In December of 2010, our entire team was put to the test with one of the largest rescue projects in the history of the Sanctuary. Twenty five African Lions located in Bolivia needed to be rescued, so we subsequently joined forces with Animal Defenders International - as well as a whole host of other government agencies, corporations and dedicated individuals - to save their lives and provide them a wonderful home.
The rescue was nothing less than epic, and it garnered an incredible amount of press world-wide. The amount of people, equipment, materials and labor that went into their rescue was monumental to say the least, and when the dust settled, all 25 of the abused and malnourished ex-circus lions were beginning a new life on the open grasslands of Colorado’s front-range.
The life of a typical circus animal is fraught with terrible things like traveling for months on end… living day and night in cage, crate or small trailer… and performing mindless tricks multiple times a day – all for the benefit of their human captor and his or her audience.
There are many animal rights organizations in existence today that work non-stop advocating for animals that are caught up in this archaic form of entertainment… but one particular group based in the United Kingdom was able to secure a first ever nation-wide ban prohibiting their use in circus acts.
Animal Defenders International (ADI) spent the last several years working in South America documenting the tortuous conditions that circus animals endure. In response, the Government of Bolivia stepped forward with an extraordinary act of compassion passing a national law prohibiting all use of animals in circus acts.
Passage of the new law represented ground zero for progressive thinking, as the Government and people of Bolivia realized social responsibility had evolved beyond allowing the abuse of animals for entertainment, and knew it was time to make a stand on their behalf. Our hats are off to ADI and Bolivia for accomplishing such a progressive and humane deed!
Subsequently, ADI also promised to find homes for any animals that would need to be confiscated from circuses refusing to comply with the new law. As such, in late 2010, ADI and Bolivian officials ended up having to canvass the countryside rounding up animals ranging from horses and dogs, to primates and large carnivores.
Many of the less-dangerous animals found sanctuary inside Bolivia almost immediately… but a total of twenty five African Lions (confiscated from 8 different circuses) needed a more secure and experienced home than could be found in-country. ADI knew they would need to secure a new home for the Lions, and began their search for a facility that could help.
In the short-term, ADI and government officials built a temporary holding facility near Santa Cruz where the Lions could be staged and receive medical treatment while myriads of paperwork and other details for their departure could be arranged. The only question at this point was where the Lions would be permanently relocated – somewhere they could truly find the freedom, love and respect they deserved.
The Wild Animal Sanctuary is always on standby to help animals in need… and we were more than happy to offer the ex-circus Lions a permanent and loving home. We had the perfect place for them - an 80 acre tract of open grassland where we could build large free-roaming habitats for multiple prides. Yet, the list of obstacles blocking the Lions’ path to salvation was growing day by day.
The first issue was the massive distance of nearly 5,000 miles between Colorado and Bolivia - noting these Lions weren’t in any shape to make a road trip. Additionally, the Bolivian government was pushing to get the Lions out of the country as fast as possible since many of the circus owners were upset by the new law – leaving the animals’ wellbeing in question. Thus, securing a chartered cargo jet with an early departure became ADI’s top priority!
The transportation issue may have been solved by arranging an airlift for the Lions… but the need for an urgent departure meant the Lions would be forced to leave Bolivia during that country’s mid-summer… and arrive in Colorado during our deepest part of winter! There was no way the Lions could acclimate to that great of a climate change in a 24 hour period.
It became obvious we would have to build a house for the Lions so we could control their environment for at least a couple months until spring arrived. However, the building couldn’t be built with steel or wood – as that would more or less equate to warehousing the Lions in a dark and dingy space.
These Lions had already endured enough indifference in their lives, and we weren’t about to join the long list of people who had failed them! We knew the only option was to build a structure that would be similar to a biosphere, where the Lions could live amongst trees, grass and natural sunlight.
However, the cost of the house and the outdoor habitats was not going to be cheap, and we knew the expense would be too much for us to bear alone. ADI, along with the generous help of game-show host Bob Barker, agreed to help offset a large portion of the construction costs - as well as provide ongoing funding to help feed this large group of Lions.
At this point we had gone from knowing nothing about the Bolivian Lions (in mid-December), to agreeing to provide a permanent 80 acre home with a massive 15,000 square foot biosphere that had to be ready by the end of January. That gave us just six weeks to do the impossible!
Given the sheer size and scope of this rescue, and its many facets ranging from ADI’s extensive work in Bolivia rounding up and caring for the Lions… to arranging their air transport (including all the necessary logistics of getting them to and from the airports at each end)… to our building an entirely new complex at the Sanctuary… it was vastly apparent the help of dozens of organizations, agencies, companies and specialists was going to be critical in order to succeed.
While everyone from the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the U.S. Customs & Border Protection, the U.S. Transportation Security Administration, Denver International Airport & the City of Denver, Colorado State Veterinarian, Weld County Planning and Building Departments and a whole host of other official agencies were being contacted… we also began to coordinate with building material suppliers, engineers, electrical contractors and dozens of other important people related to putting this massive operation together.
With the Christmas holidays interrupting communications and availability of materials and contract help, we were forced to delay construction of the Lion house until early January. We instead spent most of the holidays working on building the enormous 4,000 sq. ft. observation deck that would be inside the Lion House, as well as complete important habitat features like ponds, lakes and underground dens – all of which would be needed when spring rolled around.
We also used the delay to make sure we coordinated everything down to the letter, so that when the Clearspan building components arrived from the manufacturer (on the 22nd of January), we would be able to construct the entire building within 7 days.
With all the logistics being arranged on an international level, the airlift date was moved to February 16th - which helped ensure that every detail had been taken care of. Denver International Airport (DIA) staff – as well as numerous agencies, companies and people within the airport – went well out of their way to ensure the refugee Lions would be well received.
Their commitment, along with the extremely generous help of United Airlines (who donated the use of their giant hangar for the offloading) made the Lions arrival an extraordinary success! All of the official homeland security and wildlife agencies were also committed to ensuring the Lions arrival was a success, and we are grateful beyond measure to all of these dedicated professionals for caring enough to go out of their way to help the Lions.
The Lions arrived at DIA on the 16th of February, just as the sun was setting over the majestic Rocky Mountains. United’s hangar had been pre-staged with areas set aside for the Sanctuary’s rescue staff and vehicles, the large Transportes Aéreos Bolivianos (TAB)cargo jet, and of course, the ocean of media that had chosen to come and record the historic event.
As the tow vehicle pulling the plane inside the hangar came to a standstill and switched off its engine, a hush fell over the crowd. Minutes passed as everyone seemed to hold their breath in anticipation… and when the large door on the side of the jet finally opened - revealing a neatly organized line of crates - resounding cheers reminiscent of a world cup event filled the hangar!
People smiled and patted each other on the back as camera flashes flooded the cavernous space. Everyone was glad to see the Lions had made the trip without a hitch, and just prior to giving the go-ahead for unloading, Jan Creamer and Tim Phillips from ADI (who had accompanied the Lions on their long journey) spoke to the crowd.
Visibly tired from the enormous amount of work they had personally put into the operation (as well as their lack of sleep for days leading up to the airlift) they talked about the importance of these circus animals… as well as the others around the world that still needed help.
It was an important message to hear, seeing how the joy and happiness everyone was feeling for these lucky Lions needed to be put into perspective. With the hard work, dedication and perseverance that so many caring people put into this rescue… it was entirely possible that one day soon, with the help of more caring people, all circus animals could be freed from disparity!
With renewed vigor, the carefully orchestrated unloading, inspection, and re-loading processes began as darkness quietly enveloped the world outside the hangar. By 10 PM the Lions were aboard the Sanctuary’s rescue caravan and headed toward their final destination. Back at the Sanctuary, the rest of our Sanctuary staff prepared for the arrival of the Lions - while also assisting the multitude of media that had previously departed United’s hangar in order to preemptively stage themselves on the observation deck located inside the new Bolivian Lion House.
It’s a short 20 minute drive from the airport to the Sanctuary, so it wasn’t long before the seemingly endless string of headlights appeared on the horizon just south of the refuge. Within minutes, a mass of activity enveloped the entrance to the Lion house as the unloading process began. One group of Lions after another (family groupings were maintained in relation to the circus they originated from) was unloaded and released into separate enclosures inside the biosphere.
Media and staff alike watched as each Lion entered their space with seemly awkward steps. Everyone was surprised how years of harsh confinement had obviously hindered their development. Oddly, the fluent motion one expects from a majestic creature was noticeably absent as each Lion moved about inspecting his or her new home.
Yet, as uncoordinated as they were… it wasn’t long before one of the male Lions could no longer contain his excitement over his enclosure filled with grass and trees! In an inelegant, yet powerful motion, he leapt into the air and began bouncing on his hind feet then running around his enclosure with the absolute carefree abandon of a child!
His female companions quickly took his cue and joined in the celebration. Soon, the entire Lion house was filled with troops of Lions celebrating their new found freedom! The “Cavalini 8” (so named for the circus they came from) who had lived for years in a 6 foot wide by 12 foot long cage (all 8 together) seemed exceptionally engaged by the amount of space they had, and quickly began jumping in every direction as if they were putting on an ad-hoc gymnastic demonstration.
Needless to say, the sight of 25 Lions enjoying the feel of real grass beneath their feet… and being able to run outside of their dreams for the first time in their lives, was incredible! Happiness and a complete sense of joy filled the building as everyone took a moment to absorb the brilliance of their new found freedom.
Over the past two months, the Lions have evolved in many ways. Their personalities have blossomed far beyond everyone’s expectations… and they continue to morph their originally gaunt physiques with wonderful additions of muscle. Their overall lack of coordination has improved immensely, yet it will take years of living in our free-roaming habitats before the aftermath of their past incarcerations fade from sight.
Sadly, for one male Lion, that day will never come. Despite being trapped within a dwarf-sized body, and having severely twisted front legs, “Campeon” retains an optimistic outlook for one suffering from so many genetic imperfections.
The true story behind his misfortune will probably never be known, but Campeon seems to be at peace with his condition and has the support of his entire family. “Morena,” his mother, and his five sisters are all closely bonded, and we take great comfort in observing their dedication toward protecting and caring for him.
Campeon has unofficially become our “Tiny Tim” of the Bolivian Lions, simply because his indelible spirit is truly reminiscent of the character Charles Dickens wrote of in his classic story A Christmas Carol where Tiny Tim’s courage leads him to joyously proclaim “God Bless Us, Every One!”
With the rescue complete, and the Lions ready to be released into their habitats, only one obstacle remained. Many of the Lions had broken and/or rotted teeth when they arrived, and we had chosen to delay their treatment for a short period of time so they could gain weight and become stronger before performing oral surgery.
World renowned Dentist Dr. Peter Emily and his entire team of highly trained doctors from the Peter Emily International Veterinary Dental Foundation (PEIVDF) came to the Sanctuary on two separate occasions to work at restoring all of the Lions mouths to a healthy status. All the surgeries and other dental procedures were performed at the Sanctuary’s specially designed Veterinary Hospital - and after two intense days of medical procedures - we’re glad to report all of the Lions possess a clean bill of health and happy smiles!
All of the Lion Prides have now been released into their new 20 acre habitats… and the Lions have all become well-adjusted in their new home. The magnificent journey these twenty five lost souls have made since being found living in tiny circus cages in a small South American country… to now living and roaming freely in fully-functioning prides is nothing less a miracle!
Each morning and night, these twenty five Lions roar loudly in celebration of their new found freedom. They sleep comfortably in open fields of tall waving grass, and eat to their hearts’ content. The enormous amount of hard work done on their behalf by everyone involved will stand as a tribute to what humans can do to help animals no matter where they are, or how terrible a situation they face!
On average, it costs $8,000 to feed, house and care for one Lion, approximately costing an additional $200,000 per year to care for all of these Lions. Per our initial agreement, ADI is providing some monetary support to help care for the Lions, but we still need your support. If you are interested in adopting one of these Lions to help with their continued care please click here to read about our adoption program.