He adds, pointedly, "A lot of our donors are impressed because we don't take a salary. Pat Craig does."

In fact, the economic turnaround at the Wild Animal Sanctuary over the past three years has been dramatic. Craig may have burned some bridges with other sanctuary operators, but his desperate call for funds paid off. Some corporations chipped in a few thousand here and there, but the bulk of the bailout came from individual donors signing up for fundraising programs that helped to stabilize revenues, including monthly pledges, animal "adoptions" and automated payments.

"We have small businesses that help us out, but we don't have large corporate sponsors," says Toni Scalera, the sanctuary's director of development and public affairs. "The lion's share — every pun intended — comes from individuals who give a few dollars a month. We're always raising money."

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


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

Many of those individuals learned about the sanctuary from leopard Eddy's star turn on Animal Planet or from the efforts of Jessica Biel, who's praised the place on talk shows and is featured on its website. Biel, who grew up in Boulder, found out about the sanctuary from her father, John Biel, who'd heard about it from the family's dentist. The sanctuary soon became a featured item on the Biels' "Make the Difference Network," an online donation portal for nonprofits.

The organization's higher profile is evident in its bottom line, which shows a 50 percent jump in public support from 2005 to 2006. Most of that money has been spent on increased services to a larger population of animals, but it's also allowed the sanctuary to more than triple its fundraising budget and pay modest salaries — less than $45,000 each, according to 2006 tax returns — to Craig and Scalera.

Craig says he never had a payroll until the last few years but was finally persuaded that long-term survival meant spending money on marketing, advertising and personnel as well as meat: "It was a real stretch for me. I'd always been adamant about not taking people's money unless we were going to buy food or something else that was directly going to the animals' benefit. But I learned we needed to address this more as a business."

Compensation and fundraising tactics aren't the only sore points between Sculac and Craig. Five years ago, Sculac filed a defamation suit against Craig and his sanctuary, claiming their newsletter had made disparaging references about his operation. Craig denies any disrespect and says his insurance carrier opted to settle the case because it was cheaper than litigating the matter. He has nothing to hide or apologize for, he insists.

"We're all about transparency," he says. "We're audited, and we put all our financial stuff on the website. A lot of these places resent that, I think."

Ginger has a shedding problem. Craig deftly plucks tufts of tawny fur from the mountain lion's flanks while she emits a steady, throaty rumble, like a percolator with a low, rich tessitura. Mountain lions, Craig says, are the largest cats that still purr.

Once the star model in a Montana photography studio, Ginger ended up at the sanctuary after the studio's owner got tired of the business. The mountain lions don't yet have a full-fledged habitat in Keenesburg, but Craig vows that it's coming. For some of his other charges, the future may hold even more dramatic changes.

Craig recently returned from a trip to Idaho. This time he wasn't picking up, but dropping off — delivering three sanctuary lions to a zoo in Boise. A generation ago, he was taking surplus cats from zoos. Now he's taking them back. It's part of an ongoing revolution in zoo management, he says; the zoos are building more spacious cat habitats, like Denver's Predator Ridge, and working with sanctuaries to fill them.

"It just takes one person to break the mold and go against the old-world stuff," Craig says. "These young zookeepers understand about the captive-wildlife problem. They're looking for rescue animals instead of breeding."

The shift in the sanctuary's relationship with zoos began two years ago, after an elderly male lion died at the Houston Zoo. Staffers contacted Craig for a replacement, saying they were looking for something a little easier to manage than the typical African import. Wary at first, Craig visited the zoo, looked over the lush lion habitat, and ended up sending Jonathan, a sweet-tempered lion that had been raised as a pet in the Northwest and was accustomed to the presence of humans. Then other zoos started calling.

Placing his valedictorians in zoos frees up space at the sanctuary for more rescues from intolerable conditions in the private sector. Craig says he screens every placement personally. A few years ago, he was approached by Denver's Ocean Journey (now the Downtown Aquarium), which was interested in adding some tiger cubs to the Sumatrans that inhabited one of its attractions. Craig inspected the amount of cage space they would have versus their habitat in Keenesburg and politely declined the offer.

The detente with a few zoos suggests the captive-wildlife problem may be reaching a turning point. It even gives some hope to Craig, who feels like he's "pushing a wet noodle" much of the time and is once again scrambling to keep his pledge donors on track in the midst of an abysmal economic downturn. He sees the PETA influence putting increasing pressure on private carnivore attractions. Many have been shut down, in part because of tougher state laws dealing with animal cruelty and stiffer liability insurance requirements. But state regulations remain a patchwork, at best, with many loopholes and lack of enforcement resources. Sanctuary owners are currently working with federal lawmakers, including Representative Ed Perlmutter, on legislation that would outlaw breeding of large carnivores nationwide outside of endangered-species programs.

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