Ricki's Colorado home is a different kind of animal sanctuary

Liz Evans Scolforo

Editor's note: This story originally ran in The York Dispatch on Aug. 3, 2015:

KEENESBURG, Colo. — The enormity of The Wild Animal Sanctuary is inescapable to visitors taking in the view from a mile-long elevated walkway that cuts through the large-carnivore refuge.

The nonprofit sanctuary sits on 720 acres of rolling grasslands and provides large-acreage habitats for more than 400 lions, tigers, bears, wolves and other large carnivores, including former Jim Mack's Ice Cream mascot Ricki the bear.

Two black bears sit companionably at the mouth of a den inside The Wild Animal Sanctuary. Pat Craig, executive director of the facility, said dens are made by burying 3-foot-diameter concrete culvert pipe at an angle. The pipes are connected to concrete culvert boxes buried 6 feet underground.
(Photo by Liz Evans Scolforo)

Executive Director Pat Craig said the sanctuary, which he founded 35 years ago, is in the process of trying to buy 640 more adjacent acres, which would allow it to expand and take in more animals.

Also inescapable is the enormity of what the sanctuary's residents have lived through. Some of their stories are told in signs placed along the elevated walking platform, which is called "the mile into the wild walkway."

There's Sandy the mountain lion, left cross-eyed after being beaten in the head with a baseball bat at the hands of the Texas family that previously owned her. She suffered skull fractures and eye damage, but staffers say she has a good life now.

There's Kamal and Diesel, two of three tiger-cub siblings that lived in airline crates in the back seat of a homeless man's car in Louisiana, according to Jason Maxey, the sanctuary's public relations director.

A number of black bears live together in a large-acreage habitat below part of The Wild Animal Sanctuary's elevated visitor walkway. On a hot afternoon in July 2015, several took to large bathing tubs while others slept in dens or in shaded areas.
(Photo by Liz Evans Scolforo)

Malnourished: The homeless man was charging people to have their photos taken with the cubs, and all three cubs were suffering from malnourishment when they were seized by authorities several years ago and turned over to the sanctuary. One cub died of complications from malnourishment, but Kamal and Diesel are thriving, Maxey said.

And then there's Eva. The playful, curious grizzly bear cub is a new addition to the sanctuary and came from a legal business in Florida that charges people to have their photos taken with baby exotic animals, according to Craig.

Eva was so stressed and neurotic she had begun injuring her paws and legs by obsessively licking and nibbling at them — called self-mutilation, Craig said.

Since arriving at the sanctuary she's stopped injuring herself and has room to explore her habitat, which she shares with Marley, an adult grizzly bear who acts as a maternal figure to the motherless cub, according to Craig. Staffers initially had to sleep with Eva until Marley filled that role, Craig said.

End of the road: "We basically are the end of the road for (abused and unwanted) animals," Maxey said.

Those that make it here are the lucky ones, he said. They have enough food to eat, plenty of space to roam and others of their own kind to bond with.

Eva, a baby grizzly bear cub, came from a legal Florida business that charges people to have their photos taken with baby animals. Staffers said Eva was so stressed and neurotic that she was injuring her own paws and legs by obsessively licking them, known as self-mutilation. She now lives in a habitat with Marley, an adult grizzly who acts as a maternal figure for the cub.
(Photo by Liz Evans Scolforo)

Feeding more than 400 large carnivores is no easy task.

But Craig said it's made much easier by Walmart, which donates nearly 30,000 pounds of food per week to the sanctuary. That adds up to about 1.5 million pounds of meat, vegetables, fruits and bakery items each year. While cats are meat-eaters, bears are omnivores with a sweet tooth and require a varied diet, Maxey said.

Staffers and volunteers all say that bears love doughnuts.

For more information or to make a donation, visit wildanimalsanctuary.org.

— Reach Liz Evans Scolforo atlevans@yorkdispatch.comor on Twitter at @LizScolforoYD.