By Elizah Leigh on This Dish is Veg
With visions of lions and tigers and bears in our heads, my family and I recently took a trek out to the sleepy, tumbleweed-laden town of Keenesburg, Colorado, home to Patrick Craig’s 30-year-old Wild Animal Sanctuary. You may have seen profiles of his phenomenal 240-acre rescue facility (along with its 225+ assorted furry residents) on various different television networks throughout the years, but experiencing the entire scene first-hand is truly ‘larger-than-life.’ It is a heart-stopping, mind-altering reminder that with the right combination of passion and drive, we can all make a huge difference in the world.
At the tender age of 19, Craig found his calling when he learned about the appalling fate of “surplus zoo populations,” wherein extra animals born within nationwide zoo breeding programs are euthanized because there is purportedly nowhere to keep them. In other highly documented cases too numerous to count, zoos have been guilty of disposing of countless numbers of their residents via the illegal pet trade, scientific experiments, the exotic meat industry and in travelling circuses. Moved by the plight of these animals, Craig transformed a small portion of his family’s property into a safe haven and began notifying zoos across the country that they finally had an alternative.
What initially began as a minor rescue operation today stands as a full-fledged 501(c)3 non-profit organization devoted to offering the best quality of life to wild animals that have suffered at the hands of mismanagement and cruelty. What struck me about this facility -- aside from the admiral and steadfast devotion that every employee and volunteer exercises toward its bobcat-wolf-bear-leopard-lion-camel population -- is that they collectively embrace the reduce-reuse-recycle philosophy in every aspect of their daily operations.
Considering all of the mouths that they have to feed and the eyebrow-raising by-product of those meals, one would think that being even minorly green would be challenging at best. However, from construction to composting to energy-harnessing efforts, they’ve literally covered an impressive amount of eco-friendly ground while repurposing a remarkable volume of landfill-bound materials along the way.
After chatting with one of the Wild Animal Sanctuary’s tour guides, I learned that all of their sprawling acreage is enclosed with repurposed power/telephone poles and donated chain link fencing. Each species lives in an enclosed outdoor habit with fellow residents who are compatible in temperament and disposition, but what stands out amid these environments are the urban jungle concrete slabs that many of them perch upon. While not particularly reminiscent of their native surroundings, these semi-eyesores become far more attractive when you realize that they are recycled from myriad construction projects and offer the animals passive solar heating and cooling benefits.
Upon closer inspection, it's hard to miss the massive, partially-buried concrete conduit pipes in their habitats, another what-the-huh? moment. It turns out that each pipe “entrance” leads to well over one hundred underground concrete bunkers -- offering an industrial yet practical take on the old-fashioned den. Craig determined that the temperature in these underground zones remains a constant 60 degrees, regardless of the time of year, providing his exotic residents a comfortable place to duck away from the elements. Even the visitor center and observation platform have been constructed with leftover hydro conduit and concrete slabs from a notoriously lengthy and costly Colorado highway rebuilding project, with donated solar panels further rounding out their energy conservation efforts.
Although the sanctuary’s food bill runs a staggering $450,000 each year, they are fortunate enough to augment their residents’ diets with meat and produce donations from local grocery stores and farms. While slowly driving by a roomy lion enclosure, I noticed several scattered slabs of ground beef dotting the landscape, but a few of the cats seemed to be far more interested in what I would later learn were huge Bison livers donated from a local processing plant. Those, I was informed, were “special treats.”
Bold Keenesburg birds who are privy to the feeding rituals of the Wild Animal Sanctuary provide a further layer of greenification by patiently waiting until eyelids are closed and meat chunks are no longer guarded before tapping into their inner scavenger and obliterating all beak-accessible scraps. Really…you’ve got to see it to believe it. I had no idea that eensie weensie sparrows were that daring and carnivorous, to boot!
I cannot adequately express how deeply impacted I was by my visit. At every turn, it was hard to dismiss the general contentment that each of Craig’s clearly well-cared-for animals displayed. His daily commitment is astounding in breadth and scale. Bellies were definitely sated – nary a rib cage was to be seen – and this simple observation becomes far more substantial and weighty given the fact that many of the cats and bears and wolves trotting that parcel of land were previously malnourished, abused and living in positively deplorable conditions. I heartily applaud Patrick Craig’s full-circle approach to animal rescue and truly believe that in addition to offering them the best alternative to their captivity-bred circumstances, he demonstrates on a daily basis that it is absolutely possible to transform a wild dream into a sustainable reality.
Please visit the Wild Animal Sanctuary's website and at the very least, try to explore some of the video clips that shed light on its residents’ backgrounds. The footage might just make you want to drop what you’re doing and take a road trip out to Colorado – or at the very least, why not consider sending them a modest monetary contribution? While many of us may not possess Craig's grand scope and execution, with each personal lifestyle adjustment that we make, even a small effort to improve one corner of the planet can have a far-reaching impact. Aren’t we birds of a feather after all?