Inside one of the nation's top carnivore sanctuaries

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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.

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Alan Prendergast has been writing for Westword for over thirty years. He teaches journalism at Colorado College; his stories about the justice system, historic crimes, high-security prisons and death by misadventure have won numerous awards and appeared in a wide range of magazines and anthologies.
Contact: Alan Prendergast

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