By Alan Prendergast
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Three years ago, as nonprofits across the nation struggled to keep afloat in the wake of Katrina, Craig told reporters that he might have to shut down his sanctuary and euthanize his animals. Funds poured in, and the sanctuary is now stronger than ever. It has a bigger budget, a celebrity endorsement from Jessica Biel, and glowing reports about its work in Reader's Digest and on the Animal Planet cable network. But Craig's drastic tactics also caused a flap among industry associations and rival sanctuaries.
"Everyone's so upset about the way he tries to raise money," says Nick Sculac, owner of Serenity Springs Wildlife Center, Colorado's other large carnivore sanctuary, located east of Colorado Springs. "A lot of people won't deal with him anymore."
Craig acknowledges that he's had his share of scrapes with other sanctuary interests, along with the scars he's picked up from friendly encounters with bears and big cats. Running a rest home for voracious predators can be overwhelming at times. But he isn't ready to give it up. Even though he can't rescue every carnivore that needs it, he believes he can have an impact on what he calls the "captive-wildlife crisis" in America.
"The day I consider being retired is the day we go out of business because we don't need to be here," he says. "The more I see people being educated, the more I think we're getting to where we're going to solve this problem."
Patrick Craig grew up on a family farm in Boulder County, with no particular plans to change the world. His father ran a tire store in town; he went to Fairview High School and dug girls, cars and motorcycles. He also dug hanging out on the farm, a modest enterprise now subsumed in the sprawl of north Boulder.
After high school, Craig visited a friend in South Carolina who was working as a groundskeeper at a zoo. The friend took him to the area behind the public displays, where Craig first discovered the industry's dirty little secret: a commodity known as "zoo surplus." There were dozens of animals, from elephants to alligators to leopards, in small cages and bleak pens. Most of them were never rotated to the larger enclosures out front. They were the product of overbreeding, or they were too old or ill-tempered for the stress of public gawking, or the place simply didn't have the space to afford them better quarters. In any event, they were stuck. If the zoo couldn't find another facility that wanted them, they would be put down.
Craig went home, but he couldn't get the eyes of the caged animals, mostly carnivores, out of his thoughts. "It bugged me," he says now. "Why would you breed these animals, only to euthanize them? It didn't make any sense."
He talked to staff at the Denver Zoo and discovered that they had surplus animals, too. Every zoo did. He checked with state officials and the Humane Society to learn what licenses would be required to set up a small haven for wild animals on the family farm, which he'd taken over after his father's death. In 1980, at the age of nineteen, he obtained his first USDA license.
He sent out a letter to zoos, asking for surplus carnivores — the most dangerous ones to keep, hence the hardest to place. He had room for up to ten animals and expected around that many offers. He received more than 300 responses.
"I figured this was way bigger than anything I could make a dent in," he says. "Then I got to thinking that helping one animal was better than none. And helping two is better than one."
Craig's first charge was a sickly jaguar cub named Freckles. Craig fed him formula in a bottle. Freckles liked it so much he decided to hang around for 24 years. Craig worked odd jobs and poured his wages into maintaining the sanctuary, finally getting a teaching degree so he could have his summers free. When he married, he told his wife, Shelley, that she would have to be the primary breadwinner for the family; his pay went to the animals. (The Craigs, who have two sons, divorced in 2006.)
After five years, the sanctuary outgrew the family farm. Craig moved Freckles and the rest to leased farmland near Lyons. But when a concrete company started strip-mining next door, Craig decided to look further east. The cheapest open land was in Weld County, on the other side of I-76. The area around Keenesburg, forty miles northeast of Denver but convenient to the highway, offered plenty of quiet and room to expand.
"When we moved here fifteen years ago, there were no power lines, no phone lines, and hardly any fences," he recalls. "This was just an ocean of wheat."
Before a recent name change, the Wild Animal Sanctuary was known as the Rocky Mountain Wildlife Conservation Center. The change reflects not only the increasing size of the operation, but the evolving nature of the captive-wildlife problem. Very few of the animals Craig has hosted in recent years came directly from zoos, which have learned to manage their populations better than they did a few decades ago. But much of the zoo surplus made its way to the private sector. Truckers who transported zoo animals across the country found a lucrative trade in picking up and selling surplus animals to private operations, which often led to cross-breeding and genetic misfits, such as wolf hybrids and ligers, that zoos shun. Today most of the sanctuary's denizens are refugees from bankrupt circuses, poorly regulated "animal farms" that are actually breeding mills, or a clueless private owner who picked up a tiger cub on the cheap and didn't know what to do with it when it got too big to cuddle.