VALENTINE, AZ — For one Arizona man, his passion is saving the lives of wild animals - but his love for these creatures almost cost him his own life.
Jonathan Kraft, the owner and founder of Keepers of the Wild, opened up exclusively to ABC15 after a tiger nearly killed him at his sanctuary in Valentine, Arizona, near Kingman.
The 73-year-old has the battle wounds to prove it. He has bite marks all over his hands and feet, multiple bone fractures, and his right ear had to be re-attached.
"He bit me right through the back of the neck and my surgeon says 2mm over and he would have bit through your spinal cord and it would have been all over," explained Kraft.
We first met Kraft in April as we toured his sanctuary. Keepers of the Wild has helped rescue and rehabilitate hundreds of animals - gentle giants, that prove the animal instinct is never fully gone.
Just five days after our interview, Bowie, a Bengal tiger, attacked Kraft during a rain storm. It all started when Jonathan opened a set of gates to move Bowie into a drier part of his enclosure.
"It's an overlapping gate system. And I don't know why I opened his gates before I opened his bedroom gates and he just pushed his way through and the next...you know, of course, he's on me....No matter how good your protocols are, how good your system is, they are only as good as the people that operate it. And I made a mistake. And I'm paying the price for it."
Within moments, Bowie pounced on him.
"He just crunched down on me. It sounded to me like someone eating a bowl of cereal, when he crushed through my shoulder."
For nearly 10 minutes, Jonathan says he battled Bowie. But with every swing, the tiger took another bite. Jonathan tells us he eventually decided to play dead.
"Once he bit me through the back of the neck, I thought, 'that's it'. And I just laid calm and didn't struggle any more. And maybe that's what stopped him from attacking me."
A short time later, two workers saw what was happening and bravely stepped in and were able to fend off the tiger.
Jonathan and his doctors aren't sure when he'll be able to return to the sanctuary to work. He says despite almost losing his own life, his passion for saving the lives of these animals has never been stronger.
Jonathan says he takes full responsibility for what happened. Bowie is still at the sanctuary and will not be euthanized.
ABC15 confirmed Keepers of the Wild is licensed by the U.S. Dept. of Agriculture.
A spokesperson confirms there were two previous attacks involving tigers. The first was back in 2003 and there was another in 2006. Kraft says since those attacks, Keepers of the Wild has implemented stricter policies.