Wildlife sanctuary adds mile-long elevated walkway to educate public

Liz Evans Scolforo

Editor's note: This story originally ran in The York Dispatch on Aug. 4, 2015:

KEENESBURG, Colo. — The Wild Animal Sanctuary kept its doors closed to the public for more than 20 years. Staff and volunteers focused solely on the large carnivore residents, which now number more than 400.

But as the sanctuary grew over the years, so did founder and Executive Director Pat Craig's realization that the public had no clue about the lives of lions, tigers, bears and other carnivores held captive in zoos, circuses and by private citizens.

A mile of elevated walkway cuts across The Wild Animal Sanctuary near Keenesburg, Colorado, where Ricki the black bear now lives. Staff members say the sanctuary's large predators aren't bothered by humans walking above them, as they would be by humans at eye level.
(Photo by Liz Evans Scolforo)

The 35-year-old sanctuary now has 50 staff members and at least 145 volunteers that keep it running, according to Craig, who said the sanctuary's annual budget is $10 million. Half of that amount is donated each year by private citizens and groups, he said, and the sanctuary receives no government funding.

Another quarter of it is raised through profits at the education center — including admission fees and gift shop purchases — but every penny of that $2.5 million goes back into upkeep of the education center, Craig said.

"The first 22 years we weren't open to the public," he said, but that changed when Craig eventually came to understand the importance of education.

"It's taken us 35 years to get a tiny percent of the public to really understand the issues," he said. "Now people can see the animals and read their stories. They leave here changed."

As the sun set on the rolling grasslands of The Wild Animal Sanctuary, lions begin to roar. During the summer, many sanctuary residents wait until sunset to emerge from dens and shady areas, staffers say. This was a day that residents hunkered down to escape the sun during a hot July afternoon.
(Photo by Liz Evans Scolforo)

A view from above: The sanctuary in 2011 took out a loan, found local businesses to donate building materials and launched a plaque program to fund a mile of elevated walkway, Craig said.

The walkway, which was completed in 2012, is elevated because the animals don't become agitated or distracted when humans are above them, as they can when humans are at eye-level, he said.

Last year, about 212,000 people visited the sanctuary and strolled the walkway, according to Maxey.

Craig said in his experience, about three-quarters of the people who walk the walkway "have an epiphany" and want to help.

Education is key: "The No. 1 thing they can do is spread the word," he said, by educating others about what life is like for large carnivores in zoos, circuses, roadside attractions and private homes.

The large carnivores that call The Wild Animal Sanctuary home are only in cages long enough for them to be introduced to others of their kind inside the sanctuary, staffers say. Then they are released into large-acreage habitats.
(Photo by Liz Evans Scolforo)

"How is this still OK with people?" Craig wondered. But it still goes on, he said — zoos are still breeding animals, as are private citizens.

"Surplus" animals often are euthanized, warehoused in small enclosures or sold to animal brokers, who in turn sell them to private hunting ranches, according to Craig.

Tough decisions: Calls — and now emails — still pour into the sanctuary every day. And after 35 years, Craig still finds himself deciding which animals most need saving.

"We get at least 25 to 30 emails a month, sometimes 60," he said, from all over the world. The sanctuary has taken in animals from as far away as Uruguay, Bolivia, Mexico, Peru and Argentina.

Two coyotes survey their large-acreage domain within The Wild Animal Sanctuary. Staffers say some visitors are taken aback that the sanctuary saves coyotes, which many people consider to be pests.
(Photo by Liz Evans Scolforo)

At the end of July, the sanctuary drastically changed its visitor policy, increasing general admission to $50 from $15, although active supporters — those who donate at least $200 a year — get in free, as do their families and guests. People age 70 and older also get free admission.

More than 90 percent of donations to The Wild Animal Sanctuary went to its programs in 2013, with 7 percent going to fundraising and 2.3 percent to administrative costs, according to Charitynavigator.org, an online service that evaluates charities. The service gave the sanctuary an overall grade of 96.26 out of 100.

For more information, visit wildanimalsanctuary.org.

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