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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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.


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