But no rescue was more disturbing than a raid in Colton, California, in 2003. Tiger Rescue claimed to take in retired animal actors from the entertainment industry. But when government officials arrived, they found 58 dead tiger cubs in a freezer, 30 adult tiger carcasses, 11 mountain lion and leopard cubs in the attic, and 100 other animals starving, dehydrated and malnourished. During the confiscation, the officials heard scratching noises in the ceiling and discovered two leopard cubs stuffed in an air-conditioning duct. “They would have died if they hadn’t heard them,” says Craig, who took in the cubs, along with two rare black leopards, 19 tigers and a mountain lion. Because the cats were so thin, Craig didn’t realize one of the black leopards, Gina, was pregnant.
Her cub, Eddy, came to live in the Craigs’ house when he was a day old. Craig was afraid the abused mother wouldn’t know how to nurture her newborn and that the father, Sam, would hurt him. In no time, Eddy cemented his place in the family’s life, receiving daily sink baths and showers, roughhousing with the Craigs’ pet bulldogs and snuggling with the boys at night. But Craig never lost sight of the fact that Eddy was a wild animal. Gradually he introduced the leopard cub to the outdoors and, when he turned a year old, let him join the eight other leopards in their three-pen compound. Now, when the 150-pound cat sees Craig, he greets him like a rambunctious son, rolling on his back and jumping up to sniff Pat’s hair.
While Craig has earned the animals’ respect and affection, he has had some close calls. One of his 800-pound black bears, annoyed when Craig took a brush to his matted fur, bit him through the arm and tossed him around like a rag doll. Another time, Craig was strolling with a pack of African lions, when a 450-pound female accidentally knocked him into one of the males. The male sank his teeth into Craig, leaving four holes in his chest and arm. Fortunately, Craig recovered fully from both incidents.
It’s frustrating to Craig that his sanctuary — and the 12 other refuges in the United States that take in large mammals — can’t care for all the exotics that need homes. One big reason: Running an animal sanctuary isn’t cheap. Craig spends between $4,000 and $8,000 a year to board one animal. The sanctuary’s weekly meat bill is $6,000. All together, the annual operating budget is $1.2 million, a staggering amount for a place that doesn’t receive a dime from the government and doesn’t have any corporate or foundation endowments.
For 18 years, Craig spent all of his high school teaching salary, plus money from construction jobs, on the sanctuary. His wife’s part-time work as an accounting manager has paid the family bills. Eventually, with the help of regular contributors and in-kind donations (the Rocky Flats nuclear weapons plant gave him five miles of chain-link fence when it closed), Craig’s sole focus became running the sanctuary. The year 2005 was especially crippling when relief efforts for Hurricane Katrina and the Indonesia tsunami dried up regular donations. Craig thought he’d have to close.
But the animals had no place to go, so the staff got creative. They started selling donated merchandise, brought in more volunteers, encouraged people to sponsor individual animals, and opened the sanctuary to the public (visitors can now see the animals from an observation deck). Their efforts stopped the financial bleeding — for the short term. With 151 hungry animals, the nonprofit’s future is always in question.
As much as Craig loves animals, he’d much prefer to eliminate the problem that brings them to the sanctuary. He and his staff spend about half their time educating anyone who will listen about captive wildlife. The crisis can be solved, Craig thinks, only by making the public aware of the suffering these animals endure. “If people treated abusive owners like outcasts, then fewer animals would need a sanctuary like ours,” he says. “The happiest day of my life will be the day I’m put out of business.”