higher than his normal voice, and they respond with grunts, snorts and roars.

"Yuma! Hey, Yuma! How ya doin', boy?"

A three-year-old male lion stirs himself from a sunbath and rambles toward the fence, like a tabby summoned by the sound of a can opener. Moving stiffly, favoring his right leg because of a recent knee replacement, Craig draws closer. Yuma crinkles his nose, leans into the fence as if trying to rub up against Craig, and swoons into a heap.

Home on the range: The Wild Animal Sanctuary hosts dozens of black and grizzly bears as well as big cats and wolves
Home on the range: The Wild Animal Sanctuary hosts dozens of black and grizzly bears as well as big cats and wolves

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Check the Latest Word blog for video from inside the animal sanctuary.

"He's trying to suck up to me," Craig explains. "He hasn't been here long, and he's trying to figure out where he fits. Lions have quite a hierarchy, like the military."

Elsa, Yuma's female companion, draws near. Soon the two are wrestling powerfully in the dirt just a few inches from Craig, who's been known to go into the enclosures of large carnivores and rub their bellies — but only when he and the animals have come to know each other well.

"Their idea of playing is to chuck you up in the air and run around with you in their mouth," he says. "You have to be able to say, 'Hey, that's not cool,' and have a relationship where they respect you when you say no. See how physical they are? That's why my knees are so fucked up. They can be just playing, and it feels like they're going to break you in half."

Not far from Yuma and Elsa, chain-link pens fan out from a central roundhouse — one of several tiger residences on Craig's property. Craig heads past the roundhouse toward a larger enclosure, where a Siberian tiger named Ricky waits for him, snorting softly. Craig purses his lips and blows short puffs of air in response. Tigers exchange greetings by "chuffing," letting each other know that they come in peace.

"It's etiquette," Craig says. "When I chuff, they can't not chuff back. They want to make sure they've answered my question, basically."

Craig bends down, reaches through the fence and strokes Ricky's ear. Ricky's green eyes close in delight. Craig's hand comes back intact. At the next enclosure, another Siberian turns away from Craig and raises his tail. Craig steps aside as nimbly as his new knee will allow.

"You've got to watch out," he says. "Some of them can spray like a garden hose."

More than any maiden aunt with a house full of calicos, Craig knows his cats — their names, habits, moods, even their sneakiest tricks. In his case, though, the felines consist of seventy tigers, ten African lions, seven leopards and a smattering of bobcats, mountain lions, coati-mundis and servals; in all, Craig has around 150 exotic animals roaming his land at any given time, including fifty bears and five wolves. It's all part of the mix at the Wild Animal Sanctuary, one of the largest and most successful of the dozen or so non-profit wildlife refuges around the country that cater primarily to carnivores.

The majority of the sanctuary animals are rescues from breeding farms, one-ring circuses, roadside attractions or other shady businesses. Most have endured various forms of abuse and neglect, from cramped cages and untreated illnesses to slow starvation. Yuma and Elsa, for example, seem underweight compared to the sanctuary's other adult lions; they arrived just a few weeks ago, after living in a cage on a cart in Mexico, where they scarcely had room to stretch out. (Their surviving three-month-old cub, Gala, is staying near Craig's office, where she grapples with an English bulldog while recovering from her ordeal.) The story of Ricky and his companion, Savannah, is similar but more horrific: five years inside a horse trailer in Oklahoma, living in their own waste, never allowed outside. When they first arrived in Keenesburg, the two tigers wouldn't even poke their heads out of their concrete den into the sunlight; it took a year to get them to their current fit and placid state.

"When they came, they were solid brown from the feces stains," Craig recalls. "They almost looked like female lions. Skin and bones. The pads of their feet were burned to the bone from sitting in their own urine."

Animal-rights groups estimate that more than 20,000 wild animals live in captivity in America outside the zoo system, often in squalid conditions. Outrage over the situation, as well as sharp disagreements with traditional zoo policies for dealing with "surplus" wildlife, is what drives sanctuary crusaders like Craig. But providing a refuge for large carnivores can drain resources at a staggering rate. The Wild Animal Sanctuary's big cats devour 7,000 pounds of USDA-approved raw meat a week; the omnivorous bears go through 6,000 pounds of bread, fruit and vegetables. The organization is in a constant scramble to raise its $1.5 million annual budget. And its largest cats, now well fed and unstressed, can live up to 25 years, twice as long as they would last in the wild.

Many well-intended sanctuaries run out of money quickly, particularly in lean economic times. Craig's menagerie has been around for 28 years. The 47-year-old former high school teacher has defied the odds through a combination of canny marketing, stubborn fixation and odd strokes of fortune. He's managed to promote an unusual approach to rescue and rehabilitation — moving animals from modest pens to ingeniously constructed habitats of up to 25 acres — that seems to be gaining ground elsewhere. Still, his success has not been without controversy, including a libel suit and some stinging criticism from colleagues.

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