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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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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.”

 

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