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Pat Craig hopes to someday be unemployed. “I would love to be able to say, ‘We’ve whipped it. We’re done.’” Instead, the visionary founder of the Wild Animal Sanctuary in Keenesburg began purchasing a 9,004-acre ranch in southern Colorado last year, alongside an additional 680 acres of leased land. The Sanctuary’s expansion to Baca and Las Animas Counties, near the town of Springfield, ensures a future for the captive wildlife his nonprofit cares for, and signals that retirement is a long way off.
Craig established the Wild Animal Sanctuary in 1980 after learning that zoos typically euthanize “surplus” animals or sell them to private individuals for roadside attractions. “I thought somebody ought to do something,” he recalls of his 17-year-old self. He realized in time that it was up to him to be that somebody, and dedicated himself to rescuing large carnivores, the most vulnerable to being killed.
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One thousand rescues and 39 years later, the Wild Animal Sanctuary—located about 40 miles northeast of Denver—has outgrown its nearly 800 acres. The Sanctuary is home to about 500 animals, including lions from closed Bolivian circuses and tigers from a callous breeder in Oklahoma who was recently convicted of killing several of his 200 tigers and engaging in a murder-for-hire scheme. The facility rescued and rehabilitated 39 of those Oklahoma tigers in late 2017.
But the need to rescue and house wild animals has not diminished. A number of organizations offer estimates on captive wildlife in the U.S., but regulations vary by state; this, combined with backyard breeding and internet sales, make tracking extremely challenging. For example, Born Free USA estimates that 5,000 to 7,000 tigers are kept in the U.S. as “pets,” more than currently live in the wild.
Craig says that in 2018, the Sanctuary could not bring in as many animals as he would have liked, due to the lack of space, which is why he and his executive committee had spent the previous year already looking for additional acreage. The new property, dubbed the Refuge, boasts precisely the type of geographic diversity—including canyons, forest, streams, and grasslands—that makes it ideally suited for a variety of animals, from hoofed animals to bears, as well as lions and other large felines. Due to the nature of the land and its seclusion, the Refuge will not be open to the public. The Wild Animal Sanctuary in Keenesburg, which sees about 150,000 visitors per year, will continue operations as normal.
Located in the middle of three vast ranches in southeast Colorado, the property was valued at $7 million. Years earlier, the Sanctuary established a fund for expansion, and fundraising efforts are underway to raise the remaining amount needed for land acquisition, water, and solar projects, access road construction, and habitat construction. The Sanctuary closed on the land in March 2018, and has a total of six years to complete the purchase. It is offering “Founding Member” status to anybody who donates $777 (or more) to purchase land, with Founder’s Day tours of the Refuge scheduled for June 8 and 9. The nonprofit is about halfway to its goal for land acquisition, and continues fundraising for fencing and other infrastructure work.
If you’re wondering how nearby cattle ranchers feel about having large predators in the neighborhood, after several open houses, Craig says, people understood that all animals would be in safely enclosed. He also allayed concerns by pointing to the Sanctuary’s impeccable track record: In almost four decades of operation, they have never had an animal escape.
“These animals were mostly raised around people,” Craig says. “They don’t want to go anywhere. They feel safe and protected in their enclosures.”
He ascribes some people’s anxieties in part to the “killing machine” myth. Craig’s decades working with lions, tigers, and other large carnivores tells him otherwise. “These are really intelligent and complex beings,” he says. “‘Kill or be killed’ doesn’t do them justice. They have their own unique personalities and quirks and are much more intelligent than dogs.”
Enclosures at the Refuge will range from 35 to 420 acres. Its first residents are a group of alpacas, who graze contentedly in what looks like a pristine landscape. Craig expects to introduce the first tigers and lions to the Refuge by early May of this year, but he hopes not to have to use all of the land. He would rather see states adopt more stringent laws to prevent over-breeding and end the captive wildlife crisis. He notes that Colorado has some of the strictest guidelines, and says that progress has been made in the U.S. since he began his vocation.
For Craig, retirement would signal that the captive wildlife crisis has passed; however, international trends and the purchase of the Refuge suggest that he is still years away from being able to hang up his bright orange jacket.
If you go: The Wild Animal Sanctuary is located at 2999 County Road 53 in Keenesburg, and is open daily from 9 a.m. to sunset, except on January 1, July 4, Thanksgiving, and Christmas. Entry is $30 for adults, $15 for children ages 3–12, free for children under 3. Additional donations are encouraged. To become a founding member or find out other ways you can help the Refuge, visit wildanimalrefuge.org.