Ricki the bear's Colorado sanctuary grows by leaps and bounds

Liz Evans Scolforo
York Dispatch

The Colorado sanctuary that's home to York County's most famous bear recently purchased a huge swath of land that will allow it to continue rescuing large carnivores for years to come.

The Wild Animal Sanctuary — which sits on 789 acres of rolling grassland about 30 miles northeast of Denver — holds 470 lions, tigers, bears, wolves, cougars and other large predators. TWAS states it is the largest carnivore sanctuary in the world.

Ricki the black bear has been at The Wild Animal Sanctuary in Colorado since February 2015.
(Photo by Liz Evans Scolforo)

One of those residents is Ricki, the former black bear mascot of Jim Mack's Ice Cream in Hellam Township. She's been at the sanctuary, located outside of Keenesburg, Colorado, since February 2015.

The facility had reached its capacity, according to Kent Drotar, the sanctuary's public relations director. But capacity is no longer a problem.

The 38-year-old nonprofit Wild Animal Sanctuary has purchased a 9,004-acre ranch — that's 14 square miles — in southeastern Colorado, not far from Springfield, Drotar said.

It's about 250 miles from the current sanctuary, which will remain open. The current sanctuary boasts a 1.5-mile long elevated walkway so the roughly 150,000 visitors a year can learn about the sanctuary's residents without disturbing them.

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Roaming free: The sanctuary's residents live in large, multi-acre habitats where they can roam freely, swim in ponds and interact with their own kind.

Unlike large carnivores locked in cages, the animals at TWAS don't pace or show other stress-related behaviors. Prides of lions relax together, tigers can play in a huge manmade pool with waterfalls and sturdy toys, and bears can do pretty much whatever they want.

Tigers are just some of the large predators that roam freely in large-acreage habitats at The Wild Animal Sanctuary outside Keenesburg, Colorado.
(Photo by Liz Evans Scolforo)

The new site near Springfield has natural rock features, springs, hills, ravines, rocky bluffs, pine trees, valleys, pastures and native grasses, Drotar said.

"This is going to be great," he said. "It's a place just for the animals. ... It's quite remote."

The sanctuary put a $2 million downpayment on the land and still owes $5 million on it, according to Drotar.

For now, and likely for many years to come, the majority of the land will remain open and un-fenced, he said.

Habitat enclosures will be built as needed, Drotar said, whether that be a 50-acre habitat or a 200-acre habitat.

"We are not doing a perimeter fence," he said, meaning the wild animals that now call the land home will still be able to move freely.

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)

End of the road: Pat Craig, founder and executive director of TWAS, started the sanctuary as a young man after witnessing cruel treatment of animals at zoos.

Craig has told The York Dispatch that when he first started rescuing carnivores, state and federal laws forced him to keep them caged, and he had to fight to get those regulations modified.

The sanctuary is the end of the road for many animals, and they're the lucky ones, staffers say. Many lived through years, even decades, of neglect, abuse and exploitation, according to Craig — often solely for humans' financial benefit.

Sandy the mountain lion, for example, was 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.

As cubs, tigers Kamal and Diesel lived in airline crates in the back seat of a homeless man's car in Louisiana, staffers said, and that man charged people to have their photos taken with the malnourished cubs.

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)

And then there's Eva. The playful, curious grizzly bear cub came to the sanctuary in late 2014 or early 2015, 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, she had begun injuring her paws and legs by obsessively licking and nibbling at them — called self-mutilation, Craig said. But since arriving at the sanctuary, she's stopped injuring herself and has bonded with other bears, he said.

Walmart's free lunch: Feeding more than 400 large carnivores is no easy task, but Craig said it's made much easier by Walmart.

Walmart donates upwards of 60,000 pounds of food per week to the sanctuary, according to Drotar.

That adds up to about 3 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, staffers say.

A timber wolf sits quietly in its large-acreage habitat at The Wild Animal Sanctuary outside Keenesburg, Colorado.
(Photo by Liz Evans Scolforo)

Drotar said that from now on, most newly rescued animals will go to the ranch outside Springfield.

Ricki update: Ricki the black bear is still hibernating, as are most of the sanctuary's bears, Drotar said.

"Most bears won't come out of hibernation until some time in April," he said, or even into May. "That's normal."

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Ricki is about 21 years old now, he said, adding the average life expectancy for the sanctuary's bears ranges from 30 to 40 years.

"She's not in a real rowdy habitat," Drotar said. "It's kind of like an old folks' home."

Ricki was placed in a 15-acre enclosure with other older female bears.

"Ricki is a prime example of how people took the cause into their own hands and made a difference in the life of this bear," Drotar said — something he's seen more of in recent years.

"They realize that is no life for an animal," he said.

Jim Mack's Ice Cream agreed to give up Ricki after several local plaintiffs, represented by the Animal Legal Defense Fund, filed a public-nuisance lawsuit alleging Ricki was suffering there.

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

— Reach Liz Evans Scolforo at levans@yorkdispatch.com or on Twitter at @LizScolforoYD.

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)