Editors Note: CBS4’s Matt Kroschel spent an afternoon wandering around, asking questions and photographing these amazing animals. He offers this first hand account from his “safari.”

By Matt Kroschel

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KEENESBURG, Colo. (CBS4) – Turning the corner off the little dirt road, the sight a 1,500 pound grizzly bear taking a snooze in the tall grasses on the Eastern Plains is enough to get your heart racing.

Another glance out the passenger side window of my car, a tiger strolled alongside, eyeing us. Instantly I identified with those little deer you see running away from the jaws of these magnificent cats on TV documentaries.

(credit: CBS)

(credit: CBS)

But this is no TV show, this is where hundreds of tortured and abused animals from around the world come to retire.

Colorado is having a population boom, and so is the Wild Animal Sanctuary.

(credit: CBS)

(credit: CBS)

The Wild Animal Sanctuary is the oldest and largest nonprofit sanctuary in the world dedicated exclusively to rescuing captive exotic and endangered large carnivores, providing them with acres of eastern Colorado plains. I have been to “big cat sanctuaries” before, but those don’t come close to what the one here seems to offer.

Room to Roam

In zoo’s the big cats and bears might have some place to spread out, but here they have acres to roam. In fact it can be challenging to even spot the animals because the enclosures are so large. They have natural growing tall grass, ponds, streams and underground dens.

(credit: CBS)

(credit: CBS)

I don’t know if cats can in reality smile, but when you look into those faces here, it looks like they are truly happy.

Volunteers, some tell us they drive upwards of two hours to come here and work, mill about and answer questions from inquisitive guests. In another genius idea here, you view the animals from above. I’m told this makes you less of a threat to the animals, they ignore you way up above on the walkways.

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(credit: CBS)

(credit: CBS)

Staff members say the sanctuary was established in 1980 and is a state and federally licensed zoological facility and a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization.

By The Numbers

Approximately 720 acres (and hopefully growing with a major expansion happening now)

With more than 290 lions, tigers, bears, leopards, mountain lions, wolves and other large carnivores, it is the first sanctuary of its kind to create large acreage species-specific habitats for its rescued animals — over 400 of them.

(credit: CBS)

(credit: CBS)

Since January of 1980, the Wild Animal Sanctuary has responded to nearly 1,000 requests from private citizens and government agencies to rescue animals from across the United States and around the world. The furry residents were abused, abandoned, illegally kept, or were victims of other terrible situations.

I would love if this facility didn’t need to exist, but sadly they have more animals to save than they can even keep these days.

In the U.S. alone there are an estimated 30,000 captive large carnivores living outside the zoo system, according to the Wild Animal Sanctuary.

(credit: CBS)

(credit: CBS)

Public safety is also a serious issue. Every year people get hurt or killed by captive wild animals that have not been properly housed, or because the people were allowed to be in unsafe situations by the animals’ owners or keepers. The sanctuary is called upon by local, state and national law enforcement agencies to ensure public safety in situations where the public and/or animals are at risk.

If you have not had the chance to go check out the sanctuary, take the short ride away from the city lights and noisy traffic. Go watch these animals, consider making a donation and supporting a true Colorado gem.

LINK: Wild Animal Sanctuary

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Matt Kroschel covers news throughout Colorado working from the CBS4 Mountain Newsroom. Send story ideas to mrkroschel@cbs.com and connect with him on Twitter @Matt_Kroschel.