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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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.”


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