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This sanctuary took in dozens of ‘Tiger King’ Joe Exotic’s tigers. Now it’s struggling to stay afloat in the pandemic.



The Wild Animal Sanctuary near Keenesburg, Colo. — which relocated Fireball, Pearl, Enzo and 36 other cats two years ago to sprawling enclosures on its 789 acres — is experiencing a simultaneous drop in food and financial donations caused by panic buying and soaring unemployment.

“We had trucks come in with only 15 percent of what they would normally have,” said Pat Craig, who founded the sanctuary in 1980 and made it into one of the world’s largest nonprofit exotic animal refuges.

“We had to buy food to make sure we didn’t deplete our reserves,” he added. “We already spent quite a bit of money — $200,000, maybe more.”

The unplanned outlay replaced meat, fruit and vegetable donations from big box stores, which plummeted 80 percent in March. It coincided with the disappearance of income typically generated by tens of thousands of visitors each year. The sanctuary is closed because of stay-at-home orders meant to slow the spread of the virus.

Some 550 critters — including lions, grizzlies, wolves and bald eagles — reside at the facility about 36 miles northeast of Denver and at a second 9,684-acre location in southern Colorado. Feeding them is no small task.

The animals consume as much as a small city — up to 80,000 pounds of food a week, including roasts, raw eggs, blueberries and cucumbers. The facility relies on $700,000 in donated groceries a month to feed its charges, Craig said.

Helping to fill the gap, Cisco recently dropped off a tractor-trailer load of fruits and vegetables, Craig said, adding that he is working with meat suppliers to procure chicken and beef. As supply chains correct somewhat, Craig said he anticipates that big-box food contributions will bounce back in April to 75 percent of normal. But that level is still untenable for the sanctuary’s tight budget.

“Being down 25 percent could still cost millions of dollars, depending on how long it lasts,” said Craig, who opened the sanctuary when he was 19, starting out with a few acres on his family’s farm.

Meanwhile, he continues to find space for animals, many of whom are former residents of the nation’s loosely regulated system of small and private zoos. The sanctuary took in a record 204 creatures in 2019, including 10 bears and three hyenas from a shuttered wildlife center in California, 13 bears from two Argentine zoos, and two lions, two Asian black bears and three tigers from a zoo in Virginia.

In November 2017, Craig worked with the PETA Foundation to relocate 19 tigers from the facility featured in “Tiger King” to his Colorado refuge. The cats had been shipped to Oklahoma — in a cattle truck in the middle of summer — by a Florida zoo in violation of a court order.

“Myself and several colleagues, and Pat and his team, arrived at the Greater Wynnewood Exotic Animal Park with armed security based on threats of violence Joe [Maldonado-Passage] made against PETA and the Wild Animal Sanctuary in the past,” said Brittany Peet, PETA’s director of captive animal law enforcement.

Craig said he returned to Oklahoma the following month at Maldonado-Passage’s request to take an additional 20 cats and three black bears. The rest of the animals at the zoo — which housed as many as 200 tigers at a time, Maldonado-Passage has boasted — remained in the custody of its new owner. Maldonado-Passage is now serving a 22-year federal prison sentence for murder-for-hire and wildlife violations, including the killing of five tigers.

But the tigers’ plight is only touched on in “Tiger King,” which focuses mostly on the bizarre battle between Maldonado-Passage and his nemesis, animal rights activist and big cat sanctuary owner Carole Baskin.

“With its mullets, maulings and murder-for-hire intrigue, Tiger King and Joe Exotic have taken the streaming world by storm,” Nielsen Media Research said in a statement, estimating that more than 34 million U.S. viewers watched the series in the 10 days following its release. “The real-life documentary featuring big cats and even larger personalities seemed to give covid-confined consumers a way to escape from an even more real news cycle.”

Craig, other sanctuary owners and conservationists say they hope to steer the conversation away from the show’s histrionic humans to the tigers taken from their mothers when just hours or days old and offered to the public as playthings at private zoos and public events.

“Our sanctuary members who have big cats feel that the show did not go deep enough into the cruelty involved in the process of breeding, exhibiting, selling, trading and buying of big cats and the dismal lives they endure and what people can do about stopping it,” Vernon Weir, director of the American Sanctuary Association, which represents more than 40 members, including Craig’s refuge, wrote in an email.

Animal protection advocates support a bipartisan bill that would outlaw most private ownership of big cats and ban public contact with such animals, a practice they say that incentivizes the sort of intensive breeding Maldonado-Passage engaged in — and mass dumping when the animals get too large for petting.

Known as the Big Cat Public Safety Act, it has languished in Congress in previous sessions. But the directors of “Tiger King” say the series is generating momentum for the bill, which they support, and some lawmakers have echoed that.

The PETA Foundation said it scored a victory for big cats when a federal court ruled this year that prematurely separating tiger cubs from their mothers and forcing them to play with the public violates the Endangered Species Act.

Peet said her organization hopes to use that precedent to shut down the big cat-petting business. It’s an effort she hopes will give Craig’s ever-expanding Colorado refuge some breathing room.

“I’ve worked with the Wild Animal Sanctuary to rescue dozens of big cats and bears,” Peet said. “I could literally call Pat right now and if I told him I had animals in need of rescuing he would be on the road in an hour.”

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