Colorado Wild Animal Sanctuary owner is the beast maste |

Colorado Wild Animal Sanctuary owner is the beast maste

Greeley Tribune
**FOR USE IN WEEKEND EDITIONS OF MAY 9-10**In this photograph taken on Tuesday, April 14, 2009, Pat Craig gets a playful bite on the shoulder by a lion cub while taking a break at the office of his wildlife sanctuary in Keensburg, Colo. (AP Photo/The Daily Tribune, Greeley Colo., Jim Rydbom)
AP | Greeley Tribune

KENNESBURG, Colorado ” Every day, usually as the sun starts to break over the distant prairie surrounding his Wild Animal Sanctuary, Pat Craig makes his rounds.

He chuffs and puffs and talks in his high-pitched, almost squeaky voice, one that doesn’t fit a body big enough to wrestle a bear (which, incidentally, Craig will do). The big cats he’s saved from neglect and outright abuse answer back, in the same pitch, and rub against the cage.

Craig talks to the lions and tigers and bears, and, oh my, he might even get in the cage with them and toss a ball or stroke their fur. He visits with the chirping, purring mountain lions and the playful foxes and reserves a special chunk of his day for Eddy, the black leopard he raised from a cub.

And then, these days, Craig drives down the long, dirt road to his office to work.

Just a few years ago, Craig spent much more time with the animals. It was the favorite part of his 12-hour days. It still is. But that was before his place nearly folded. In fact, it did close briefly, and Craig pondered the horrible possibility that he would have to put the animals to sleep.

He knew some changes had to be made, and that meant changing his approach. He started working in an office instead of a trailer next to the animals. Then he hired a staff, launched a gift shop and opened the sanctuary to the public. He even boosted his marketing and advertising. He and Toni Scalera, director of the sanctuary’s board of directors and a close partner in operations, worked 16-hour days, seven days a week, for three years, and most of it was in that office.

He’d rather be out there, with the animals. He’d rather shovel manure all day, honestly.

“My time with the animals is one-tenth of the day now,” Craig said. “I had to become this business guy, and that’s not why I did it in the first place. But I know it makes a difference.”

Craig, after all, is grateful to have a place. When he started the sanctuary, he was able to keep up with all the new additions, but just barely. It was, at times, month to month. That finally caught up to him three years ago, when people gave money to the tsunami and Katrina and forgot about his place. He sent out one plea, and enough donations came to save the sanctuary. Then he grew tired of begging people for money and, after a long, hard decision, he had to close down.

Donations, however, came again, and rather than put down the animals and essentially destroy everything he worked for most of his life, he put in even more hours, consulted with experts and formed a plan.

He started a program that withdraws donations automatically from his top givers’ credit cards, as if they were paying a cell phone bill. Consistency, he discovered, was the key to staying open, not large one-time donations, no matter how generous they were. As a result, more than 50 percent of his donations now are automatic. That means there’s more newsletters and other things to handle, and his mailing list has doubled in the past three years ” he had to hire a person to handle most of that, but it’s worth the trouble.

“It’s no longer out of sight, out of mind,” Craig said. “That’s made a huge difference. Even if everything else fell off, we wouldn’t have to close.”

But far beyond that, Craig developed a for-profit mentality for his nonprofit business. He spent more than he wanted on advertising, such as billboards along U.S. 85. One year he spent $20,000 on ads, and that irked some of his board members and longtime donors. It irked him, too.

“I go crazy thinking about what I could do with that $20,000,” Craig said, “but that $20,000 probably brought in $100,000.”

He doesn’t want to become an attraction, but he did open the sanctuary to the public, allowing people to walk over a bridge to gaze at the tigers nearby and the lions, wolves and other animals in the distance through binoculars. When people enter, they walk through a gift store that probably generates enough money to cover the costs of running the sanctuary. But he believes his paid staff, who know the mission, will draw a few more monthly donors.

Donations are always needed, and Craig has had longtime donors cut back on what they give because of the tough economy. Gas prices also hurt because all the free bear food Craig gets from restaurants and grocery stores isn’t really free ” he pays for insurance and gas for volunteers or staff members to haul the food in large trucks. He even has to think about chemicals for the tiger pool.

“We used to talk in pounds of food,” Craig said. “Now we talk in pallets.”

The future excites Craig, who has a tentative alliance with a few zoos. In the past, when zoos needed new animals to replenish their stock, they would breed or get another zoo to breed. But lately, Craig has supplied a couple of zoos with animals he’s adopted for the sanctuary. If zoos started accepting more of his animals, he could do more rescues.

Craig is also looking into ways to keep his sanctuary going when he can no longer do the physically demanding work. His son, Casey, may take over. He leads most of the rescues and can sedate the animals and bring them back, something only Craig could do initially.

“He knows way more about this than I did when I was 20, that’s for sure,” Craig said.

But Casey doesn’t want to manage the place, and Craig understands why.

At times, Craig longs for the days when it was just he, his family, his trailer and a few dozen big cats on his property. But he’s come around, and when Craig does make his rounds in the morning, he knows why.

He rescued 16 bears in the past year from two facilities in Ohio, and they went into a new, 15-acre bear habitat, with freshly dug dens, a water tank and all sorts of fun toys to play with. A few of the bears had never touched grass before and lived in a 400-square-foot cage. When they arrived, they lifted their feet off the grass gingerly, as if the tickles were torture, and they circled around and around, as if they were still enclosed in the cage.

A month later, they started to wander around, amazed at the space, and began to enjoy the grass. And what’s this tub of water?

“They finally figured out that they could go in the tank, and pretty soon, we had all eight bears in one tank,” Craig said. “It was just hilarious. They were partying in it 24 hours a day, and we had to keep refilling it over and over.”

Then he paused.

“That’s why we do what we do,” he said. “That’s why I do what I do.”

On those morning rounds, sometimes he watches those bears horsing around before he trudges back to his office. He may not have started an animal sanctuary to sit behind a desk. But he doesn’t have to see them all day long to know they’re out there, safe, happy and, most of all, wild.

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