Big cats are on the move near Valentine

Kraft with one of his tigers. The mutual trust between the two is obvious. The tiger lives in one of the new naturalistic habitats where it can feel the earth under its paws and rest with the shade of trees overhead.

Kraft with one of his tigers. The mutual trust between the two is obvious. The tiger lives in one of the new naturalistic habitats where it can feel the earth under its paws and rest with the shade of trees overhead.

"Making a Difference." How many times has this phrase been used to describe the people who volunteer their time helping others?

It is almost a catchphrase, a ubiquitous motto that tends to instantly come to any volunteer's mind when trying to describe why they do what they do. Sometimes I wonder if we'll wear that phrase out.

And yet, what better phrase do we have to describe the actions of a few dedicated people who give from their heart to a cause that tries to make this planet just a bit better place to live in?

A good case in point are those people involved with Keepers of the Wild, a non-profit animal park and sanctuary that will soon be opening its gates to the public a little more than 20 miles north of Kingman on Historic Route 66.

Keepers of the Wild sprang from the mind and heart of Jonathan Kraft, who serves as founder and director. Kraft came here from Holland searching for the "American Dream." He wound up in Las Vegas working as a showman.

Having a natural empathy for wildlife, he couldn't help but notice the neglect and abuse occurring in the exotic animal industry around him. He soon found himself involved in animal rescue.

One particularly heart-wrenching experience began when the mother of a popular Vegas performer wanted to give Kraft a tiger.

When he arrived at her house, he not only found the tiger but a female lion with a broken leg and a male lion close to death. The male, confined in a small wire cage, was starving, flea-infested and filthy.

Kraft asked for all the animals. At first, the woman resisted, but the next morning Kraft was able to convince her to hand them all over.

The male lion, Sabu, was diagnosed with rickets and arthritis and it was recommended that he be put to sleep. Kraft refused and began a vigorous medication and treatment regimen. As Kraft spent many long hours with the big cat, talking to him, feeding him, even sleeping beside him, they began to form a deep bond.

Sabu eventually recovered, and from that day on whenever Kraft entered his enclosure, the lion would leap up and hug him. Kraft had indeed made a difference in the big cat's life.

Sabu had many peaceful years at the sanctuary before passing away on October 13, 2000 - what Kraft describes as "one of the saddest days of my life."

Today, Jonathan is head of an organization that exists solely for the purpose of making a difference for wildlife and exotic animals in particular.

Keepers of the Wild has been featured in the Smithsonian magazine, a National Geographic TV program and other places worldwide. It houses over one hundred animals, most of them rescued from neglectful or abusive situations in the entertainment or pet industries.

Keepers is not a new organization to this area. It has been in residence along Highway 93, not too far from the Hoover Dam, since 1999. Unable to buy more land for expansion, Kraft recently began looking for another area to grow in.

He says he happened to be driving along Route 66 north of Kingman when he saw a "For Sale" sign near Valentine and fell in love with the spot.

Things fell into place quickly and he was able to buy the land. Keepers of the Wild has not yet opened at their new location, but they are planning a soft opening sometime this fall or winter, with a grand opening this coming spring.

The new property near Valentine is in a better location for tourists, and it allows for expansion. Sixty acres are being developed in the initial phase but the property totals 175 acres. The boulder-strewn, sloping desert will feature naturalistic habitats where animals can roam freely among the rocks and trees.

Kraft states that Keepers of the Wild's goal is to build a facility that will be the standard for all future animal parks. They maintain a strict no-breeding policy.

Ask Kraft about this subject and he looks a bit like the fierce big cats he works to protect.

He says that many zoos and other animal facilities breed so many animals there are more animals than places for them to live, and they get moved around a lot - or just fall through the cracks.

"There are more tigers in captivity in this country than exist in the wild in their native habitat," he said. Some of the animals that fall through the cracks end up in "canned hunts," where a person pays a good sum of money to shoot a caged, often tame, animal.

Others wind up abused or neglected. Kraft goes on to say that the black market exotic animal trade is a huge industry, and over-breeding does not help matters.

However, he said his goal is not to knock zoos. He hopes to encourage zoos to rescue animals that already exist instead of breeding more.

People who support zoos and other animal care institutions can keep on top of these things by asking questions and being more proactive in watching the management of organizations that they donate their money to.

Keepers of the Wild is currently in the construction phase as animals are moved from their old property, and new buildings, enclosures and trails are built on the new one.

Kraft envisions a park where visitors can come, walk trails and look at the animals and even picnic at a high spot looking out over the park. But it is expensive.

Kraft has also had to pay for construction of a turning lane on Route 66, adding to his expenses. Not surprisingly, Keepers of the Wild is always on the lookout for donations. Just feeding the animals alone costs about $1,200-$1,500 a month.

But money alone doesn't run the sanctuary. That is where volunteers come in.

There are currently about 30 people who donate their time (and more are needed), cleaning cages, feeding animals, running the office and doing other everyday chores at the facility.

If Kraft is the heart of the organization, they are the blood that runs through this organization's veins. It's a passion, and they find it highly rewarding.

Just spend time with a few of them, and you can see the love and respect they hold for these creatures, even the fierce ones. And they can indeed be fierce.

In the past there have been a few frightening incidents with the big cats, where people were attacked. They recovered, but now strict safety procedures are in place.

Most people are not allowed in with the big cats anymore, and there are double-gated security systems in the new, naturalistic cages at the Valentine facility.

There is no doubt these are unpredictable wild animals and must be treated with due respect. But that wildness is part of the human fascination with these exotic creatures - a fascination that condemned these normally wild animals to a lifetime of captivity.

Jonathan Kraft seems to understand these animals as well as any human can and loves them just the way they are. So do the people who volunteer their time there.

And so, they do make a difference. Not only for the animals or for themselves, but also for all the people they touch with their message of respect, compassion and education.

For more information, visit their Web site at http://www.keepersofthewild.org/ or call (928) 769-1800.