Inside the mission to rescue lions, 8,000-pound elephant from dilapidated Puerto Rico zoo after its closure

A sanctuary founder who rescued hundreds of animals from a beleaguered Puerto Rico zoo is now doing the hard work of rehabilitation. 

After years of complaints about conditions at the Dr. Juan A. Rivero Zoo, the U.S. Department of Justice oversaw the evacuation of every single animal. Federal authorities called in Pat Craig, founder of The Wild Animal Sanctuary in Colorado, to navigate the logistical challenges of transporting, among other animals, lions, hippos and an 8,000-pound elephant. Craig was also tasked with finding new homes for the animals. 

What happened at the Dr. Juan A. Rivero Zoo

Over the course of a decade, the U.S. Department of Agriculture cited Puerto Rico’s lone zoo two dozen times for substandard conditions and animal mistreatment. After hurricanes Irma and Maria ravaged the island, the zoo closed permanently in 2018. The situation for the hundreds of animals living there went from bad to worse. 

In February 2023, the Department of Justice, which enforces federal animal welfare laws on the mainland and in Puerto Rico, took the extraordinary step of sending a battalion of agents to the zoo. 

“It was just so evident that this facility was way beyond repair,” Pat Craig said. 

Jon Wertheim and Pat Craig
Jon Wertheim and Pat Craig

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Puerto Rico’s Department of Natural and Environmental Resources, which was responsible for the zoo, said in a statement that the animals were provided with comprehensive care. The agency denied any allegations of neglect, blaming problems at the zoo on hurricane damage, limited resources and aging animals. 

Some of the animals were very sick when Pat Craig and his wife, Monica Craig, arrived. A zebra had a wounded leg and couldn’t stand up, according to the couple. A pig had a skin condition. A mountain lion’s untreated cancer had spread all over its body. 

“I felt physically and emotionally overwhelmed,” Monica Craig said. 

Moving the animals amid pushback in Puerto Rico

Over the course of five months, the Craigs and their team of 20 from The Wild Animal Sanctuary, lured each animal into custom-built crates. 

While some animals were easily enticed into their transport crates with the help of treats, the zoo’s lions were defensive. Pat Craig, who launched his sanctuary as he was starting college, learned long ago that lions and tigers are no house cats. He was a regular visitor to the hospital when he first started working with them.

“I’d had my left arm almost completely torn off,” he said. “I’ve had — bit through the chest and collapsed lungs.”

Now 64, Craig had decades of experience behind him when he arrived at the zoo in Puerto Rico to transfer the lions. The decision was ultimately made to sedate them ahead of the move, which is an accepted practice when rescuing uncooperative carnivores. 

Pat and Monica Craig
Pat and Monica Craig

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Not all of the challenges came from the animals. Monica Craig had hoped to coordinate with local zoo staff, but said the team of rescuers mostly had to go it alone; the zookeepers often refused to help. 

“We tried many, many days to communicate with them and trying to tell them, ‘Hey, we’re not bad people, we’re just trying to do what we’re supposed to be doing for these animals,'” she said. 

Many in the local community felt the animals should stay in Puerto Rico. At times, resistance turned into sabotage. The rescue team had nearly wrangled Mundi, the 8,000-pound elephant, into her crate when, suddenly, the elephant got spooked. 

“I think somebody shot her with a BB gun, if you ask me,” Pat Craig said. 

Eventually, Mundi – like the other animals — was ready for transport. After a police escort to the airport, the animals were loaded onto charter flights bound for new homes that Pat Craig had arranged at sanctuaries across the U.S.

Where the animals are now 

The Craigs took as many of the rescues as they could back to their 1,200-acre facility, where a vast menagerie of animals roam grassy enclosures on the High Plains of eastern Colorado. Lions, Chad and Malawi, and Mikey the bear were among the animals relocated to the sanctuary after their rescue from Puerto Rico. 

When the animals first arrived, many stayed in areas designed to mimic the conditions they came from as a way of minimizing shock from the move. In those areas, the newcomers are evaluated and given a treatment plan, whether it’s medication or emergency surgery. The sanctuary devises a special diet for each animal, and goes through 100,000 pounds of food a week, mainly donated by nearby Walmart locations. 

When Mikey the bear arrived, he was in a great deal of pain, sanctuary veterinarian Dr. Mikaela Vetters said. He was provided with medication and soon began to get around “almost like a young bear.”

Nursing animals like Mikey back to physical health is one thing, but many come with what amounts to severe PTSD, and treating those wounds, teaching the animals to trust the humans caring for them, is in many ways the harder part.

Mundi
Mundi 

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The goal of all the rehab is to get the wild animals to act like wild animals. 

Mundi the elephant, who lived alone for decades at the zoo in Puerto Rico, was brought to a Georgia refuge, where she’s learned from the other elephants she now lives with. Conservationist Carol Buckley provides care and feeding for Mundi, but happily admits Mundi’s real mentors are the other elephants at the refuge. 

When Pat Craig visited the Georgia refuge, Mundi was calmer and healthier than she was in Puerto Rico.

“Every day when I would go see her in the zoo, I just — God, I would just hurt,” he said. “And then now to see this is just amazing, just truly amazing.”

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