A lion’s share of a rescue

Documentary follows lions rescued from Bolivian circuses that land in a Colorado sanctuary

Twenty-five African lions were relocated from Bolivia to Colorado.
Photo courtesy of Animal Defenders International

When the Bolivian government passed a law banning animals from performing in circus acts, the first nationwide ban of its kind, the legislation was a huge step forward for animal rights activists long opposed to the conditions and treatment those circus animals faced. But it also presented a problem for the Bolivian government — what to do with the non-indigenous animals in the country that had been kept there by circuses? Talk about lions and tigers and monkeys, oh my.

Bolivian officials turned to the Animal Defenders International, a United Kingdom-based organization that had campaigned for the legislation, to orchestrate the removal of those animals to a permanent, safe home.

And that’s how Jan Creamer and Tim Phillips, husband-and-wife team and co-founders of Animal Defenders International, came to be sweeping through seven Bolivian circuses in a week, recovering 25 African lions from tiny cages and grim prospects for their 20- to 40-year lives. Some were starving, some were sick, two had been left in partial shade in the South American summer heat without water, and one had been so long abused just the sight of humans drives him to attack the bars around him. These were lions that had never felt grass beneath their feet or been able to look up and see the sky, as Creamer says. Their film, Lion Ark, tells the story of their air-lift rescue that ends in delivering those lions to what Phillips calls “our absolute ideal” home for them — nearly 5,000 miles away at The Wild Animal Sanctuary, a 720-acre sanctuary for large carnivores in Colorado. The sanctuary had 80 acres of land it could offer, divided into multiple tracts, so it could accommodate all the lions, but offer each family group its own space.

It’s an incredible success story, a documentary on environmental and animal welfare issues with a very happy ending that shows the power people have when they come together to tackle a cause. The film also stokes an ongoing campaign to see similar laws passed in nations around the world — building off 20 countries where Animal Defenders International have led the charge to ban animals from circuses.

“These animals are really deprived in these horrible conditions — which is self-evident, but you almost don’t realize just how much they’re missing,” Phillips says. “As the film builds, you do see [the lions] rolling in the hay and being sociable with each other and kind of coming to life. There’s a big theme of lions become lions again.”

The path to Bolivia began in Mozambique in 1996, when Animal Defenders International was first expanding to international animal welfare work and took a call asking the group to deal with a circus that was illegally trafficking animals.

“It would arrive in one place with a group of chimpanzees, leave with no chimpanzees. Arrive with snakes, leave with no snakes. It was quite obviously a front for animal trafficking and it had run out of money in Mozambique, and the animals were literally starving. In fact, before we were called in, one tiger died of starvation,” Phillips says. “So we moved in and Jan and I seized all of those animals and we moved them to safety, and that was six lions, three tigers, a python, horses and dogs, the entire circus we rescued. And what we discovered was there were absolutely irregularities in all of the CITES permits, and there was a huge loophole that was allowing these circuses to be pretty much nodded through border controls.”

Animal Defenders International co-founder Tim Phillips cradles one of three lion cubs recovered during an effort to rescue 25 lions from circuses in Bolivia. | Photo courtesy of Animal Defenders International

They began lobbying to close those loopholes, and landed at the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), a gathering of 172 countries, in Chile in 2002, when measures were passed to secure cross-border movements of animals by requiring each animal to have, effectively, a passport — a document showing its age and where it had been previously.

“We really closed that loophole. I don’t think it is an issue anymore,” Phillips says.

But while in Chile, they discovered a chimpanzee at a circus that was chained in a packing crate; its teeth had been pulled out and it had been isolated for years. They rescued that chimpanzee, returning it to Africa.

“There was such a massive response from the South American people to it, I mean it was just a huge story, there was this outpouring of warmth for this chimpanzee,” Phillips says. “We realized there was a massive potential to really do something, if we worked with the different South American countries, to really do something about this cruelty which up until this point, until Jan and I arrived, had really been unaddressed.”

By 2004, they had recruited a team of people willing to work undercover at the circuses — and worked there for two years.

“They moved from country to country, they crossed borders with circuses, working under cover in incredibly difficult and dangerous circumstances, but what we gathered was this huge body of evidence of chimpanzees being beaten and lions being kicked and abused, and just appalling conditions, people hurling rocks at animals,” Phillips says. There’s a direct line from the campaign they mounted with that evidence to the legislation just passed or on the books in countries around the world, from Brazil to Greece to Costa Rica to Singapore.

The lions’ condition in Bolivia. | Courtesy of Animal Defenders International

“[Animal Defenders International] really believes that evidence is the way forward, that governments and the public respond to clear evidence,” Phillips says. “These bans are in such different countries now, European countries, Asian countries, South American countries, Central American countries — all very, very different socioeconomically, but they’re all responding to this understanding that really, just in the name of entertainment, we should not be doing these things to animals anymore. It’s absolutely resonating with people. … Over 20 countries now have prohibitions, and I’ve never in 35 years of campaigning seen laws that prohibit something being done to animals, sweeping through so many counties and such different countries.”

Moving forward, they’ll be working with Colombia and Peru on enforcing their recently passed bans. Like Bolivia, those countries will be looking to Animal Defenders International to orchestrate retrieving animals from circuses and finding a permanent home for them.

It’s a decision Phillips says he agrees with, given that there are very limited facilities there to ensure both a good life for the lions, and that no person is ever harmed by them, either.

Once they were committed to relocating all two dozen lions to somewhere outside the country, the ideal was to find a location to take the entire group of animals. That place emerged thousands of miles away at The Wild Animal Sanctuary northeast of Denver. Pat Craig built the sanctuary for just such an occasion. Craig, who grew up in Colorado, started rescuing animals from the zoo systems around the country that might have otherwise been euthanized as excess to a farm outside Boulder 34 years ago. As the sanctuary grew, it moved from Boulder to Lyons finally to its home now near Keenesburg, where 19 years ago it started on just 160 acres. Now, they’ve acquired 720 acres.

“We’ve done lots of large rescues with anywhere from 20 to 30 lions at a time,” Craig says. “Our facility is built for that kind of thing.”

Jan Creamer and Tim Phillips carry a cub out of a cage while another stands up. | Courtesy of Animal Defenders International

But Craig echoed the importance of demonstrating to the South American countries also considering a ban like Bolivia’s that it’s possible to see those bans effectively endorsed.

While Creamer and Phillips were gathering the lions in Bolivia and readying crates for the flight to Colorado, Craig and his staff at The Wild Animal Sanctuary were quickly constructing a 15,000-square-foot biosphere heated to about 60 degrees to house the lions, which arrived from a Bolivian summer to February in Colorado, until they had acclimated. Within a couple of months, they were spending all of their time outdoors.

“Most animals can acclimate pretty quickly, but when they first showed up here they were skin and bones, so it would have been really hard to acclimate,” Craig says. “Northern Africa still freezes, it just doesn’t snow.”

Now, each family group has a 20-acre free-range habitat to roam. When the weather takes a turn, they have dens they can retreat to.

Animal Defenders International and The Wild Animal Sanctuary have an ongoing partnership that includes assisting with financing the $8,000 annually required to support a single lion — $200,000 for the entire group.

Phillips says he’s looking forward to returning for the Starz Denver Film Festival, where Lion Ark is screening, in part because he and Creamer will be able to make another of the regular visits to the lions at the sanctuary.

“It is quite amazing seeing them now because they’re so settled and calm, I think it’s the closest you can get to how lions behave in the wild,” Phillips says. “It sort of charges your batteries for the next project, which is Peru.”

As Animal Defenders International looks at assisting in enforcement of new laws banning circus animals in Peru, Ecuador, Paraguay and Colombia, it is bracing for a task that may prove even more difficult than the Bolivian rescue. The countries are bigger, and they’ve lost the advantage of surprise.

“I think we’re expecting more resistance,” Phillips says. Animal Defense International (ADI) personnel in Peru and Colombia have been assaulted multiple times this year, including an attack that landed a field officer in the hospital with a broken leg. Their field officers are now traveling in pairs as they conduct a census of the animals that will need to be relocated from those countries.

“These things do get harder as there’s more awareness of who ADI is and that these bans are really serious — they are going to be enforced however long it takes and whatever it takes,” Phillips says. “Many of these circuses do not believe what they are doing is wrong to these animals — or they think it’s entirely acceptable to treat animals in that way, that they are just possessions that can be stored, and they live and they die in those small cages, and that’s their right to do that. So people are resistant to this change.”

Which has made helping with enforcement all the more critical.

“One of the single biggest challenges to animal protection and conservation is getting it enforced, because often the very places — whether it’s elephants being slaughtered for their tusks in Africa or whether it’s trying to enforce anti-cruelty legislation in South America — often the very places where it is most needed are where there is the least resources, so we need to raise funds to go and do this, otherwise [the law] suddenly becomes not worth the paper it’s written on,” Phillips says. “As we’ve shown in Bolivia, we’ve got a good model here, we’re showing how governments can work with [nongovernmental organizations] and how animals can be saved and cruelty can be stopped.”

Lion Ark screens at the Starz Denver Film Festival at 7:30 p.m. on Saturday, Nov. 9, 2 p.m. Sunday Nov. 10, and 2:15 p.m. Monday, Nov. 11. Animal Defenders International president Jan Creamer will also speak at the Women Film Panel, which is focused on animal rights activists, at 12 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 9, at the SIE FilmCenter.

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