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 flamboyant personality, Exotic revealed to audiences a dark 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.
And while millions of people have stayed glued to their TV sets, caught up in the seemingly inconceivable true-crime story, one man on Colorado’s windswept plains has been working with his staff and other entities to save Exotic’s animals left behind. Last summer Pat Craig and his team were part of one of the largest endangered species rescue operations ever carried out by the U.S. Dept. of Justice to bring more of Exotic’s animals to Colorado. So far, Craig and his team have rescued more than 140 animals that are Tiger King-related.
Rescuing Joe Exotic’s Animals and Others
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 more than 500 lions, tigers, wolves, grizzly bears and others that live there.
When Pat Craig was 19, he visited a friend who worked as a zoo groundskeeper in North Carolina. His friend showed him the back of zoo where tigers and lions sat in small cages far away from the crowds. They were “surplus” animals, meaning the zoo had no place to put them.
Craig looked at the animals and was shocked by the scene. He didn’t think he would even put a dog in the cages where the lions and tigers lived. He climbed into his blue Chevy pickup truck, leaving the zoo behind in his rearview mirror as he returned home to Boulder, Colo.
But the animals had curled up in the forefront of his thoughts and there they lingered.
“Every day, I kept thinking about them as I went back to school [at University of Colorado Boulder],” he says. “I thought, ‘How many people think like I do and are not doing anything about it?’
Today, he runs The Wild Animal Sanctuary in Keenesburg, Colo., the world’s largest and oldest non-profit sanctuary dedicated exclusively to rescuing large carnivores that have been abused, abandoned or illegally kept. For 37 years, a big part of his work has been educating people, including visitors and government officials, about the captive wild animal problem in which thousands of exotic animals live in people’s garages and roadside shows, often horribly mistreated. But none of it would be possible without a small army of volunteers and critical donations, much of it from visitors.
A Bird’s Eye View at Wild Animal Sanctuary
You can see the sanctuary’s 500 animals living in large natural habitats folded into rolling golden plains framed by the Rockies in the distance. But you won’t be able to view them from the ground. Instead, you’ll walk on a 1.5-mile elevated walkway, the longest footbridge in the world, from which you can see the animals.
Standing 30 feet above the ground, the walkway spans tiger habitat, wolf habitat, grizzly bear habitat and beyond. It allows you to view the animals without them seeing you, a key to reducing animal stress and improving the visitor-viewing experience.
“When I first started, I was just taking care of the animals and they knew me,” Craig recalls. “But when friends and others stopped by, I noticed the animals perceived them as a threat at the edge of their territory. They kept their eyes on people.”
Craig had an epiphany when he was working on the rooftops of his farm. Worried that the sounds from his power tools would scare the animals, he realized quickly the animals were not bothered by things above them. Ten feet outside the fence is a threat, but 10 feet above is not, he says.
The walkway, combined with a football-field-sized visitor center, offers seating areas, food, cold drinks and ice cream. While there you learn the animals’ stories, all of whom were rescued from places like a Nebraska zoo, a fairground in Panama, a truck stop in Texas and circuses in Bolivia, Mexico and Uruguay.
The First Animals
In 1979 when Craig discovered large cats in the back of a zoo, there was limited public awareness of the captive wild animal issue. When he called the Denver Zoo to see if it could take the animals languishing in North Carolina, the staff told him it already had a surplus of seven tigers. He called the state and federal government and asked if they could make it illegal to keep so many animals caged behind closed doors.
Their response? If Craig wanted to do something, he could build cages to the right specifications and get the right animal certifications. Then he could legally house exotic animals. He did both.
Then he sat in front of his grandmother’s typewriter in his family farmhouse. He tapped on its keys to draft 75 letters to zoos across the country. In his letters, he asked zookeepers if they had extra animals needing a new home.
The whole idea seemed a bit inconceivable. While he had the right state and federal certifications, his experience was limited to horses, dogs and chickens raised on his family’s 15-acre farm in east Boulder.
Nonetheless, within a week, the Craig’s mailbox began filling with envelopes bearing postmarks from all over the country. It was as if he had blown a giant dog whistle, calling exotic neglected animals from dark corners of big zoos, small zoos, well-kept zoos and those that made people sadder than when they arrived. Their caretakers heard Craig’s call as if he were next door.
“It wasn’t even the surplus list,” Craig recalls. “There were tons of letters about animals they were going to kill- elephants, chimpanzees. It was so much more than what I could do. And there was the question of who do I pick?”
The first animal he brought home was a baby jaguar that was born a zoo in South Carolina to a mother that refused to nurse it. He had never even seen a real baby jaguar. He flew there and brought it back on the airplane, telling the flight attendants it was a “Himalayan” cat.
His next rescue was a caged mountain lion from Utah that had lived in a North America exhibit as an amusement park attraction. He loaded it into a cage in the back up of his blue Chevy pickup truck.
In the 37 years since, the lessons Craig has learned have set a gold-standard for protecting captive animals both here and abroad.
“Singularly, Pat is devoted to the animals,” says Kent Drotar, the sanctuary ambassador. “He literally is here seven days a week 12 hours a day. At the end of the day, if he has to make a hard decision, it’s always about the animals.”
As Craig’s family farm began filling with wild animals, he felt unsettled. While he had rescued them from being euthanized, the animals still lived in concrete enclosures with metal bars, per state and federal regulations. He began letting them out during the day in a fenced-in area, one at a time. He noticed they always returned at night to their cages where they felt safe.
His pioneering approach successfully led to the rewriting of state and federal laws to allow animals to live in habitats and not just in concrete and metal cages. In 37 years, no animal has escaped the sanctuary.
“It’s all about psychology of animals,” Craig says. “[Animals born in captivity] see the fence as security, and they defend that space.”
Today the sanctuary location stretches across 789 acres and the new refuge adds more than 9,000 acres of Colorado plains. Taking care of the animals includes knowing each species, understanding which ones fight and placing the same type of animals together only after a long and successful introductory period. It also includes feeding the animals more than they need, so those living together don’t fight for food. All of this comes with a large price tag, which almost forced Craig to shut his doors several years ago.
From Walmart to the Lions’ Dens
Along with donations, an unexpected partner has helped ease the financial burden for the sanctuary. It takes 40,000 pounds of food per week to feed all the animals living at the Wild Animal Sanctuary. Four years ago, Walmart began donating this critical amount of food at no charge. It’s surplus food that would otherwise end up in landfills.
To collect the food, which amounted to $3.8 million in retail value last year, the sanctuary hires two full-time drivers to visit 47 Walmarts in Colorado twice per week. They load the food up to two refrigerated trucks and drive it to the sanctuary’s 3,500-foot nutrition center.
“All that money we save we can put toward habitats,” says Craig. “I’m just trying to do what’s good for the animals.”
As for Exotic’s tigers, Craig and his staff have enjoyed watching them, including Nala, a small, underweight tiger, adapting 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.
For more information:
1946 County Road 53 Keenesburg, CO 80643
No pets are allowed on the property.