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Sensi Magazine

A Walk on the Wild Side

Jun 11, 2019 12:40PM ● By Leland Rucker

You can buy a tiger online for as little as a couple hundred dollars. Here’s some advice: Don’t do that. Just because you can doesn’t mean you should. You definitely should not.

There are fewer than 4,000 wild tigers left in the world, most of them in Asia. In the US, there are at least 7,000 tigers in captivity  and that’s a conservative estimate. The International Fund for Animal Welfare puts that number closer to 10,000. The Humane Society of the United States estimates there are as many as 15,000 big cats in private hands in this country; more than 4,000 are in individual hands in Texas alone.


These animals are living in constricted environments held in public and roadside zoos, kept in cages in backyards and basements, often in squalid, inhumane conditions. Some are made to perform, appearing in advertisements for everything from grocery stores to home furniture outlets. Others are sold to hunting ranches or euthanized when they get too large to be useful.

None of these animals were captured in the wild. They were bred here, born in captivity, and most have never seen the outside of a cage.

This is not a wildlife conservation issue, it’s a captive wildlife crisis. It’s animal cruelty. And there’s a Colorado organization dedicated to giving these abused tigers, and lions, and bears (oh my!), alpacas, leopards, wolves, lynx, and other animals lives of dignity. Giving large, exotic, and endangered captives rescued from around the world a wild sanctuary where they can live out their lives in peace literally a retirement home for abused animals. That appropriately named organization: The Wild Animal Sanctuary.

The nonprofit organization operates two sites in Colorado, with more than 10,000 acres of land providing shelter for more than 500 large carnivores. The majority of the land is the recently purchased Refuge facility, a private 9,684-acre property in Southern Colorado. Farther north, about 30 miles northeast of Denver, is the 789-acre educational facility, open to the public and worth visiting time and again. Here, more than 450 lions, tigers, bears, wolves, foxes, leopards, jaguars, mountain lions, and other exotic animals live on rolling grasslands and former wheat fields offering majestic views of Colorado’s Front Range.


The first thing that happens when you arrive at the Wild Animal Sanctuary, about an hour from of Denver, two hours from Colorado Springs, is that you are met at the door by about 15 of the friendliest dogs in the world of all sizes, from large Irish wolfhounds to cuddly French bulldogs.

I was there to speak with founder Pat Craig, but he was busy when I arrived and I was told that it would be a bit. Looking around, I noticed Craig down on the floor working on one of the exhibits. That’s not surprising, since Craig and the Sanctuary are practically one and the same. He’s one of the premier rescuers of wild animals in the world, and the sanctuary is the stuff of his dreams.

A few minutes later, Craig sits down in the snack bar, followed by several of his friendly canine crew. He talks about growing up in Boulder and a love affair with animals that began at an early age. He couldn’t afford to go to veterinarian school, so he figured he’d get a business degree and live on a farm where he could enjoy a few animals. Little did he know.

His world was rocked forever in 1979, when he visited a friend who had gotten a job as a groundskeeper in a North Carolina zoo. “He gave me a behind-the-scenes tour,” he explains. “In the back they had a ton of lions, tigers, bears, and stuff, in really cruddy little cages.” When he asked, he was told that for whatever reasons, there were too many to put on display, and the rest were kept in cages out of sight of the public.

That really bothered Craig. He got in touch with the Denver Zoo and found out that it had more animals than it knew what to do with as well, and that some were euthanized. When he asked what would it take to stop this, he was told he’d have to build his own zoo. Craig couldn’t do that, but he did have room on his farm, and after some research, found that if he built enclosures that met zoo standards, he could save the animals. “Back then we called it the conservation center because nobody was using the word sanctuary back then.”

He put up some buildings on the farm, passed inspections, and was licensed, in essence becoming the youngest zookeeper in the country. He petitioned to change laws about captive animals to allow them more space. “Initially I didn’t know what I was getting into,” he admits. “But I got the zoning changed and applied for a nonprofit and did all that stuff you’re supposed to do.”

He immediately sent out letters to every zoo in the country offering to take surplus animals off their hands. The reaction was overwhelming. “The first month I got over 300 responses saying they were interested in the idea rather than euthanizing. Those people didn’t want to kill these animals, either.”

The response was so intense that he wondered whether he was getting in over his head. “But after about two weeks, the phone started ringing, and there were keepers who had gotten my letter and said, ‘Hey, I don’t want to kill this animal or this animal or this animal.’ So I started driving all over the country, picking up animals from zoos and bringing them back.”


The first 12 cages were occupied quickly. He dropped out of school, started building more structures, and got a second, part-time job to help pay for the new infrastructure. He began getting calls from sheriffs and local law enforcement about tigers found in a house or apartment or garage. “So they told me, ‘If you want to take it, great, but otherwise I’ll shoot it tomorrow.’” So he’d jump in the truck to pick them up.

He moved his “zoo” to a location with more space near Lyons, Colorado, for eight years. Volunteers were donating time to help out, but there was always more to do. “I typically would work until seven or eight at night and then go home and clean till one or two in the morning and feed the animals and then go get a few hours of sleep, go back to work and do that again. I always tell people that it’s like having kids once you get them, you’re on the hook for the rest of their lives.”

The sanctuary relocated again to its present location in 1994. “When we moved out here, the main goal was to get a lot more space for habitats, because in the early years all the laws and regulations said you needed a concrete floor, chain-link walls or bars or a steel top and a pretty sterile environment. I was like, ‘Well this kind of sucks. I’m saving a life, but I’m not really giving any kind of quality of life.’”

Watching their behavior helped him better understand the kinds of habitats they needed. “When they come here, they go into a normal cage because that was their life before. And then we kind of let them out into a little bigger space until they finally go, ‘OK, I’m cool. I realize nobody else here is going to hurt me.’ And then they have to start building muscles and learning motor skills. A lot of them have never touched grass before in their lives.”

Craig says that one of the sanctuary’s goals is to help people better understand animal intelligence. “Animals are incredibly smart,” he says. “And obviously, they’re not people where they do math and computation, but a lot of that is just relative.”

One of the first cats Craig rescued was a jaguar. “The jaguar is the smartest cat there is, far smarter than a tiger or lion, and they’re incredibly intelligent,” he says. “This jaguar could open a house door, a car door, and it opened the refrigerator I kept her food in. It’s that level of intelligence to where you can’t say they’re human, but they’re pretty danged close. I think most people way underestimate the intelligence of these large, exotic cats and bears.”

Attitudes are slowly changing about animals and how they are treated. A recent study, “America’s Wildlife Values,” conducted by Colorado, Ohio, and Minnesota state universities, says that more people than ever are even willing to put animals on a more equal footing with humans.

Craig mentions a website that says animals should be here with us, not for us. He’s not sure we’ll ever get to a place where we don’t have zoos or sanctuaries, so that concept is key to the future. “You know, our goal is that we all go out of business, and animals are just in the wild. But unfortunately every animal out there is going to go extinct other than tiny managed groups that are theoretically wild, but are just basically habitats that are still fenced. It’s already happening in Africa and in many parts of India. The future is that these animals are going to live in these managed spaces and we’ll call it the wild, but it’s relative.”

Meanwhile, Craig is always looking for ways to make his animals’ lives better. “We never feel like, ‘Oh yeah, we’re doing it right.’ We constantly beat ourselves up saying, ‘You know, what can we do better?’ You’re just constantly pushing yourself to do more for them.”

A New Perspective
An elevated walkway in fact, the longest pedestrian bridge in the world, a certified Guinness World Record holder at 1.5 miles long lets visitors stroll 30 feet above the complex’s expansive pens and habitats. The pedestrian bridge is based on one of the things Craig has learned about animals over the years. While animals are intensely protective of their immediate area, they could care less about something above and beyond them.

For those who can no longer tolerate zoos or seeing animals caged in small enclosures, walking through the sanctuary is a real breath of fresh air, an opportunity to watch content animals, not ones pacing back and forth at the limits of their boundaries as you see in zoos.

Craig has been rescuing animals for 40 years, from zoos, circuses, and backyards. The Sanctuary is celebrating 25 years at its present location near the town of Hudson. There are a few others scattered across the country, says Kent Drotar, the sanctuary’s director of communications. “But there’s no other place that has large acreage habitats like us no other place with a walkway.”

Wild Stats
The proliferation of captive wild animals in the US is a fairly recent phenomenon. According to Tigers in America, a nonprofit which supports rescue operations for confined and abused cats, there were 100,000 tigers in the wild and only 50 in the US held by exhibitors in 1900. While tigers in the wild have rapidly diminished, that second number increased as zoos became popular in the early 20th century. By the 1970's, tigers and other big cats became fixtures in Las Vegas lounge acts and on television, and individual people were purchasing their own exotic “pets,” or worse, buying them to breed even more.


At a sanctuary in Florida, tiger cubs are thrown in a swimming pool to fend for themselves while people pay $200 apiece for selfies with the cubs paddling around. Online videos of individual owners “playing” with their cats proliferate on the web, with one owner even admitting he is super careful about never giving them a chance to get at his vitals. (WTF.)

No federal agency tracks big cats, who owns them, how they are bred, and where they wind up. Backyard breeders, essentially tiger mills, produce for unusual colors and markings and even cross-breed tigers and lions into tigons and ligers. Females, who are very protective of their young and breed every only three years in the wild to care for their offspring, have their cubs taken away soon after birth and then forced to breed again, some as often as three times a year.

“The vast majority of tigers in the US come from the irresponsible captive breeding to supply the cub petting industry,” Ben Callison, a former animal sanctuary director, told The Guardian. “Tigers are smuggled in, but this is mostly a US-born issue.”

A Growing Issue
The Wildlife Sanctuary is close to running out of space. “We’ve pretty much developed this whole area. It’s all built out in habitats,” says Drotar. “Not every one is completely full yet, but effectively, there’s no more habitat space to build, and that’s what prompted us a little over a year ago to be looking for more acreage.”

He points to a newly completed $80,000 habitat that now houses half a dozen foxes. “This is all former wheat fields. It’s as flat as can be,” he explains. “Effectively, when we build habitats, we have to put every single tree in, dig every water hole and bring the boulders in to make it more comfortable for the animals.”

The sanctuary also found itself essentially boxed in as well, with little land left to purchase and all of it at exorbitant prices. “So we thought that if we’re going to go farther, let’s get land that already has these natural amenities in place,” Drotar says. They looked at a secluded ultimately, too remote 30,000-acre plot in Oregon, before deciding on the 9,000-acre site in the southeast corner of Colorado, 40 miles from the small town of Springfield.

I know what you’re thinking. Southeast Colorado is as fl at as the High Plains northeast of Denver, right? Nope. This region drops off from the prairie into canyons of grassland with natural rock outcroppings. Even better, land is about one quarter the cost of Front Range wheat fields. “They call it Canyonlands,” he says. “It has these meadows in between these big rock formations.”

Among the first things to do was getting local ranchers and dwellers to buy into the concept of sharing space with big cats. “That was a big concern among local people,” Drotar admits. “The rumor was that we’re just going to fence the 9,000 acres, turn loose a bunch of wild cats and hope for the best.”


Two information sessions were held in Springfield that allowed people to voice any apprehensions and to let Craig explain what we have learned about the difference between wild and caged animals. “Some of these people might live 12 miles away, and you almost get the sense that they think that tiger is going to escape and go straight to their front door and wait for them and slaughter every cow between here and there.”

But captive animals were born and have always been behind a fence, Drotar says, which makes for a unique worldview. “A wild-born animal is going to try to get out. But our animals see a fence as an asset what feels like home and what feels safe and because it keeps those bad guys out the bad guys being the other lions and tigers.”

No animal has ever escaped the sanctuary, and today, Drotar says that, like the farmers that surround the Sanctuary, local residents have now bought into the idea. It will take years to build out the habitat. The first 35-acre portion is almost finished, and plans are to proceed cautiously to make sure no native animals or wildlife might be harmed by fencing or other human intrusion.

Craig has rescued big cats from circuses and zoos around the world. After Bolivia passed a law banning circuses in 2011, 25 lions that would have been sold were rescued and brought to Colorado. Most recently, in December, the sanctuary and the disaster charity Samaritan’s Purse saved a lion and a tiger left in a roadside zoo on the Pacific Ocean island of Saipan after a typhoon ravaged the area. Lambert, the male lion, and Tasha, a female Siberian tiger, are now recovering at the refuge, learning to socialize with other tigers and adapting to the colder climate.

“She’s a Pacific Island girl, so she didn’t really like our winter weather,” Drotar laughs. “She didn’t like getting her feet in the snow. We have hot-water heat that we use for the leopards. We added some extra heat lights and stuff, and she loved it.”

That’s just one of the joys of being part of what is a retirement home for mistreated animals, many who suffer the same ailments, like arthritis and mobility issues, as we do as we age. “I always say that as animals get older, you know, they’d rather have their studio apartment than a 3,000-square foot house with stairs,” Drotar says. “It’s just easier to get around.”

The Wildlife Sanctuary
2999 Co Rd 53
Keenesburg, CO
It takes three to six hours to see the entire facility, so plan on arriving at least four hours before closing (sunset). They stop taking visitors two hours before then.

Animals are most active around dusk, especially during the summer.

Adults: $30; children: $15.

No dogs allowed, not even service dogs. No, not even if you leave it in your car. You shouldn’t do that anyway.

Your GPS isn’t guaranteed to guide you there. Use the directions on the website, unless you want to check out some dead-end dirt roads.

Don’t Uber or Lyft out there; drivers may be happy to drop you off but good luck getting one to pick you up.

It gets hot during the summer, but there’s almost always a breeze up on the walkway, so bring layers. As well as hats, sunglasses, sunscreen the standards.

If you have binoculars, bring them! Otherwise, you can use the free stationary units on walkways and decks, along with the other bino less visitors.