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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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.”


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