Pat Craig was just 19 when he first heard adult lions and tigers referred to as zoo surplus, and learned most were euthanized.
Thirty-four years later, speaking in front of an audience at the Lone Tree Arts Center, the memory of that moment in the back of a zoo made Craig’s voice break.
“I was looking at these animals; they were looking back at me,” he said. “I thought, these animals will die without somebody. I should be doing something’.”
So he did. In 1980, Craig built and opened a small sanctuary on his parent’s farm near Boulder. Within a month, he heard from people seeking to place more than 1,000 animals.
“I thought saving one is better than none,” Craig said. “Pretty soon I realized I had to drop out of school. I had to work a fulltime job to feed these animals. I was up to my neck in lions, tiger and bears. It wasn’t something I ever planned on doing.”
Craig now houses 330 animals — most of them large carnivores — on a 720-acre habitat near Keenesburg in Weld County, about 40 miles from downtown Denver. The Wild Animal Sanctuary is still growing, with demand far outstripping available space or funds.
He rarely takes the time to share his story like he did April 21 during the talk sponsored by the Lone Tree Arts Center Guild. The reason why, he said is due to the time demands of building habitats, rescuing animals, pushing for stricter exotic animal legislation and running the sanctuary.
The nonprofit features a 4,800-foot-long elevated walkway that extends over the animals’ habitats, allowing them to observe grizzly and black bears, African lions, tigers, wolves and other animals housed there. Admission is $15 for adults, and $7.50 for children.
“There’s no other facility in the country like it,” Craig said. “You really can’t draw from your experiences going to a wildlife park or zoo.”
A total of 137 volunteers and a few paid staff help Craig run the sanctuary.
Craig said the proliferation of unwanted exotic animals extends from several sources, including the entertainment industry. Longtime Las Vegas entertainers Siegfried and Roy, whose act ended when Roy was injured by a tiger in 2003, contributed to the issue Craig works to counteract.
Because they needed young animals willing to perform stage tricks, “they would breed up to seven tigers a year to find enough babies to have understudies. The audience had no clue the tigers were rotating in and out of this show like crazy; they all had the same name.”
The tiger that injured Roy was the 25th named Montecore.
Craig and his team have rescued big cats from basements, back yards, barns and crawl spaces. Most have never lived outside of a cage or sharply confined space and require a gradual transition to the large, grassy multi-acre pens that make up most of his property.
The animals are spayed or neutered upon their move to the sanctuary.
“We take away the main things they argue about in the wild, so they’re very social,” Craig said. “They love to play together.”
The animals eat 20,000 pounds of food each week, much of it donated by Front Range Wal-Mart stores, Craig said.
The demand for rescues is endless, he said.
“This year, we’re going to have to find the funding to go out and buy more land or we won’t be able to house any more animals,” he said.
For directions and more information, visit www.wildanimalsanctuary.org.