There’s a hint of the ballroom dancer about Jonathan Kraft as he glides into a cage with two large tigers, Natasha and Samantha. We’re in the middle of nowhere, a flat stretch of Arizona desert, 33.5 barren acres in all, just over the Nevada state line, a 45-mile drive from Las Vegas. In this unpromising terrain, Kraft is carving out a refuge for more than a hundred exotic animals. At the sanctuary, known as Keepers of the Wild, most of his charges are abused or confiscated big cats and other large-mammal predators. “Samantha used to be called the headhunter,” he says. “She’d attack anything that moved.” Leaving me safely outside the bars, Kraft sets to work scooping up droppings and raking the sand on the floor, a morning ritual. “Many times,” he adds, “I’ve had to cha-cha around the cage without letting the animal get the idea that I’m running. The only reason I haven’t been killed or maimed is that I think one step ahead of them. Why do they trust me? I’ve never figured it out.”
This morning, the tigers are still holed up in their large plywood den box at one end of the cage. Samantha’s face and paws protrude from the cutout door. Kraft decides to crawl in. He shoves Samantha’s head aside, clambers over her legs and disappears. I can hear him talking to them as he sits in the dark. When he emerges, Samantha follows. “OK, pussy,” he says. “Get up there and give me a hug.” She leaps onto the roof of the den box and embraces him around the neck. “She’s a lover,” he laughs. “She’s a beautiful cat.”
This is no act, although Kraft was a Las Vegas entertainer when he started rescuing exotic animals nearly 15 years ago. “I was always great with animals,” he says. “I just didn’t know I was at my best with lions and tigers!” A trim dynamo of a man in his mid-50s, he grabs a morning cup of coffee and never stops talking—to volunteers, to the animals, or, by telephone, to bureaucrats about securing building permits and to veterinarians about treatment options, debating the merits of pills versus injections, for a sick cougar. He once ran a chain of dance studios, then turned to producing a magic show on the Las Vegas Strip. This led him, by a circuitous route, to create an exotic-animal theme park behind the Aladdin Hotel. He dubbed that enterprise Predator’s Paradise. “I started out buying two baby tigers, for all the wrong reasons,” he says. “I know that now, but I didn’t know it then.”
Ever the entrepreneur, he had, in 1987, decided to incorporate animals into his traveling magic show. At the time, he presided over choreographers, showgirls, musicians and set designers, with the production transported by an 18-wheeler. At first, a small menagerie of exotic animals might have seemed like just another prop. But then, the pair of cubs proved too small—they were dwarfed by the huge stage props—so he brought in full-grown tigers.
Before long, Kraft had taken on nearly a dozen big cats, wolves and other predators, as well as a crew of animal handlers to care for them. Then the contract for his animal park wasn’t renewed. Suddenly, he was left with a lot of animals to feed and a pack of creditors to fend off.