When Netflix launched Tiger King, a docuseries about convicted felon and Oklahoma zookeeper and tiger breeder Joe Exotic, it captivated audiences who suddenly found themselves quarantined at home during the initial spread of COVID-19.
With his blonde mullet and flamboyant personality, Exotic revealed to audiences a dark, unfamiliar underworld filled with captive tigers, drama and murderous vendettas. It culminated with Exotic, born Joseph Allen Schreibvogel, being sentenced to 22 years in prison for wildlife violations and a murder-for-hire plot he hatched to kill Florida big-cat sanctuary owner Carole Baskin.
Within the first 10 days of its Netflix release in March 2020, more than 34 million people viewed it. And while audiences stayed glued to their TV sets, caught up in the seemingly inconceivable but true-crime story plots, one man on the windswept plains of Colorado was thinking about Exotic’s animals left behind.
Pat Craig has spent the better part of his life rescuing large carnivores like those in Exotic’s zoo and transporting them to The Wild Animal Sanctuary in Keenesburg, Colo. Founded by Craig, it’s the world’s largest and oldest non-profit sanctuary dedicated exclusively to rescuing abused, abandoned or illegally kept large carnivores. You can visit the more than 500 lions, tigers, wolves, grizzly bears and others that live there.
What makes The Wild Animal Sanctuary really different than any other zoo or sanctuary is its expansive habitats, plus its 1.5-mile elevated walkway that towers above those habitats. Visitors view the animals from the walkway, which averages 30 feet above the ground. It allows you to spot animals like tigers lounging in the grass or swimming in their pond without them being concerned about you, a key to reducing animal stress and improving the visitor-viewing experience.
And when you need to take a break, a football-field-sized visitor center offers seating areas, food, cold drinks and ice cream.
So far, Craig and his team have rescued 42 tigers, five bears and 11 wolves from Joe Exotic’s Greater Wynnewood Exotic Animal Park in Oklahoma. At The Wild Animal Sanctuary, Craig, the staff and an army of volunteers enable the animals to live comfortably in large natural habitats that stretch across 789 acres of rolling golden plains framed by the Rockies.
“They spent their whole lives in a space the size of your living room, pacing back and forth,” says Kent Drotar, public relations director of The Wild Animal Sanctuary, referring to the conditions Joe Exotic’s animals endured. “It was a horrible life. Today, they have acres and acres of land.”
As for Exotic’s tigers, Craig and his staff have enjoyed watching them, including Nala, a small, underweight tiger, getting used to their large natural habitats.
“Every time she would pluck a small stem from one of the bushes or tug on some of the evergreen branches, we had to remind ourselves that this was the first time in her life that she was able to interact with such common natural things,” Craig says.
Learn more about The Wild Animal Sanctuary at WildAnimalSanctuary.org.