Volunteers are unsung heroes at Ricki's sanctuary

Liz Evans Scolforo

Editor's note: This story originally ran in The York Dispatch on Aug. 6, 2015:

KEENESBURG, Colo. — Humans devoted to The Wild Animal Sanctuary, whether staff or volunteers, do work that's physically exhausting and sometimes more than a little gross.

They give up their holidays and don't earn much, according to Executive Director Pat Craig, who started the sanctuary 35 years ago as a teenager.

"It takes serious tenacity and dedication, and a willingness to sacrifice your life," Craig said. He has no pension or retirement savings and said those close to him accept that the animals always come first in his life.

Officials at The Wild Animal Sanctuary outside Keenesburg, Colorado, say the facility couldn't run without a core of dedicated volunteers. Here, volunteers and staff members clean up debris from the tiger pool area. Volunteers say the animals always come first at the sanctuary.
(Photo by Liz Evans Scolforo)

That's one reason Craig discouraged his son, 27-year-old Casey Craig, from following in his footsteps. Despite the fatherly advice, Casey is making the same sacrifices and is now the sanctuary's chief operations officer, Pat Craig said.

"It can be a terrible life," the elder Craig said. "You give up a lot of your personal life to be part of this organization."

'A family': Animal care specialist Tawny Craig — who is married to Casey — described staff and volunteers as passionate, caring and dedicated.

"We're all just a family," she said. "I don't know what I would do if I couldn't take care of the animals. I don't know what else I could do that would be as meaningful."

Ricki, York County's best-known black bear, came to the sanctuary nearly six months ago after being relinquished by Jim McDaniel Jr., owner of Jim Mack's Ice Cream in Hellam Township.

He gave up the bear after four Central Pennsylvania residents and the Animal Legal Defense Fund filed a public-nuisance lawsuit against him, alleging Ricki was languishing as a roadside attraction.

Meatsicles: On a sweltering day in late July, a group of volunteers — led by Brett Kenschaft, the sanctuary's nutrition center manager — spent hours sorting through the day's food delivery (there are eight a week) and making up portioned meals for the animals, then cleaning up the resulting mess.

The assembly-line-type work is sticky, uncomfortable and draws flies. Volunteers grabbed raw meat from huge trash bins, then layered red meat, vitamins, poultry and pork into a couple hundred metal buckets.

The individual buckets are stored in massive truck-trailer freezers until feeding time, when the frozen meat chunks are popped out and distributed throughout the animal habitats.

"Our animals eat very well here," Kenschaft said.

A staff member with The Wild Animal Sanctuary cleans up debris from the facility's tiger pool, shared by a number of tigers on a rotating basis.
(Photo by Liz Evans Scolforo)

The frozen meals made that day might last a week, he said, adding there's "not a chance" the sanctuary could run without its core of volunteers.

Labor of love: Kenschaft himself started as a volunteer nearly five years ago and two years ago became a staffer.

"I just fell in love with it immediately," the 46-year-old said, but admitted he was in pain for months from the strenuous physical labor. "I'm in the best shape I've been in for 20 years."

School psychologist Cindy DeGaugh, also 46, has volunteered for nearly six years.

"This is my therapy," she said. "This is such an easy place to get behind. ... The animals always come first here, no matter what. You know they have a great life."

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

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