By Joel Warner
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Animal-welfare groups have put increasing pressure on for-profit exotic animal centers; there are even websites devoted to the problem, such as PETA's wildlifepimps.com. The sanctuary movement is fueled by tips from such activists, as well as confiscations by local and federal wildlife authorities. Craig has taken in two tigers that were put on display at a Texas truck stop and whose cubs were sold to motorists who stopped to get gas; a bear that was jammed into a corn crib by a highway as a ploy for donations; a mountain lion whose owner tried to euthanize it with a baseball bat. Eddy, a leopard who was raised from a cub by the Craigs and was the subject of an Animal Planet documentary, was born shortly after his parents were rescued from a notoriously filthy "shelter" in California.
"Every time you go on a rescue, it makes you want to throw in the towel," says Craig. "People still treat these animals as horrifically as when I started. I've pulled 'em out of trailers, crawlspaces under houses — you name it."
A surprising number come from other, failed sanctuaries. Craig has several tigers from defunct ranches in southern Colorado and Texas. Serenity Springs recently agreed to accept fifteen tigers from Wesa-A-Geh-Ya, a Missouri sanctuary that had a history of federal violations and closed in August after a mauling.
Over the years, Craig has learned how to manage the nightmare logistics of feeding and sheltering an arkload of wild beasts. The animals are spayed or neutered upon arrival. He's cadged veterinary services from local vets as well as Colorado State University, surplus fencing from businesses and scores of concrete conduits from the T-Rex I-25 expansion to use in constructing bunkers and dens. He's acquired refrigerated trucks capable of relieving big companies of surplus, perishable food — say, a hundred cases of frozen turkeys that didn't move as expected at Thanksgiving. He's lured dozens of volunteers from as far away as Fort Collins and Castle Rock, eager to hose down cages, muck out enclosures and serve up the food. When people tell him they want to "work with the animals," Craig informs them that they'll be working for the animals. (The only humans allowed inside the enclosures with the big cats are Craig and his twenty-year-old son, Casey, who "totally knows how to read the animals," Craig says.)
But by the late 1990s, it was becoming apparent to Craig that all those efforts still couldn't keep pace with the sanctuary's burgeoning population. If he really wanted to boost donations and awareness of the problem, he was going to have to open his gates to the public, too. He loathed the standard zoo model — many of the animals had been deeply stressed in their former existence, trapped in close quarters and on display all day — and searched for a better method. He ended up building a walkway 35 feet above the enclosures; visitors can look down on the tigers and their pools, observe roaming lions and bears with binoculars from observation decks. It's less in-your-face than the typical zoo, and, Craig believes, less traumatic for the animals.
Now the sanctuary is open year-round, and school buses are frequently in the lot. Signs at the entrance warn visitors that this is "a home for animals, not a zoo for people," and encourage them to leave if they're looking for mere spectacle. They come anyway, and Craig seems at peace with his decision.
"We didn't want to open up as entertainment," he says. "But seeing the animals and learning their stories does make people a lot more passionate about the problem than when I was just visiting schools and talking about it. As long as we're making that connection with people, we're happy."
You don't see many bears on the Colorado prairie these days, but the ursine habitats at Craig's place are teeming with them. A black bear sits in a rubble of fruit and root vegetables, serenely chewing an apple. A grizzly lies atop a concrete bunker, soaking in the sun, while another dozes in the shade below. A pair of emus that Craig has accepted as temporary boarders strut by, unmolested.
Two smallish grizzlies, more the size of ATVs than Hummers, inhabit a pen by themselves. Life on the prairie has done little to abate their gamey odor, like something freshly killed and eviscerated in a cave. They are recent arrivals from South Carolina, where a taxidermist was using them as breeding stock. Craig is giving them time to get used to the neighbors before he lets them loose in the larger habitat. He offers them clumps of grass and dandelions through the fence. They take the treats shyly, their eyes glancing off him.
"Bears never stare at each other," he says. "If they lock their eyes on you, then you're in trouble. These two have been here two weeks, and they're about ready to go out."
The sanctuary follows a similar procedure for almost all of its animals. Newcomers are kept in modest enclosures until it becomes clear that they can play well with others. The tigers, for instance, start out at the roundhouse, where they might have a solitary pen or share meals and a water tank with one companion; each pen allows access to a quiet area inside the heated roundhouse. Then they are rotated in groups to a larger area with a swimming pool. When a dozen or so have become well acquainted, they are moved to a 25-acre habitat in the surrounding grasslands. The habitats have concrete structures that afford shade, and concrete dens that stretch 35 feet or more underground, providing a cool retreat in summer and warm shelter in winter. The lions, bears and wolves all have wide-ranging habitats, too, and Craig has areas set aside for what will become leopard and mountain lion preserves.