Refuge provides home for nicotine-hooked bears, bald lion

Jumanji's whiskers twitched as he sized up his visitors beyond the fence. Seconds later he leapt toward them, ears back, yellow eyes narrowed, fangs bared.

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Grizzly bear cubs play in their habitat at The Wild Animal Sanctuary in Keenesburg, Colo. (Bloomberg News photo by Matthew Staver).

Jumanji's whiskers twitched as he sized up his visitors beyond the fence. Seconds later he leapt toward them, ears back, yellow eyes narrowed, fangs bared.

"He thought that was fun," said Pat Craig, founder of The Wild Animal Sanctuary, who rescued the black leopard from a menagerie in Ohio. Jumanji was nursed to health on grasslands northeast of Denver, recovering from frostbitten ears and infections he got from lying in his own urine.

The 130-pound cat's one of the lucky ones. He and 400 other carnivores -- along with some coati-mundis, alpacas and a camel -- are cared for by a small staff and hundreds of volunteers at Craig's nonprofit park. It's one of dozens in the United States being inundated by a veritable Noah's Ark unleashed by crackdowns on circuses and unlicensed zoos with exotic animals, as well as on people who keep them as pets.

The crisis for overloaded refuges was spurred by a newfound awareness of the often bleak circumstances of those bred for profit; a baby lion can fetch $1,000, a white tiger cub as much as $30,000. They may be kept in corn cribs, horse trailers, basements or worse. Craig's charges include Baloo the black bear, whose claws were ripped out with pliers, and Major the mountain lion, who arrived so stressed he was furless on his front legs and tail. Grizzlies Gaika and Masha lived in a truck for 17 years, addicted to the nicotine a trainer used to coax them into tricks.

"It's always been far too easy for people to get animals, trade animals and breed them," said Ed Stewart, co-founder of the Performing Animal Welfare Society, or PAWS, which runs three California sanctuaries. "Finally municipalities are making it harder, and now there's a rush to find homes for everybody."


San Francisco just outlawed performances of wild or exotic animals, joining more than 40 U.S. cities. Hawaii Gov. David Ige has pledged to stop issuing permits for such acts. Thirty countries, from Greece to Peru, forbid wild creatures in traveling circuses, as will England at the end of the year.

The oldest U.S. circus is under the gun too. Facing pressure from activists and bans on bull hooks -- poker-like devices wielded to prod performances -- Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey is phasing Asian elephants out of its acts.

In Ohio, the wake-up call came when a Zanesville man freed 56 beasts from his farm four years ago. Officers killed 18 tigers, 17 lions, three mountain lions, six black bears, two grizzlies and a baboon. Gov. John Kasich soon signed a bill restricting the sale and ownership of exotic animals.

"We had no regulations," said Erica Hawkins, a state Agriculture Department spokeswoman. "Folks had to register their dog with the county and get a tag, but not their bears."

The U.S. Animal Welfare Act has since 1966 required enterprises exhibiting certain animals to have licenses, but they're easy to get, PAWS's Stewart said. The eight-year-old Captive Wildlife Safety Act, forbidding big cats' interstate transport, has helped curtail the number kept in unsuitable locales and prompted 11 states to pass similar bans, said Carole Baskin, head of Big Cat Rescue, which has about 80 residents in Florida.

In Colorado, Craig opened The Wild Animal Sanctuary 35 years ago when he was 19, starting out with a few acres on his family's farm. Today the place covers 720 acres, and he said he's halfway toward raising $1.2 million to buy 600 more. He needed 100 just for Jumanji and 17 others rescued with him, including a white tiger and a mountain lion.

Animals are housed by species in enclosures designed for unique behaviors. Porcupines, foxes and wolves dig, so fences encircling their pens extend up to 6 feet underground. Tigers get acquainted in a round house, which has a swimming hole.

One half of the sanctuary's $11 million yearly budget comes from monetary donations, the other from contributions including food and building supplies. Denizens nosh on 30,000 pounds of chow a week, including rib-eye, raw eggs, peaches and asparagus, courtesy of Wal-Mart Stores. They're given more than they can consume, so they won't fight over food.


The nonprofit Tigers in America paid for some enclosures, and Craig showed them off on a recent sweltering day. Lions liberated from Bolivian circuses in 2010 lolled on giant wooden spools. The cats, including 6-year-old Rosario, who loves to chase her keeper's van and bite the bumper, were flown to Denver International Airport with money donated by former game-show host Bob Barker and Animal Defenders International.

After spending most of their lives in cages, Craig said, the lions "fell on their faces when they tried to run."

The shelter-space crunch extends to pets people buy before discovering prohibitive zoning or health codes, which has created a vast population of homeless potbelly pigs.

Recently, there's been an explosion in wolf-dog hybrids, said Vernon Weir, director of the American Sanctuary Association. "I had two in St. Louis that it took five months to find a place for."

Just the Ohio law kept Bobbi Brink busy for months. She runs Lions Tigers & Bears in Alpine, California, and has taken in several Buckeye State bears. The refuge is always at work on new habitats, she said. "You can't build fast enough."

Craig is waiting for a delivery from zoos and circuses in Mexico; the Mexican Navy will fly 22 animals in on a military plane. Anjali Polu, an 8-year-old from San Francisco, plans to help. Savoring a multicolored Popsicle, she tugged on Craig's orange staff shirt and said she'll be donating her allowance.

Her mother, Heidi Butz, a nurse practitioner, said she brings Anjali and her 4-year-old brother, Axel, to visit the sanctuary every summer. "I want my kids to learn that not all animals are lucky."

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