A Wing Away: Battered Circus Lions Sleep In South African Refuge Tonight

Thirty-three circus lions rescued from Peru will arrive in South Africa on Saturday in the biggest cat airlift in history. The transport included a 16-hour flight and a layover in Brazil. The massive effort is possible since both Columbia and Brazil have outlawed the use of wild animals in circus acts over the past five years.

The lions will be taken to Johannesburg and then on to their final destination: the Emoya Big Cat Sanctuary in Limpopo, South Africa.

Circus life was described as “hell on earth” for the big cats, who suffered whips and prods, confinement and the removal of their teeth and claws.

The rescue is coordinated by rescued by British charity Animal Defenders International (ADI).

Among the 33 lions is Shakira, named after the Columbian pop singer, who likes to play with a tire and eat watermelon. There is also one-eyed Ricardo, and Joseph, who is almost blind.

One of the lions is Smith, who attacked a teacher in 2014 when she entered his cage as a volunteer during a performance. The trainer commanded Smith to jump over her head, but he jumped on the woman instead and then dragged her around the cage effortlessly, like a rag doll, while her horrified students watched.

The woman survived, and Smith was taken away from that circus, following a police investigation. Now, he joins 32 others on the “Spirit of Freedom Flight.”

Twenty-four of the lions are from Peru, mostly rescued during raids. The other nine are from Columbia. There are 22 males and 11 females. In total, there are two large prides and a number of bonded pairs, according to the Calgary Herald. On the flight, they are positioned close to the ones they get along with, in order to keep them as calm as possible.

The Oakland Zoo donated over $10,000 to the effort. Colleen Kinzley, the director of animal care, conservation and research, described the efforts to handle them.

“Often, what it takes to manage these animals in a way that allows people to share space with them is that they’re physically abused, disciplined with whips, bars and prods. And I know that, in the case of these animals, many of them have had their claws and teeth removed in order for people to be able to work around them without being killed or maimed.”

She added that the lions would not be able to be introduced into the wild.

“It’s not a good idea to place captive lions from another continent into a wild population because you might introduce disease. Besides, they were born in captivity, and most of the studies show that predators like these can’t be reintroduced to the wild.”

Jan Creamer, the president of ADI, said that the lions all have, “health problems, parasites, disease.

“All of their lives they haven’t had enough food, so they have long-term malnutrition problems.”

Emoya Big Cat Sanctuary founder Savannah Heuser described the new home awaiting the animals.

“The lions are returning to where they belong. This is their birthright. African sun, African night skies, African bush and sounds, clouds, summer thunderstorms, large enclosures in a natural setting where they can remember who they are.”

Relocation of the circus lions coincides with an international march in London on Saturday to protest lion trophy hunting, according to LionAid’s blog. The march is organized by six charities: LionAid, Born Free Foundation, IFAW, Four Paws, One Protest, and the Save Me Trust.

The effort to ban lion trophy hunting was inspired by Cecil, the famous lion who was killed illegally by a Minnesota dentist. Cecil was named Time Magazine’s Most Influential Animal in 2016.

[Photo by Martin Mejia/AP]