Colorado Wild Animal Sanctuary spearheading Puerto Rico zoo rescue

A landmark zoo rescue airlift to save captive wildlife intensifies this month as the Colorado-based Wild Animal Sanctuary takes in more than a dozen newcomers.

These include seven lions, two bears, a camel, a stork, a kangaroo, and an African porcupine — scheduled to arrive in Colorado next week.

They’re flying to Denver International Airport from Puerto Rico, where a troubled government-backed zoo — targeted by animal rights activists for a decade and battered by Hurricane Maria in 2017 — has shut down. More than 300 animals, including elephants, hippos, and rhinos, face an uncertain future unless they are accepted at U.S. facilities.

“It is a monumental project to get all of these animals placed and to deal with so many different species,” said Pat Craig, director of the Colorado Wild Animal Sanctuary, a 160-acre facility located 30 miles northeast of Denver near Keenesburg. “It is one of the largest zoo rescue transfers in history.”

Sanctuary crews and volunteers are mobilizing to accommodate the new animals among 550 others already in the sanctuary.

Eventually, Colorado may be able to handle more than 100 airlifted animals, Craig said.

Other U.S. zoos are participating. A chimpanzee is headed to an expanding primate exhibit in Indiana and a sloth will head to Florida.

While not set yet, the plan was for Texas facilities with the right kind of habitat to take in the elephants and rhinos.

Since 1980, Colorado’s Wild Animal Sanctuary has prioritized taking in animals from ailing zoos and substandard roadside attraction-type facilities — animals that often have suffered mistreatment in captivity and otherwise would be euthanized. The sanctuary’s mission was to take in “only those animals that absolutely are going to be euthanized if they don’t go somewhere.” In recent years, sanctuary crews have rescued lions from Bolivia and tigers following criminal investigations of the Tiger King who housed animals in the southeastern United States.

The sanctuary expanded beyond early sites near Boulder in 1994 to the Keenesburg area, then expanded again to southeastern Colorado near the town of Springfield, where another 200 animals reside. In 2018, Wild Animal Sanctuary took over a 41-acre facility in Boyd, Texas.

Earlier this year, sanctuary operators acquired a 22,450-acre property near Craig in northwestern Colorado to create a refuge for wild horses.

The Puerto Rico zoo airlift is logistically complex, said Craig, who has been coordinating the rescue with sanctuary operators around the nation.

“This is extremely rare. It was a government-owned zoo. Usually, those never go under, a legitimate zoo,” he said. “We have over 600 animals to place.”

Last month, U.S. authorities announced they’re dropping investigations into the mistreatment of animals in Puerto Rico, in the Dr. Juan A. Rivero Zoo in Mayaguez, under an agreement to move all animals to sanctuaries in the United States. The agreement prioritizes animal welfare.

But federal agencies apparently lack funds to help conduct the rescue, Craig said.

“Flying these animals is expensive, and it takes a lot of logistical know-how, such as having the right kinds of crates. We’ll have veterinarians flying with the animals wherever they go,” he said. “This is a pretty insane thing to take on.”

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