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Where the Wild Things Are

At The Wild Animal Sanctuary, rescued exotic and endangered animals live large...
By Leland Rucker
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There are fewer than 4,000 wild tigers left in the world, most of them in Asia. In the United States, there are about 5,000 tigers in captivity, according to recent estimates. The International Fund for Animal Welfare puts that number closer to 10,000. The Humane Society of the United States estimates there are as many as 15,000 big cats in private hands in this country; more than 4,000 are in individual hands in Texas alone.

These animals are living in restrictive environments—held in public and roadside zoos, kept in cages in backyards and basements, often in squalid, inhumane conditions. Some are made to perform, appearing in advertisements for everything from grocery stores to home furniture outlets. Others are sold to hunting ranches or euthanized when they get too large to be useful.

None of these animals were captured in the wild. They were bred here, born in captivity, and most have never seen the outside of a cage.

This is not a wildlife conservation issue, it’s a captive-wildlife crisis. It’s animal cruelty. And there’s a Colorado organization dedicated to giving lives of dignity to abused tigers, lions, and bears (oh my!), alpacas, leopards, wolves, lynx, and other animals. The group is giving these exotic, endangered captives rescued from around the world a wild sanctuary where they can live out their lives in peace—literally a retirement home for abused animals. The appropriately named organization: The Wild Animal Sanctuary.

The nonprofit organization operates three sites in Colorado, with more than 33,000 acres of land providing shelter for more than 750 large carnivores and other res[1]cued animals. The majority of the land is the recently purchased Refuge facility, a private 9,684- acre property in southern Colorado.

Farther north, about 30 miles northeast of Denver, is the 1,214- acre educational facility, open to the public—and worth visiting time and again. Here, more than 550 lions, tigers, bears, wolves, foxes, leopards, jaguars, mountain lions, and other exotic animals live on rolling grasslands and former wheat fields with majestic views of Colorado’s Front Range.

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BY THE NUMBERS: THE WILD ANIMAL SANCTUARY’S RESCUED RESIDENTS

• 86 African Lions

• 97 Tigers

• 156 Black Bears

• 43 Grizzly Bears

• 20 Wolves

• 2 Jaguars

• 2 Cheetahs

• 12 Mountain Lions

• 2 Leopards

• 1 Camel

• 4 Coatimundis

• 9 Bobcats

• 9 Lynx

• 12 Coyotes

• 14 Foxes

• 1 Raccoon

• 3 Ostriches

• 8 Emus

• 51 Alpacas

• 225 Horses

In January 2023, the sanctuary purchased an additional 22,500 acres for their new Wild Horse Refuge, which will offer refuge to wild horses currently being rounded up by Bureau of Land Management programs. “The new refuge is now Colorado’s largest wild mustang sanctuary,” says founder Pat Craig.

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For those who can no longer tolerate zoos or seeing animals caged in small enclosures, walking through the sanctuary is a real breath of fresh air, an opportunity to watch contented animals – not ones pacing back and forth at the limits of their boundaries, as one might see in zoos.

The idea for the sanctuary began in 1979 when Craig visited a friend who had gotten a job as a groundskeeper in a North Carolina zoo.

“He gave me a behind the-scenes tour,” he says. “In the back they had a ton of lions, tigers, bears, and stuff, in really cruddy little cages.” When he asked, he was told that for whatever reason there were too many to put on display, and the rest were kept in cages out of sight of the public.

That really bothered Craig. He got in touch with the Denver Zoo and found out that it too had more animals than it knew what to do with, and that some were being euthanized. When he asked what it would take to stop this, he was told he’d have to build his own zoo. Craig couldn’t do that, but he did have room on his farm and, after some research, he found that if he built enclosures that met zoo standards, he could save the animals. “Back then we called it the conservation center because nobody was using the word ‘sanctuary.’”

He put up some buildings on the farm, passed inspections, and was licensed, in essence becoming the youngest zookeeper in the country. He petitioned to change laws about captive animals to allow them more space. “Initially I didn’t know what I was getting into,” he admits. “But I got the zoning changed and applied for a nonprofit and did all that stuff you’re in the country offering to take surplus animals off their hands. The reaction was overwhelming. “The first month I got over 300 responses saying they were interested in the idea rather than euthanizing. Those people didn’t want to kill these animals, either.”

The first 12 cages were occupied quickly. He dropped out of school, started building more structures, and got a second, part-time, job to help pay for it.

TIPS FOR YOUR VISIT

• It takes three to six hours to see the entire facility, so plan on arriving at least four hours before closing (sunset). They stop taking visitors two hours before then.

• Animals are most active around dusk, especially during the summer.

• Adults: $30; children: $15.

• No dogs allowed, not even service dogs. No, not even if you leave it in your car. (You shouldn’t do that anyway!)

• Your GPS isn’t guaranteed to guide you there. Use the directions on the website.

• It gets hot during the summer, but there’s almost always a breeze up on the walkway, so bring layers. As well as hats, sunglasses, sunscreen—the standards.

• If you have binoculars, bring them! Otherwise, you can use the free stationary units on walkways and decks, along with the other binoc-less visitors.

He moved his “zoo” to a location with more space near Lyons, Colorado, for eight years. Volunteers donated time to help out, but there was always more to do. “I typically would work until seven or eight at night and then go home and clean till one or two in the morning and feed the animals and then go get a few hours of sleep, go back to work and do that again. I always tell people that it’s like having kids—once you get them, you’re on the hook for the rest of their lives.”

The sanctuary relocated again to its present location in 1994. “When we moved out here, the main goal was to get a lot more space for habitats, because in the early years all the laws and regulations said you needed a concrete floor, chain-link walls or bars or a steel top, and a pretty sterile environment. I was like, ‘Well this kind of sucks. I’m saving a life, but I’m not really giving any kind of quality of life.’”

The sanctuary relocated again to its present location in 1994. “When we moved out here, the main goal was to get a lot more space for habitats, because in the early years all the laws and regulations said you needed a concrete floor, chain-link walls or bars or a steel top, and a pretty sterile environment. I was like, ‘Well this kind of sucks. I’m saving a life, but I’m not really giving any kind of quality of life.’”

Craig is not sure we’ll ever get to a place where we don’t have zoos or sanctuaries, so that concept is key to the future. “You know, our goal is that we all go out of business, and animals are just in the wild. But unfortunately every animal out there is going to go extinct other than tiny managed groups that are theoretically wild, but are just basically habitats that are still fenced. It’s already happening in Africa and in many parts of India. The future is that these animals are going to live in these managed spaces and we’ll call it the wild, but it’s relative.”