Some 25,000 wild animals live in captivity outside U.S. zoos, many horribly abused.
Pat Craig squats down and stares at the tiger. The big cat locks its green-amber eyes on Craig and, shoulders hunched, creeps toward him. Craig flattens his palm against the chain-link fence and leans even closer as the 700-pound tiger approaches. Then, with his top teeth perched on his lower lip, beaver-style, Craig blows three short puffs of air. Pfft. Pfft. Pfft. The tiger brings his face inches from Craig’s and blows three puffs back. In tiger language, they have just said hello.
After this ritual, called chuffing, Craig strokes the cat’s pink nose and soft forehead, and the tiger moans as if his biggest itch has been scratched. “Hi, Ricky.” Craig’s voice has climbed an octave. “You’re a good boy.”
Ricky lives in the Wild Animal Sanctuary in Keenesburg, Colorado, along with 73 other tigers. But the sanctuary wasn’t their first stop. Many of these cats were living in squalid conditions while earning their keep in roadside zoos, portrait studios or county fairs. Others served as breeding machines, their young often shipped away in boxes before weaning. And some were owned by private citizens who abandoned them when they outgrew the cute kitten stage.
By conservative estimates, some 25,000 wild animals live in captivity outside the zoo system in the United States, many in inhumane conditions. Owners who use their exotics for commercial reasons may have proper legal permits, but the licenses give the animals only minimal protection. And although there are laws against selling exotic animals across state lines, in several states there is no prohibition against owning, say, a grizzly bear or an African lion.
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.
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.”