You'll Love the Imperfect, Beautiful Creatures This Denver Sanctuary Is Saving

The Wild Animal Sanctuary provides a haven for abused animals and gives us the privilege of viewing them up close.

In a golden field, a black leopard emerges from an underground den, climbs upon a high perch and serenely gazes out over the savanna to the mountains beyond. But look closely and you’ll see that the den is made of concrete piping, the perch from rubber and wood, and that it is not Mount Kilimanjaro on the horizon, but the Rocky Mountains. We are, in fact, just 35 miles northeast of downtown Denver, in Keenesburg, at the 720-acre megashelter that is The Wild Animal Sanctuary.

That leopard enjoying the view is Eddy, one of some 450 large carnivores and other species that reside here, and like all of them, he is lucky to be alive. These animals came to the sanctuary with baggage—physical and emotional. All were rescued from abusive, dangerous or otherwise unsuitable conditions; but here, thanks to the efforts of founder Pat Craig, hundreds of volunteers and the generosity of donors, they live in peace and tranquility at the oldest and largest sanctuary of its kind in the world. These animals could not survive in the wild, so the wild has been re-created for them here—and we humans have the privilege of observing them up close in a simulation of their natural environment.

Wild Animal Sanctuary

If these animals could talk, they would tell harrowing tales. There are Gaika and Masha, grizzly bears who were once part of a Russian circus whose owner hooked them on nicotine so they would do tricks for him. There’s Sandy, a mountain lion that suffered a fractured skull and damage to one eye when she was beaten with a baseball bat by the Texas family that owned her. And there’s Shela the tiger, who, when rescued, had large fluid sacs on her elbows, having been kept in a tiny cage of steel and concrete. Then there are the animals who were purchased as “pets” and abandoned once they were no longer small and cuddly, became too expensive to raise or whose owners simply grew tired of them. But, thankfully, they have all found a home here in Keenesburg.

Wild Animal Sanctuary

Visitors to The Wild Animal Sanctuary are greeted at the Welcome Center, where they watch a video about its history and mission, then proceed outside to the Mile Into the Wild raised walkway. At 1.5 miles, it is the longest footbridge in the world. Here, visitors have spectacular views of the grounds and the animals in their various habitats. They might see a herd of white alpaca moving like a cloud along the sanctuary’s perimeter; lions playfully batting at each other in a field; a bear lumbering along a fence; and, right beneath the walkway, tigers sleeping.

Viewing the animals from above, rather than at eye level, was Craig’s idea. He had observed that when the animals saw humans at eye level, they felt threatened, but they did not perceive anything above them as a threat. The walkway, which rises anywhere between 18 and 42 feet along its route, allows observation without intrusion so that the animals feel safe.

Wild Animal Sanctuary

The animals’ welfare has always been Craig’s primary concern ever since, as a 19-year-old college student in 1979, he took a behind-the-scenes tour of a zoo in North Carolina where a friend was working, and discovered the zoo was overbreeding animals. Many of these “surplus” animals were either kept in small cages, euthanized or sold to the private sector—which, in most cases, resulted in the animals being abandoned, abused or housed in unsafe conditions.

Craig found this situation intolerable and was determined to create a safe place for such animals. His first rescue was a baby jaguar from a South Carolina zoo. Craig’s menagerie would soon outgrow his parents’ 15-acre farm in Boulder. He moved to a larger space in Lyons, then in 1994 purchased 160 acres in Keenesburg, the sanctuary’s current location.

Since its beginnings, The Wild Animal Sanctuary has rescued hundreds of animals. One of the largest rescues was that of 24 lions from Bolivia. They were flown to Denver in 2011 after Bolivia banned using animals in circuses. Today, they live here in the Bolivian Lion House, about halfway along the walkway, and on 80 acres of habitats.

A Kodiak bear arrived at the sanctuary four years ago paralyzed from the waist down. A heavy guillotine-style gate had fallen on him and crushed one of his vertebra. For the first couple of years, he spent all his time in one of the water tanks where the buoyancy took pressure off his back. Today he is completely healed.

Morelia, an African lion, was rescued from a Mexican circus, where she was used as a breeder. She was malnourished and infested with parasites when she came to the sanctuary. She is now living happily with other lions.

Understanding and fulfilling the needs of these animals is the sanctuary’s mission. As Kent Drotar, director of its ambassador program, explains, “Territory, food and reproduction are what the animals seriously fight over.” Once these basic needs are satisfied, the animals live peaceably together.

Wild Animal Sanctuary

The sanctuary comprises 60 species-specific habitats ranging in size from 5 to 25 acres. Water is pumped through wells to pools and water tanks throughout the habitats. The bear, lion and tiger habitats contain concrete dens that are kept at a constant 60 degrees. When the animals arrive at the sanctuary, they are first placed in what are called lockouts, where they remain for a few months while they get to know and feel comfortable with other animals. Once it is determined that the animals will get along together, they are released into a habitat.

The animals are fed a USDA-approved diet that ranges from fresh fruits and vegetables to raw fish and meat to breads and cereals, depending on the species. There are no set feeding times because animals in the wild eat randomly, whenever they can find food.

The sanctuary does not breed animals. All males are neutered, with the exception of lions. Neutering a male lion causes him to lose his mane, which plays an important role in the lion-pride dynamic. Female lions are on a contraceptive implant.

Wild Animal Sanctuary

Despite the attention Craig and The Wild Animal Sanctuary have brought to the problem of exotic-animal abuse, the problem still exists. According to Drotar, there are more tigers in Texas than in the wild (some 3,800 in the wild and 4,000 in Texas)—and that’s based on the number of permits registered. There are, no doubt, many more unregistered tigers we don’t know about.

Drotar says that social media is one of the most effective methods for rescuing abused exotic animals. “That’s how we’ve gotten a lot of our animals in the last few years,” he says. “People can communicate a problem immediately. People have mobilized, started putting pressure on Facebook about whoever’s causing a problem.”

People can also help by not supporting the roadside attractions and circuses that abuse animals. As Drotar puts it, “Visit the good places, not the bad.” And The Wild Animal Sanctuary is a place where much good is done.