To the Rescue

Las Vegas showman Jonathan Kraft went from riches to rags to turn a patch of Arizona desert into a refuge for abused and abandoned exotic animals

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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.

Kraft had already rented and renovated space for his animals in the condemned section of a Las Vegas dog pound. Each day, he followed the same routine, transporting the animals by truck to spend their waking hours in the relative paradise of his theme park and their nights in the rented quarters. When the theme park closed, he knew he had to find the animals a better home.

As soon as he established Keepers of the Wild as a nonprofit entity in 1995, Kraft began looking for donors, volunteers and a place for the animals to roam free. He was determined that the location approximate a variety of natural habitats. But the transition from show business impresario to chief cook and bottle washer of a nonprofit sanctuary wasn’t easy. Before long, in fact, Kraft was surviving on peanut butter and jelly sandwiches or cooking up for himself portions of the chicken he fed the animals. He still had a big house, lots of jewelry, an 18-wheeler and all the trappings of a show business career. But he was selling or pawning most of it to support the sanctuary. “I’ve always been a good salesman,” he says. “But before, I demanded money because I had a product. Now I had to hold my hand out. ‘Give me a donation!’ It’s like being a beggar on the street!” He sent a fund-raising appeal to every casino in Las Vegas: his only response was a hundred bucks from Caesar’s Palace.

“Many times I didn’t think I was going to make it,” he says, “but there was no way I could walk away from the animals.”

And he was acquiring more of them all the time. Other animal-training entertainers on the Strip started sending him animals they couldn’t handle, or those too old to perform. One time the mother of a popular Las Vegas performer called to say she wanted to give him a tiger. When Kraft arrived at her house, he found a female lion with a broken leg and, in a small wire cage, a young male lion close to death, in addition to the tiger. Starving, flea-bitten and filthy, the young male, Sabu, could barely lift his head. Kraft insisted that he take all three animals, but the owner refused. She didn’t want her mistreatment of these exotic pets known. She claimed she would have Sabu humanely put down. Kraft left empty-handed—and angry. After a sleepless night, he returned, cajoled the woman into turning over to him the tiger and the two lions, and loaded them into his Bronco and a trailer.

The veterinarian he called in diagnosed Sabu with rickets and arthritis. The lion’s feet had been maimed in an attempt to declaw him. His jaw was broken. The kindest thing, recommended the vet, would be to euthanize the big cat. “I would have agreed, if we couldn’t ease his pain, and if there was no chance to save him,” says Kraft. But there was a slim hope that Sabu would survive. The vet prescribed an arsenal of medications. Kraft spent almost every minute of the next few days with the lion, talking to him, feeding him, nursing him, even sleeping on the straw at Sabu’s side. As the animal slowly recovered, man and beast formed a deep bond. Whenever Kraft approached, Sabu would leap up and hug him. After nine good years at the sanctuary, the lion died October 13, 2000. “That was,” Kraft says, “one of the saddest days of my life.” He keeps an urn with the lion’s ashes in his office.

As the size of Kraft’s menagerie rose from a dozen animals to 50, he grew increasingly desperate. He met with realtors and zoning officials and made engineering and design presentations before town boards, city councils and county commissioners. The answer was always the same: not in my backyard. His landlord, the owner of the property behind the dog pound, attempted to kick him out. To make matters worse, his show business creditors were suing him. He recalls the day some repo-minded folks showed up with a horse trailer and the police to seize three tigers and a black jaguar as settlement of a debt for advertising fees. When Kraft refused to load the trailer, his creditors prepared to dart the animals and cart them off. “I told them, ‘if you kill a cat, you might as well kill me, because if you don’t, I’ll strangle you with my bare hands.’ ” For four hours, a noisy standoff ensued. Finally, Kraft managed to make a few calls and pawn enough possessions to pay off the debt.

To save money on rent, Kraft installed a bed and a bigscreen TV in one of the cages and moved in next to his animals. At night, he allowed a tiger or a lion, uncaged, to prowl the corridors of the compound. “Acat would climb into my bed and watch TV,” he says, “until he got bored. Then I’d put him back in his cage and let another one loose.” He lived like that for four years. Kraft is fanatical when it comes to giving his animals a healthy diet, lots of exercise and scrupulously clean surroundings. To accomplish that in a dismal cinder-block labyrinth of windowless corridors lined with wire cages required heroic efforts.

Recently, Kraft returned to show me around the cheerless surroundings he left behind. Entering the abandoned facility, he drifts back in time. “There’s always a lot to do,” he says, “picking up droppings by the dozer full, bleaching floors, hosing them down, every day, it never stops. Water bowls have to be cleaned; pans washed; food thawed, measured out, given to the animals. You have to admire the volunteers: this requires passion, no question about it.” He shows me the shell of the kitchen where he and 30 volunteers processed high-quality meals for the animals. “We kept it cleaner than many restaurant kitchens,” he says. It’s a point of pride for a lad who grew up in Holland, where his father was a five-star chef who had cooked for Queen Juliana. As a teenager, Kraft went to sea as a ship’s waiter, fell in love with Canada and eventually moved to the United States.

As we step outside, Kraft points to a neon skyline. “I could see the Strip from my front yard,” he says. “I watched the hotels getting built. It was very depressing to see all this glitz and glamour and here you are starving only a mile away, with all these gorgeous animals—all of whom were brought here by the Las Vegas entertainment industry. And nobody gave a damn.”

But by 1996, word had gotten around. Helpers began showing up: a college student and a cop, a bartender and a computer executive. They worked for nothing, maxed out their own credit cards to cover food and utility bills, even loaned Kraft their savings to keep the sanctuary going.

Many of the volunteers say they get along better with animals than with people. “The animals don’t lie,” says Kraft. “That’s what I love about them. Animals are much more truthful than humans. You never have to guess what they think of you.” What motivates the volunteers, he says, is not only love of animals but outrage at the ways people mistreat wild “pets.” Individuals try to keep exotic creatures at home, at least until the animal attacks someone and then is defanged, declawed or put down. To Kraft, this amounts to mutilation and murder. “Abusing an animal should be a felony,” he says, “just like abusing a child.”

It’s a 45-mile drive from Las Vegas along state highway 93, past empty stretches of barbed wire and tumbleweed, to the new home of Keepers of the Wild. To Kraft, finding this place seemed like a miracle. One night in June 1999, his latest proposal for a site in Nevada was turned down by the county board of commissioners. The raucous hearing happened to be televised on a local station. The next morning, a realtor who had seen the coverage called and told Kraft he knew the perfect place. Forty-five miles from Las Vegas lay a 33.5-acre expanse of desert, where an abandoned café fronts the highway. The site had its own well, a row of RV hookups for temporary volunteer housing, and a big warehouse where Kraft could install his kitchen, workshop and an infirmary for sick animals. The property could be leased with an option to buy. Kraft’s eight-year search was over.

Suddenly, donors began to surface, offering gifts and loans to renovate buildings and construct spacious holding areas for the animals. Within two months, Kraft and his volunteers hauled their by then 120 animals over the road that runs across the Hoover Dam to a new home.

Today, a refurbished restaurant, an ice cream parlor and a new gift shop help support the sanctuary. (After negotiating a loan, Kraft was finally able to buy the property last year for $2.5 million.) Las Vegas tour buses, Grand Canyon bound, stop for breakfast; on the way back, tourists disembark for a brief encounter with the animals. Kraft’s show business instincts kick in as he leads Hope, a 140-pound black jaguar, into a large arena. Spectators gather on the other side of a tall fence. “She’s a little devil,” he tells them. “She was confiscated when a drug lord in Texas got busted; the agents found her on the property. They called me to rescue her. Otherwise she would have been euthanized.” Kraft leans back against the edge of a table as Hope leaps up behind him. “Jaguars kill by crushing the back of the neck and skull,” he says, as the cat climbs his back and licks his ear. Then she closes her jaws close on the back of his head. “There’s the bite,” he says. “Good girl,” he tells her. Squirming out of her grip, he makes his pitch to the crowd to “adopt” an animal by making a donation, never failing to mention his Web site: www.keepersofthewild.org.

If it sometimes seems that these animals are tame, Kraft never forgets how deadly dangerous they actually are. During a typical morning’s cage-cleaning routine, a longtime volunteer and Kraft’s fiancée, Tina Matejek, follows along as Kraft’s backup. At the moment, while bulldozers break ground for their future habitats, the animals live in rows of large wire cages set on the sand. “This is Bonnie,” Kraft says, stepping into a big cat’s cage. “She’s a 450-pound female Siberian tiger, very hyper and quite dangerous. I’m going to have her spayed and place her with Raja on two acres, in the new habitat.”

Raja, a 750-pound male Siberian tiger who looms ten feet high when standing on his hind legs, is in the next cage. “I’ve seen him jump out of a pool and land 40 feet away,” Kraft says. Raja once bit him on the arm, drawing blood. “He wasn’t really trying to attack me. I was brushing his mane and I guess he got irritated. I smacked him on the nose and he backed up. Then I showed him what he did and made him lick off the blood. A lot of people would say that’s stupid because he’s a predator. If they see blood, they’ll attack. Bull. Cats don’t do that. I demand respect from them, and I know they demand respect from me.”

A huge male lion, lacking a mane, peers from an adjoining cage. “This is Elvis,” Kraft says. “He was owned by a stripper who couldn’t control him. So she had him neutered. That’s why he has no mane. She hired trainers who abused him until he attacked them. He’s 75 percent blind from the beatings. Then she sold him to a guy who tried to control him by siccing five or six rottweilers on him. That fellow was jailed for animal abuse. Elvis ended up in the dog pound in Henderson, Nevada. They called me. When I got there, I told them to let me in the cage. They said, ‘Oh no, he’s too dangerous, he’s already eaten three trainers.’ I said, ‘If you want me to take him, open the damn cage and let me in.’ I just talked to Elvis for ten minutes, put a leash on his neck and put him in the back of my Bronco. He filled up the whole truck, and I took him home.”

In the next row, Kraft enters a cage with two female Bengal tigers, sisters who have been with him for 14 years. One of them, Sammy, attacked one of the most experienced volunteers last March, clamping down on his leg, knocking him down and dragging him into the cage. No one at the sanctuary has forgotten it. Kraft slaps Sammy on the rump as he cleans the cage: “You are a bit of a brat, aren’t you!”

It was, to be sure, a terrifying moment. The volunteer, Scott Burns, had worked with big cats for ten years. When Sammy went for him, his backup, Matejek, leaped into the cage to try to call the tiger off. Kraft arrived seconds later. “Tina and I were screaming at Sammy to let go,” Burns says. “I tried kicking her, but she released my leg only to grab the other. By that time, Jonathan had come in and was kicking her head. She wouldn’t have any of that. Tina got Jonathan a 3- by 6-foot iron rack, and he started butting it into the tiger’s head. I threw handfuls of sand in her eyes and nose so she couldn’t see or breathe. Finally, faced with that barrage, she did let go. Jonathan put the rack in front of her and I scooted out. She made one last lunge at me, but Jonathan shoved the rack in her face. Otherwise she would certainly have had me, because I was crawling. She would have been on top of me, and I would have been in a lot worse shape.”

“She would have killed him,” Kraft says quietly. “Maybe she sensed a weakness in him, or maybe she just wasn’t right that day, but these are wild predators and that instinct to attack is always there. You’re never really in control, if you think about it. Even when I don’t look, I can tell when they’re making a move on me. I can just feel it. They may not want to kill me, they may just want to jump me. I’ll just turn around and tell them, ‘Don’t even think about it!’ and they’ll shudder and pull back.”

Burns was helicoptered to the hospital. He survived, with lacerations and vivid nightmares. But he got back to work about a week later, as soon as he could walk. These days he enters the cages with the other big cats but leaves Sammy alone. He’s philosophical about the experience, expressing the spirit of the sanctuary. “An animal can decide she just doesn’t like me. We’re not going to force that animal to like me or anybody else,” he says. “So, if Sammy does have a problem with me, I’m fine with that. There’s a lot of animals here for me to love and take care of.”

Matejek, 36, likens the experience to a moment of truth. She’s a willowy, soft-spoken blonde who doesn’t look like someone who would take on a tiger. But many volunteers admit that working with these animals teaches you something about yourself. “That was one moment that I absolutely knew who I was,” she says. “Your mind is screaming, but you’re reacting the way you’re supposed to. Now I know what I’m made of. It’s enlightening, in a weird way.”

As bulldozers dig moats that will encircle the first tiger habitats, Kraft watches his dream take shape. He appraises this landscape from the animals’ viewpoint. “I’m building tiger habitats here. If somebody can’t see the tigers, that’s too bad,” he says.

But Kraft is still part showman. He has drawn up plans for ecological zones, with preserves close to native habitats for Siberian tigers, African lions, South American jaguars, bearcats from India, North American wolves and cougars, and many other species. He wants to build additional gift shops and restaurants reflecting the crafts and cuisines of these varied cultures. He envisions “snore and roar” condos, where visitors can spend a night listening to the calls of the wild.

There’s a stack of 200 letters on his desk from people who want him to adopt their exotic animals. Kraft is already negotiating to get more land adjacent to his acreage. Donations have come a long way since that first hundred dollars from Caesar’s Palace, to amounts in the hundreds of thousands. Kraft insists it all goes to the animals and that he pays himself only $250 a week. “That’s all I need,” he says. “I’ve never been this broke, but I’m happier than I’ve ever been.”

Keepers of the Wild will be a true sanctuary, he promises, a place where the animals can live out their lives in the dignity they deserve. “We have so many animals with such sad stories,” says Scott Burns. “That’s why this place exists.” Recent news accounts of the shooting of four “escaped” or abandoned lions in a backwoods hamlet in Arkansas are only the latest in a long litany of animal horror stories. The owner of a fly-by-night, partially fenced exotic-animal farm had moved his operation into that county because it required no permits or inspections. The lions, he has insisted, weren’t from his place. A nameless stranger, the park owner claims, turned the animals loose after he refused to take them. Neighbors doubt this version, but say they shot the “starved down” lions to protect their children. This small tragedy points to a larger one: the fact that, in this country, an estimated 6,000 tigers are kept as pets—as many or more than now remain in the wild. In addition, zoos are breeding and selling big cats and other predators to dealers in an almost unregulated market. Many of these animals end up in “canned hunts” on so-called safari parks, where hunters pay thousands of dollars to shoot a tiger or a lion at close range.

“It’s disgusting,” says Kraft of the killing parks. He wants his Keepers of the Wild sanctuary to educate every visitor to respect wild animals and their environments as well. “Why own one?” he challenges a crowd, as a Siberian tiger springs at the fence and the tourists fall back. “If you think you want a pet, go to the pound: get a dog or a cat. Do not get a cougar. That’s a macho thing. If you want to admire these animals, go to India, go to Africa. Or to a zoo or a sanctuary where you can enjoy them once or twice a week, and you don’t have responsibility for them. Then you’re no longer adding to the problem, you’re becoming part of the solution.”

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