Inside one of the nation's top carnivore sanctuaries

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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.


Pat Craig

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.

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.

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.

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."

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."

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."

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.

"We're getting more involvement from the public, more congresspeople and senators willing to pass legislation," says Craig. "If you could stomp out half the breeding, that would make a gigantic difference."

As Craig holds forth and Ginger purrs, a team of volunteers loads up plastic tubs of baguettes, carrots and other produce to be transported by ATV to the bear habitat. A refrigerated truck full of turkeys for the cats awaits the defrosting process. The daily routine at the sanctuary may not make a gigantic difference on the scale Craig is talking about, but it's still a formidable undertaking.

The sanctuary's guests are in a strange kind of limbo — primal but sterile, wild at heart but with no place in the natural world. They have learned firsthand about the human capacity for cruelty. It's a lesson as old as Shakespeare. "No beast so fierce but knows some touch of pity," remonstrates Lady Anne in Richard III. "But I know none," Richard replies, "and therefore am no beast."

Yet that's only part of the story. Pat Craig thinks his beasts have something to teach his own species about what it means to be humane.

"A lot of people who want to do this have a good heart," he says. "They don't realize that this is a giant drain. But if you do it long enough, you learn a lot about animals — and about people."

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