On the Job With Wild Animal Sanctuary Founder Pat Craig

The Wild Animal Sanctuary’s tenacious founder Pat Craig has spent decades rescuing large carnivores from captivity, bringing them to Colorado where they have both space and freedom to roam.

Pat Craig
Photo by Matt Nager.

From its headquarters just outside Denver in Keenesburg, The Wild Animal Sanctuary sprawls across four sites in Colorado and Texas, totaling over 33,000 acres of safe haven for nature’s wildest creatures. Helmed by founder and executive director, Pat Craig, this colossal endeavor caters to more than 750 large carnivores—think lions, tigers, and grizzly bears, along with wolves, jaguars, cheetahs, and many other species—rescued from abusive or illegal conditions. Craig’s inspiration? An encounter with healthy, caged tigers destined for euthanization that had him roaring for change when he was just age 19.

The 1,200-acre Sanctuary in Keenesburg, about 40 minutes northeast of Denver, is an inspiring tableau of large natural habitats set against the backdrop of Rocky Mountain panoramas, where animals, rescued from Texas truckstops, Bolivian circuses, and beyond, roam freely in large, natural habitats, oblivious to the human gaze from the world’s longest footbridge above. Craig’s mission to save the abused and abandoned knows no boundaries. Recently, he’s been extinguishing a crisis at a beleaguered Puerto Rican zoo, airlifting lions, tiger, elephants, rhinos, and hippos to sanctuary safety. Craig’s story is simple yet powerful—see a problem, be the solution. Today, we dive into his relentless journey of rescue and fearless compassion.

“When I was 19, I got to see behind the scenes at a North Carolina zoo. Out back, they had all these lions and tigers in these small cages that I wouldn’t keep a dog in. I asked why and heard, ‘They’re surplus. We tried to get other zoos to take them but they have a surplus of their own.’ So these young, healthy animals would live out their lives in a cage or they would be euthanized.”

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“I couldn’t build a zoo. But I did live on a farm and had land and infrastructure, so I found out what I needed to do to start the sanctuary. Once I had my license, I sent a letter to every zoo in the country that said if they had surplus animals that they were going to euthanize, maybe I could help. I was thinking we were talking about 30 or 40 animals. I got 300 responses that first month.”

“I thought, man, I’m not even gonna make a dent, maybe I shouldn’t even do this. But saving one is better than none—and two is better than one. I’ll just do what I can do.”

“I started driving around the country and bringing large carnivores back to Colorado. That’s how it started—just a pickup truck with a cage on the back.”

“Yeah, I got mauled many, many times.”

“When people are on the same ground level with predators and carnivores, the animals see it as a threat—but they don’t see the sky as their territory. You can be 16 feet above a lion or tiger and they couldn’t care less. So we have elevated walkways above the habitats at the Keenesburg sanctuary.”

“In 2017, we became landlocked in Keenesburg and couldn’t expand, so we bought 10,000 acres of forested canyons in southeast Colorado and started The Wild Animal Refuge. It’s not open to the public but it’s amazing for the animals. They all live in really large habitats—from 50 to 300 acres in size.”

“We don’t put animals in cages. We make sure they live as natural as possible for the rest of their lives.”

“All the animals we have are rescues. The majority came from really horrific situations where people had them in apartments and garages and basements and barns. But it’s truly a completely different experience than a zoo when you visit.”

“You can ‘adopt’ an animal and help with its support or become a Founder to help us buy land. The refuge down south cost us $7 million in 2017. Thanks to our new Founders, we paid it off in just about four years.”