Ricky the tiger was among those horribly abused. He and his current pen mate, Savannah, were bought as cubs, then banished to a horse trailer for five years by their Oklahoma owner when they became a handful. Never allowed outside, the two lived in their own waste.
Local police insisted the owner remove the animals, one way or another. Before long, he found Craig, who quickly discovered that Ricky and Savannah were malnourished and suffering from a rickets-like condition. They also looked like lions. “Their fur had turned brown from all the feces,” says Craig. “It took months for those stains to grow out.”
After arriving in Colorado, the two tigers acted like they wanted to kill whatever approached them. But gradually, after watching the staff feed the other animals, the tigers began to poke their noses outside the pen. Once they finally stepped outside, they didn’t want to go back indoors. “We have never rescued any creatures that had such distorted views of the world,” Craig says. “It’s insane what people do to animals.”
Craig’s concern for unwanted and mistreated animals began when he was 19. His father had died two years before, and Craig was running his family’s farm outside Boulder. While visiting a friend who worked in a South Carolina zoo, he learned about “surplus populations” — animals kept in cages out of public view — and how it’s commonplace for zoos to euthanize them. “I decided someone needed to do something about it,” Craig says.
And he did. He converted part of his farm into a licensed wildlife refuge with space for about ten animals. Then he wrote to all the zoos in the country offering a place for animals no longer wanted or about to be put to death. He thought he’d get a few calls. He received over 300 responses within weeks. “I felt like I’d opened Pandora’s box,” he says.
Overwhelmed, he did nothing at first. Then a woman who worked in a South Carolina zoo called him, sobbing. The zoo had a seriously ill jaguar cub but no experience caring for baby animals. Could Craig possibly help? He flew east and brought the cub home in a pet carrier. Freckles, who was hand-fed with milk-replacement formula, became the founding member of the sanctuary and lived to the ripe old age of 24 years.
Since the arrival of Freckles, the sanctuary has been a hands-on family affair. When Craig asked his girlfriend, Shelley, to marry him, his proposal had a big condition — a pledge to love, honor, and support both him and the animals. Their two sons, Casey and Kelly, have never known life without wild critters. In elementary school, they told grand stories about their lions and tigers and bears. “Their teachers were amazed at their imaginations,” Craig says. “When they got into first and second grades, we decided we had to tell the teachers that these animals were real.”
For the past 27 years, Craig has responded to over 800 requests from private citizens and government agencies to rescue animals from all over the country, as well as Mexico. The circumstances are often upsetting. At one point, Craig took in a mountain lion whose owner had fractured its skull with a baseball bat.