Pat Craig had just eased onto I-25 when a semitruck appeared suddenly on his left, forcing him to swerve onto the shoulder. The van veered over the rumble strip before Craig was able to steer it back onto the road. He had time to draw one breath before he realized he had more to worry about than a distracted truck driver. Savannah, the lion who was riding in the back, had barged through the van’s steel barrier, hitting and cracking the windshield. Terrified by the noise, instinct sent her into the lap of the man she had known since she was a cub. Craig couldn’t see a thing. Almost 700 pounds of muscle, bone, and fur blocked his view of the road. He pulled onto the shoulder, checked to make sure the cat was uninjured, and stepped out of the van to give Savannah a few minutes to calm down.

As she paced—and the van wobbled—a state patrol car pulled up. The cop asked Craig if he needed help. A hairy face appeared in the passenger window. Craig prepared himself for the questions, the request for licenses and other papers, the anxious glances. This cop, though, just looked perplexed. “Looks like you’ve got this under control,” he said, and then walked quickly back to his car.

Although he may not have known it, the cop was right. Craig knew what he was doing. The lioness he was transporting was a resident at the Wild Animal Sanctuary, a refuge Craig founded in 1980 where rescued carnivores (tigers, bears, and wolves among them) find a new home in a setting as close to their natural environments as possible. In 34 years, Craig has rescued more than a thousand animals, and he considers all of them his children. And on that day in 1996, one of them simply needed to see a doctor. Craig hopped back in his van, with a pacified Savannah riding shotgun, and headed north.

Colorado’s Eastern Plains spread out in an unending sea of sun-broiled grasslands dotted with old houses and stretches of nothingness. That pastoral setting extends in every direction around the small farming community of Keenesburg, 40 minutes northeast of Denver. But the scene isn’t tractors and barns and grazing cattle everywhere you look: Incongruous as it may seem, just three miles south of Highway 52, two grizzly bears cool off in a stone-encircled pool. A tiger patrols a separate fence, licking its lips in anticipation of feeding time. A lion lounges, house cat–like, on its back, legs hanging in a position of lazy comfort.

This is the view from an elevated, wooden, mile-long walkway at the nonprofit Wild Animal Sanctuary, the country’s oldest and largest carnivore sanctuary. Here, 430 animals—330 carnivores and 100 or so from other species—call 720 sprawling acres home. All of the carnivorous residents were rescued from captivity, often confiscated from private ownership or exploitative situations such as roadside circuses.

Craig never set out to be a rescuer of animals. When he was 18 years old, in 1979, a friend took him on a private tour of a zoo in North Carolina where he worked as a groundskeeper. Craig noticed grown animals sitting in cages behind the displays. The zoo didn’t have space to exhibit these “surplus” creatures, his friend told him; most of them would be euthanized if they couldn’t find another home. Growing up on a 15-acre farm outside Boulder, Craig had long felt a connection to the animal kingdom—and this discovery unsettled him. He returned home, made a couple of calls, and discovered this was a normal practice at zoos across the nation. Spurred to do something, he applied for licensing from state and federal agencies and then wrote a letter to every zoo in the country. He received more than 300 responses in the first month. “It blew my mind that zoos would bring animals into the world and, years later, euthanize them,” Craig says. The Wild Animal Sanctuary was born on that small family farm with a jaguar named Freckles.

Thirty-four years later, the Sanctuary—which moved to its current location (its third) in 1994—has become a trendsetter in the rescue and long-term care of captive animals. This summer, the venue is adding a new 48,000-square-foot Welcome Center to better accommodate its more than 200,000 annual visitors, and before 2014 ends, Craig hopes to purchase another 640 acres of land. The Mile Into the Wild Walkway is a feature Craig calls “the single most important advancement in zoological exhibiting in the past 100 years.” The reason: Animals don’t perceive the air above them to be their territory. Unlike people, who would be uncomfortable with faces peering down at them, the animals are unfazed as visitors walk 16 to 42 feet above their heads, pausing often to snap photos.

The walkway will, however, need a new name by the end of this year, when a one-mile extension is completed. That addition will allow visitors to see more of the Sanctuary’s growing family. Although most zoos have reduced their surpluses, each year Craig and his team rescue animals from around the world. In the next three months, the Sanctuary (working with other animal advocacy organizations) will visit Spain to pick up two prides of African lions and four grizzly bears that are living in a now-defunct drive-through wildlife park; almost two dozen former circus tigers and lions in Peru; and two lions and two tigers from Mexico, some of which were being kept as pets. It’s efforts like these that earned the Sanctuary a 2014 CLASSY Award nomination as one of the top five animal and wildlife welfare nonprofits in the world.

The Captive Wildlife Crisis, as it’s known, made national news in 2011 when a man in Zanesville, Ohio, released dozens of animals—Bengal tigers, lions, bears, and monkeys, among others—from their cages before killing himself. Though the situation was unusual, people keeping wild animals as “pets” is not. More than 30,000 large carnivores are being held privately in the United States today. Approximately 10,000 to 15,000 of them are tigers—a number higher than the species’ worldwide population in the wild. According to Delcianna Winders, deputy general counsel for the PETA Foundation, the illegal exotics trade in the United States is an $8 billion to $10 billion per year industry.

Federal regulations exist, but there are loopholes, says Carney Anne Nasser, an attorney with the PETA Foundation: “There’s this huge void in oversight.” Steps are being taken, but they’re often incremental, insufficient, and, at times, met with resistance. For example, at the end of April, the Traveling Exotic Animal Protection Act, which would amend the Animal Welfare Act to ban the use of exotic and nondomesticated animals in traveling circuses and exhibitions, was reintroduced. But according to experts, the bill is unlikely to pass because the circus industry has enough money to oppose it. States, though, have the freedom to enforce stricter legislation; in Colorado, private ownership and the selling or buying of wildlife and exotic animals (with some exceptions) is illegal. Still, advocates for animals say there is no shortage of law-breaking. Which is why Craig opened the Sanctuary to the public 10 years ago. He sees it as an educational tool.

Regular visitors can see the changes an animal undergoes as it transitions from scared and timid on its first days to independent and adventurous months or years later. The rehab is a step-by-step process. The animals are first placed in smaller pens so they can slowly get used to the feeling of grass under their paws or the sounds of other animals. Some will pace in the same small footprint as the cage they were once kept in. It can take months to get them to explore farther. Then they’re carefully introduced into social groupings—if that’s right for the animal. “A lot of it is just having them understand they now have space,” says Becca Miceli, the Sanctuary’s animal care director. “That freedom is somewhat overwhelming to them.”

Though the staff speaks affectionately of their boarders, they understand they’re dealing with wild animals. Most of their work is hands-off unless intervention is necessary. “It’s all about respect,” Miceli says. “I love these animals, but I recognize I’m on the food chain several steps down from them.” In fact, it’s the staff’s detached observations that often end up saving these animals’ lives.

In January of this year, 17 bears were rescued (with the aid of PETA) from Georgia. Kept alone in subterranean concrete pits as a tourist attraction, they could only see a small window of sky. After a week at the Sanctuary, the staff noticed one of the bears, Marley, was walking with a limp. They felt certain it wasn’t just the gait she was born with. Though the six-person animal care team and a local vet can handle minor issues—they prefer to avoid the stress of transportation—the Sanctuary has a long-standing relationship with the veterinary school at Colorado State University for more complex medical problems.

After transporting Marley to campus—in an air-conditioned and more secure vehicle than the van Craig drove Savannah in all those years ago—X-rays and a CT scan uncovered bilateral breaks in both of her front legs. Doctors weren’t able to identify what caused them, but they were fairly certain it had some connection to her confinement. Orthopedic surgeons repaired the injuries, and Marley is currently in recovery at the Sanctuary in a one-acre enclosure. She’ll slowly be moved into a 20-acre habitat where she can forage, roll in the grass, retreat to her den, and take in a panoramic view of Colorado’s bluebird sky whenever she chooses. “Every animal out there has a story, and it’s usually not a very happy one,” says Terry Campbell, a service chief and associate professor in zoological medicine at the College of Veterinary Medicine at CSU who works with the Sanctuary. “The Sanctuary makes people aware of how and why these animals got there. They’re in a better place.”

That may be, but if Craig had his way, Savannah, Freckles, Marley, and Craig’s other “children” would never have had to call Colorado home. “Our goal,” he says, “is to put ourselves out of business.” In the circus, they’d call it the ultimate disappearing act.

 

Get involved

Beyond simply donating money, there are a number of ways you can help support the animals at the Sanctuary:

Volunteer (for a minimum commitment of two days a month) to help build habitats, clean the facilities, feed the animals, and more.

Adopt an animal ($120 to $360 annually, depending on the species)

Participate in a Summer Safari fund-raising dinner (they run May through August) and tour.

 

Daliah Singer is 5280 ’s associate editor. Email her at letters@5280.com and follow her on Twitter.