Monday, April 27, 2009

Pat Craig says Auto Deductions Saved His Sanctuary

Every day, usually as the sun just starts to break over the distant
prairie that surrounds his Wild Animal Sanctuary near Keenesburg, Pat Craig
makes his rounds.

He chuffs and puffs and talks in his high-pitched, almost squeaky voice, a
voice that doesn't fit a body big enough to wrestle a bear (which,
incidentally, Craig will do). The big cats he's saved from neglect and
outright abuse answer back, in the same pitch, and rub against the cage.

Craig talks to the lions and tigers and bears, and, oh my, he might even
get in the cage with them and toss a ball or stroke their fur. He visits
with the chirping, purring mountain lions and the playful foxes and reserves a
special chunk of his day for Eddy, the black leopard he raised since he
was a cub.

And then, these days, Craig drives down the long, dirt road to his office
to work.

Even just a few years ago, Craig might spend a lot more time with the
animals. It was the favorite part of his 12-hour days. It still is. But that
was before his place nearly died. In fact, it did close briefly, and Craig
pondered the horrible possibility that he would have to put the animals to

He knew some changes had to be made, and that meant changing his approach.
He started working in an office instead of a trailer next to the animals.
Then he hired a staff, launched a gift shop and opened the sanctuary to the
public. He even boosted his marketing and advertising. He and Toni
Scalera, director of the sanctuary's board of directors and a close partner
in operations, worked 16-hour days, seven days a week, for three years, and most
of it was in that office.

He'd rather be out there, with the animals. He'd rather shovel manure all
day, honestly.

"My time with the animals is one-tenth of the day now," Craig said. "I
had to become this business guy, and that's not why I did it in the first
place. But I know it makes a difference."

Craig, after all, is grateful to have a place at all. When he started the
sanctuary, he always was able to keep up with all the new additions, but
just barely. It was, at times, month to month. That finally caught up to him
three years ago, when people gave money to the tsunami and Katrina and
forgot about his place. He sent out one plea, and enough donations came to save
his place. Then he grew tired of begging people for money and, after a
long, hard decision, he had close the sanctuary.

Donations, however, came again, and rather than put down the animals and
essentially destroy everything he worked for most of his life, he put in
even more hours than he already was, consulted with experts and came up with a

He started a program that withdraws donations automatically from his top
givers' credit cards, as if they were paying a cell phone bill. Consistency,
he discovered, was the key to staying open, not large one-time donations,
no matter how generous they were. As a result, more than 50 percent of his
donations now are automatic. That means there's more newsletters and other
stuff to handle, and his mailing list has doubled in the past three years —
he had to hire a staff person just to handle most of that, but it's worth
the trouble.

"It's no longer out of sight, out of mind," Craig said. "That's made
a huge difference. Even if everything else fell off, we wouldn't have to close."

But far beyond that, Craig developed a for-profit mentality for his
nonprofit business. He spent a lot more than he wanted on advertising, such as
billboards along U.S. 85. One year he spent $20,000 on ads, and that irked
some of his board members and longtime donors. It irked him, too.

"I go crazy thinking about what I could do with that $20,000," Craig
said, "but that $20,000 probably brought in $100,000."

He doesn't want to become an attraction, but he did open his place to the
public, allowing people to walk over a bridge to gaze at the tigers nearby
and the lions, wolves and other animals in the distance through binoculars.
When they enter his place, they walk through a gift store. He probably
makes enough in the gift store to cover the costs of running it, but he also
believes that his paid staff, who know the mission of his sanctuary, will
draw in a few more monthly donors, and that brings even more money.

Donations are always needed, and Craig has had longtime donors cut back on
what they give because of the tough economy. Gas prices also hurt him
because all the free bear food he gets from restaurants and grocery stores
isn' t really free — he pays for insurance and gas for volunteers or staff
members to haul the food in large trucks. With new additions to the sanctuary
that is once again steadily growing, trucks arrive all day, like he's a
Walmart or something. He even has to think about chemicals for the tiger pool.

"We used to talk in pounds of food," Craig said. "Now we talk in

As for the sanctuary's future, there are a couple of possibilities that
excite him.

One is a tentative alliance with a few zoos. In the past, when zoos needed
new animals to replenish their stock, they would breed or get another zoo
to breed. But lately, Craig has supplied a couple of zoos with animals that
he's adopted for the sanctuary.

Rather than breed a wild animal that isn't used to captivity and only add
to the problem of the captive/wild crisis, why not put one of his creat
ures, who are accustomed to captivity, to good use? The zoo, for instance, was
thrilled with his lion because it interacted with the crowd and seemed to
enjoy the "company" of people, even if, of course, people weren't petting
him or throwing him a ball.

If zoos started accepting more of his creatures, he could rescue more
animals that need to be out of bad situations. There's always other creatures
that need help — Craig still gets calls every day asking for help because
somebody was keeping a tiger in his garage or whatever. Also, Craig could keep
pushing zoos to stop breeding, improve their habitats and provide more
space and resources for the larger animals that need it.

The second is a way to keep his sanctuary alive even after the time comes
when he can no longer do the physically demanding work. It's possible that
his son, Casey, wants to take over the place. He can do everything now. He
leads most of the rescues and can sedate the animals and bring them back,
something only Craig could do at first. Casey also knows a lot about
construction. Those are tools that will only help him down the road, and
that's why Craig, who at first discouraged him, now encourages him to learn as much
as he can.

"He knows way more about this than I did when I was 20, that's for sure,"
Craig said.

But there's just one problem. Casey doesn't want to manage the place.

Craig can relate. Sometimes he longs for the days when it was just him,
his family and his trailer and a few dozen big cats on his property. But he's
come around, and when he does make his rounds in the morning, he knows why.

He rescued 16 bears in the past year from two facilities in Ohio, and they
went right into a new, 15-acre bear habitat, with freshly dug dens, a
water tank and all sorts of fun toys to play with. A few of the bears had never
touched grass before and lived in 400-square-foot cage. When they first
arrived, they lifted their feet off the grass gingerly, as if the tickles
were torture, and they circled around and around, as if they were still
enclosed in the bars.

But a month later, they started to wander around, amazed at the space, and
began to enjoy the grass. And what's this tub of water?

"They finally figured out that they could go in the tank, and pretty soon,
we had all eight bears in one tank," Craig said. "It was just hilarious.
They were partying in it 24 hours a day, and we had to keep refilling it
over and over."

Then he paused.

"That's why we do what we do," he said. "That's why I do what I

On those morning rounds, sometimes he watches those bears horsing around
before he trudges back to his office. He may not have started an animal
sanctuary to sit behind a desk. But he doesn't have to see them all day long
to know they're out there, safe, happy and, most of all, wild.


For the cats,

Carole Baskin, CEO of Big Cat Rescue
an Educational Sanctuary home
to more than 100 big cats
12802 Easy Street Tampa, FL  33625
813.493.4564 fax 885.4457

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