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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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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.

 

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