Many of the sanctuary's design features come from Craig's long observation of the animals and search for practical alternatives to traditional zoo cages. He's read widely on the behavior of carnivores in the wild but found little to guide him in how to deal with captive-animal behavior — the way, say, bears that grew up in trailers will pace back and forth over the same ten feet of ground after release, uneasy about exploring a larger world, or the way the lions mark every fence post along their acreage, securing the perimeter.

To Craig, it didn't make sense to rescue animals from a tortured confinement, only to put them in slightly larger cages. Some sanctuaries have thousands of acres to work with, he says, "but their animals are all in cages because they haven't figured out how to let them roam."

A few sanctuaries have studied what Craig is doing and adapted his ideas to their own needs. Others are openly skeptical. The industry is full of "independent, tough people," he notes, and he's battled with them on numerous issues: "If you're doing something better, instead of learning from you, other sanctuaries get pissed and want to knock you off the top of the hill."

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

Details

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

Craig's greatest clash with his colleagues came in 2005, when many animal-welfare groups found their donations drying up as Katrina, the Indian Ocean tsunami and a host of other disasters took center stage. Craig had always managed to keep a few months ahead of his bills, but now the sanctuary was plunging into debt. His meat and hardware suppliers carried him for months. Craig arranged a $50,000 line of credit, but the debts kept mounting until the place was almost half a million dollars in the hole. "We owed everybody," he says.

That summer, Craig told reporters that unless he obtained an immediate cash infusion, he would have to close down. A few cute cubs might find other homes, he suggested, but the rest of the animals would have to be euthanized. The announcement outraged other sanctuary operators. It's common to raise funds by publicizing the plight of captive wildlife — every sanctuary, to some extent, subsists on the gruesome backstory of its rescues — but Craig's move broke taboos. It sounded like a threat — or worse, a cynical ploy along the lines of buy-this-magazine-or-we'll-shoot-this-dog.

Craig says he was just being realistic. "Look, change places with us," he says. "I want you to find homes for all these animals. There are only fourteen places in the country that take in carnivores, and there are only three that are any size at all. I'm not going to let them starve. The only offers we had were from people looking for a white tiger to put on display somewhere."

He was immediately chastised for his remarks by the American Sanctuary Association, a group of 35 sanctuary organizations that has established standards of accreditation for its members. Craig had served on the ASA's board, but his unusual plea led to a parting of the ways.

"It's against our guidelines to hold animals' lives hostage in return for money," explains Vernon Weir, the ASA's treasurer. "I understand his situation; it was a desperate situation. But our first objective would have been to place those animals in other sanctuaries. It's long been our policy that you don't go to the public and threaten to kill animals if you don't receive X number of dollars."

Weir hastens to add that he has no qualms about the way Craig treats his animals: "His sanctuary is really terrific in every other way. We have nothing but good things to say about his animal care and housing, his compassion. Now that he's over his financial hump, I would say it's a good place to put animals."

Craig says he had other disagreements with ASA's direction and would have left the organization anyway. "They had ethics about no breeding, no selling — and then they started letting people in who were breaking those rules," he claims. "We're not a member anymore because to me, it's pointless."

In addition to the ASA, there's a bewildering array of private associations that claim to represent sanctuary interests, as well as various state and federal wildlife agencies that regulate the transportation and harboring of exotic animals. Nick Sculac of Serenity Springs says the licenses are a much better gauge of an organization's credibility than accreditation by a private group. "We've never even thought about joining all those sanctuary clubs," he says.

Sculac's sanctuary is the only one in Colorado with a state zoo license, and he's now seeking accreditation from the AZA, the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, because it will allow him to work closer with zoos and possibly obtain primates. But he believes that what matters most to the public is what they can see when they visit — whether or not the animals are treated well.

"Donors want to see improvements," he says. "They want to see how clean you keep the cages, how healthy your cats look. A lot of them want to tour the vet facility. They want to see where the money goes."

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