Pat Craig founded The Wild Animal Sanctuary. Courtesy The Wild Animal Sanctuary

Pat Craig rescues 1,000-plus wild creatures

KEENESBURG — Pat Craig didn’t want to be the person to walk by a caged carnivore, feel sorry for it and go on with his life.

Instead, Craig paused his studies at the University of Colorado Boulder to create what eventually would become the world’s largest and oldest nonprofit sanctuary with three sites in Keenesburg, Springfield and, most recently, Boyd, Texas. Together, the facilities encompass more than 10,500 acres of space with 120 large acreage habitats specific to exotic and endangered carnivore and hoofed species.

Craig founded The Wild Animal Sanctuary in January 1980, rescuing more than 1,000 captive animals from around the world since then. He rescues lions, tigers, bears, large and small cats, and an assortment of other animals from raccoons to ostriches, emus and kangaroos. His mission is to rescue and rehabilitate carnivores who have been abused, abandoned, illegally kept or exploited and to provide education about the captive wildlife crisis.

“I felt pretty bad for the animals,” Craig said. “It kept bugging me that they were going to be euthanized.”

In April 1979, Craig, who now lives in Keenesburg, had visited a friend at a zoo in a small North Carolina town on his way home from a trip to Florida. His friend gave him a tour of the zoo, and he learned about the “surplus” lions and tigers that were kept in cages and likely would be euthanized.

When Craig returned home — he grew up on a family farm outside the Boulder area — he called the Denver Zoo but learned there were seven carnivores in back and not room for more. He contacted other zoos facing the same issue and researched for some type of humane society for carnivores. Not finding any, he decided to build his own and became, at age 19, the youngest person with a licensed zoological facility, as well as the first person to build a sanctuary dedicated to saving large carnivores. 

To create his facility, Craig changed the zoning on the farm, built “a small compound” and put a call out to zoos and other facilities with animals about to be euthanized. He received more than 300 responses in the first month.

He started his nonprofit with one acre on the 15-acre property and followed the regulations for habitats at the time, installing concrete floors and chain-link fencing.

“When I first started taking in animals, I was brand new to the whole thing. I was trying to save them from being euthanized, but they moved from tiny cage to tiny cage,” Craig said. 

Craig needed more space for the rescues and in 1985 moved the sanctuary to a 25-acre site in Lyons. It included one acre of open space that provided a larger habitat for the animals to exercise and play — Craig had found a loophole in the regulations that allowed animals to leave their cages one at a time. But he was able to house only 30 to 45 animals and soon needed even more space.

In 1994, Craig chose a 160-acre site in Keenesburg, where the sanctuary remains in operation today and has room for the animals to be out without having to take turns. The facility operates with a staff of nearly 80 full-time employees and more than 160 volunteers. 

Animals living at the facility are rehabilitated prior to being released into large acreage natural habitats, each designed for a specific species. There also are grassland buffers used as pasture for rescued horses, camels, yaks and other hoof stock. 

Craig wanted to house even more animals and expanded the Keenesburg facility to 789 acres in 2017 — now there are 450 animals at the facility. A year later, he bought another property 35 miles west of Springfield in southeast Colorado to add another 9,684 acres and in 2020 added a 41-acre property in Texas.

New rescues are brought to the Springfield facility, called The Wild Animal Refuge, unless they need medical attention or monitoring and are sent to Keenesburg, where there is a veterinary hospital staffed full time. A second hospital is expected to be in operation in Springfield this spring. 

Located in a remote area and not open to the public, The Wildlife Animal Refuge houses 100 animals and has 100- to 300-acre habitats. 

“These guys can’t go back to the wild, but if they can’t, this is the closest they’ll ever get,” Craig said. “They can go for a day or two where they have food and water but not the pressure of humans.”

For the first 20 years of its operation, The Wild Animal Sanctuary was closed to the public with only educational opportunities available to schools and civic groups interested in captive wildlife issues, including carnivores being bred and sold as pets. 

In 2009, Craig opened the sanctuary to the public to offer that education, and two years later, he added a 1.5-mile elevated walkway, “Mile Into the Wild Walkway,” for public viewing of lions, tigers, bears, wolves and other carnivores without disturbing their habitats. 

“We redefined how these animals can be kept in captivity,” said Craig, who worked with state and federal agencies to change the regulations that allowed for larger habitats and better protection of the animals. “They need to be living in large, natural spaces.”

The majority of the rescues — 85 to 90% — are government seizures, confiscations and court orders. There is a small number of private surrenders from individuals trying to keep carnivores as pets and, on occasion, a few coming from zoos. 

“We’ve been involved in lots of high profile cases, like (Netflix’s) ‘Tiger King,’” Craig said about several of the cats at Joe Exotic’s Oklahoma zoo, no longer in operation, being relocated to the sanctuary. 

Through education, The Wild Animal Sanctuary is saving animals from ending up in people’s homes and basements, Craig said. An estimated 30,000 captive large carnivores live outside the zoo system in the U.S. alone. Plus, countless cats, bears, wolves and other large carnivores live in abusive conditions in roadside zoos, circuses, magic acts and traveling shows. 

“People’s attitudes are changing. They realize these animals shouldn’t be commercialized and exploited and displayed from the wild,” Craig said, adding that zoos historically served a role of educating the general public about wildlife when travel abroad proved unaffordable. “These animals are amazing, majestic creatures. People should honor and respect them and try to solve this problem.”

Michelle McGraw, development associate for The Wild Animal Sanctuary, is “amazed” at Craig’s accomplishments in 41 years of rescuing large carnivores, she said.

“He has pioneered the art of building large acreage, species-specific habitats and giving the animals wide open spaces in which to roam. Pat works hand-in-hand with the USDA, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and many other state and national organizations to give these rescued animals the best care, nutrition, protection and quality of life they so deserve,” McGraw said. “I am honored and humbled by his daily selfless acts to make the world a better place. Pat is an inspiration, and I could only hope for all generations to come to want to protect wildlife like he does.”

Kent Drotar, public relations director at The Wild Animal Sanctuary, calls Craig a “true Renaissance man.” 

“He is so knowledgeable in so many areas, not the least of which is his incredible ability to understand animal behavior,” Drotar said. “His ability to envision ‘what something can become’ is unmatched. For example, he’ll see some donated blocks of concrete and immediately see how they can be made into a useful and/or beautiful structure that will both help the rescued animals and in one way or another enrich peoples’ lives as well. The Wild Animal Sanctuary would not be it if it weren’t for Pat; thousands of animals have him to thank for new lives.”

While building the sanctuary, Craig returned to school to earn a bachelor’s degree in education from the University of Northern Colorado. In the early 1990s, he started teaching at Boulder Valley School District, then St. Vrain Valley School District and Weld RE3J School District until the mid-1990s, when he decided to work full time at the sanctuary and get support through fundraising. He works seven days a week, 12 to 14 hours a day, and hasn’t taken a vacation or time off in 41 years. He has participated in the Association of Sanctuaries and American Sanctuary Association and lectures regionally and nationally on captive wildlife rescue and transportation and great cat behaviors and diets.

“That’s what spurred me to get involved is not to just walk by. I wanted to try. I obviously ended up successful at it,” Craig said. “Starting really young and doing the right thing, you have to adapt and learn and try to do your best. … If you know you’re doing the right things for the animals, you’ll do what it takes to get there.”

KEENESBURG — Pat Craig didn’t want to be the person to walk by a caged carnivore, feel sorry for it and go on with his life.

Instead, Craig paused his studies at the University of Colorado Boulder to create what eventually would become the world’s largest and oldest nonprofit sanctuary with three sites in Keenesburg, Springfield and, most recently, Boyd, Texas. Together, the facilities encompass more than 10,500 acres of space with 120 large acreage habitats specific to exotic and endangered carnivore and hoofed species.

Craig founded The Wild Animal Sanctuary in January 1980, rescuing more than 1,000 captive animals from around the world since then. He rescues lions, tigers, bears, large and small cats, and an assortment of other animals from raccoons to ostriches, emus and kangaroos. His mission is to rescue and rehabilitate carnivores who have been abused, abandoned, illegally kept or exploited and to provide education about the captive wildlife crisis.

“I felt pretty bad for the animals,” Craig said. “It kept bugging me that they were going to be euthanized.”

In April 1979, Craig, who now lives in Keenesburg, had visited a friend at a zoo in a small North Carolina town on his way home from a trip to Florida. His friend gave him a tour of the zoo, and he learned about the “surplus” lions and tigers that were kept in cages and likely would be euthanized.

When Craig returned home — he grew up on a family farm outside the Boulder area — he called the Denver…