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Walk on the Wild Side

Formerly captive and abused animals find new lives at the Wild Animal Sanctuary.

Jake, the black bear, gets attention from visitors on the elevated walkway. After constantly being moved from place to place and performing for years in the San Diego Zoo’s wildlife presentations, he was sent to the Wild Animal Sanctuary where he finally lives in peace.

Jake, the black bear, gets attention from visitors on the elevated walkway. After constantly being moved from place to place and performing for years in the San Diego Zoo’s wildlife presentations, he was sent to the Wild Animal Sanctuary where he finally lives in peace.

Walk on the Wild Side takes on new meaning at the Wild Animal Sanctuary—the largest nonprofit carnivore sanctuary in the world. Less than an hour’s drive northeast of Denver near Keenesburg, it is dedicated exclusively to rescuing and caring for captive large carnivores. What you see there will gladden your heart.

Here, on the Sanctuary’s 789 acres, in addition to the new refuge near Springfield, more than 500 abused, neglected, and/or abandoned lions, tigers, leopards, wolves, and bears are given a chance at freedom from horrific captive situations. These magnificent animals, some of them endangered, have never lived in the wild. They were born in captivity and suffered their entire lives in inhumane conditions.

Visitors to this amazing place can hear the roars, chuffs, growls, and howls from happy wildlife experiencing freedom for the first time.

“About 80% of the animals rescued are confiscated by a law enforcement agency,” says Kent Drotar, public relations director. “Here in the U.S., it’s most often the USDA,” as well as U.S. Fish and Wildlife and rescue organizations. However, he adds, “We are the only large carnivore sanctuary in the U.S. that rescues internationally. We’ve rescued animals from Bolivia, Argentina, Mexico, Lebanon, Spain, Panama, and Canada.”

They come from roadside zoos, traveling circuses, illegal possession as pets, cheap entertainment venues, amusement parks, and endless other terrible sources. Many were “surplus” animals kept in small cages behind the scenes of large, metropolitan zoos and destined to be euthanized.

The Sanctuary is not a zoo, and unlike an African safari, visitors are not allowed directly in the animals’ areas. Instead, they can view the Sanctuary’s landscape and its inhabitants from a 1.5-mile elevated bridge that spans their habitats. Bring binoculars.

Life at the Sanctuary

When the rescued animals arrive at the Sanctuary, they aren’t automatically released into outdoor habitats. They come with a lot of baggage that needs to be assessed and treated during a careful rehabilitation process. “Basically, it covers three main areas—physical, social, and psychological rehabilitation,” says Drotar, who makes it his mission to learn all there is about each rescued animal. “And it can take months or more.”

Physical rehab involves treating any medical issues, such as dental disease, arthritis, and issues related to having been declawed. Most arrive severely undernourished and are immediately put on a healthy diet. Psychological issues are the most difficult to treat. “The majority of the animals have grown up socially isolated from birth,” says Drotar. “Most of them don’t know what others of their own species are. We have lions that don’t know how to roar and tigers scared of other tigers because they’ve never seen one before.”

Tigers, perhaps the most exploited of captive wildlife, are central to the current captive wildlife crisis in the United States. According to the World Wildlife Fund, the estimated 7,000 tigers in the United States exceeds the 3,890 in the wild.

Over time, Drotar says, with a healthy, quality environment, they will stop their habit of pacing or other neurotic behaviors. When all is well, after a long and careful introductory period, they graduate to three-to five-acre outdoor habitats, where they can roam freely with their own species.

TLC is the motto here. With shelter, wide open spaces, and pools in which to bathe and escape the summer heat, there’s also the gourmet dining. It takes approximately 28,500 pounds of meat to feed the cats and canines each week.

They’re fed a USDA-approved special diet of meat, vitamins, and minerals three to four times a week to simulate hunting and eating in the wild. “We make our own frozen meat blocks for the carnivores,” says Drotar. “The bears get a true omnivore diet of fruits, veggies, fresh fish, and meats as well as grains.”

The Beginning and the Future

How did this world-renowned sanctuary come to be? Call it fate or happenstance. When founder Pat Craig visited a friend who worked at a zoo in 1979, he was shown the “surplus” cats kept in small cages out of sight and was horrified. He could not get the incarcerated lions out of his mind. The following year, he made the decision to rescue exotic carnivores living in inhumane conditions in the United States.

A 19-year-old freshman at the University of Colorado, Craig began his legally licensed and certified 501(c)3 rescue operation out of his family’s small farm in Boulder. He sent letters to dozens of zoos across the country, offering to take in their surplus cats and was inundated with responses. Following rapid growth, he moved to Lyons and, after eight years, established the Sanctuary in Keenesburg in 1994.

But space has run out again, and with no room for expansion, the Sanctuary is basically landlocked. However, in early 2018, the new 9,684-acre Wild Animal Refuge was acquired between La Junta and Springfield. Now, more animals will have new lives on 100- to 300-acre habitats on forested land. It’s wonderful for the animals, and because of its remoteness, it will not be open to the public.

Most of last year was spent building the infrastructure, including 30 miles of roads, a nutrition center, operations area, and staff housing. “We completed a 35-acre habitat earlier this year, and the first big cats were moved there this summer,” says Drotar. Since then, a 300-acre bear habitat was constructed, and six recently rescued grizzlies are the first lucky inhabitants. Soon to follow are some lucky bears from Argentina and all the rescued wildlife yet to come.

Living the good life—at last.



2999 County Road 53 Keenesburg, CO / 303.536.0118 / wildanimalsanctuary.org

Open seven days a week, 9 a.m. to sunset

Accredited by the Global Federation of Animal Sanctuaries, the USDA, and Colorado Parks and Wildlife