The first animal Pat Craig saved from a cage was a baby jaguar. He’d name her Freckles. Having no other way to transport her quickly from South Carolina to Colorado, he took her with him on a commercial flight claiming she was a Himalayan housecat. It’s neat to think that there were airline passengers unwittingly flying home with the biggest cat species in America, and the very beginning of the world’s largest sanctuary for carnivores.
That was in 1979 and since then the Wild Animal Sanctuary has grown to four properties of over 33,000 acres. Craig and his staff have built a home for over 750 animals from all over the world, including 148 lions, tigers, bears, and wolves from the people exposed in Netflix’s Tiger King docuseries. Craig’s reputation is such that Colorado Governor Jared Polis could publicly announce the sparing of notorious Lake Tahoe home intruder Hank the Tank (update: she’s a Henrietta) with hundreds of acres of the Wild Animal Sanctuary awaiting the legendary bear.
Today, the mission continues. There are more large cats in private captivity in Texas than there are in the wild in the entire world. History says that in many of those situations people are not at all prepared for animals that can grow to 650 pounds. And that’s just the cats. Craig’s sanctuary is home to a grizzly bear that weighs in at a thousand pounds. And most recently, the collapse of the Puerto Rico zoo had the sanctuary finding a home for an African Elephant. They even saved the zoo’s tarantula, among approximately 700 other animals.
Some stories are more positive than others. Like, for example, when a family handed over the tiger they bought for their child. It turns out that maybe you should not buy a tiger for your child. But most are involuntary forfeitures that don’t happen soon enough.
Here, we spent an early morning with Austin Hill, the sanctuary’s director of public affairs, to get a glimpse of some of the residents, and see what just one person can do when they put everything they have into making a difference.