Saving over 30 lions from their circus cages was an unprecedented rescue operation. However, after ten years, Animal Defenders International had done it: the big cats were free. Now rescuers sat back and watched the lions step on to their homeland for the very first time.
Animal Defenders International (ADI) is appropriately named, with branches in the U.K, Columbia and the USA. Since its founding in 1990, ADI has worked hard to defend animal rights. In fact, it was responsible for passing an animal protection law in Columbia and Peru.
Perhaps ADI’s most famous campaign is Stop Circus Suffering, focusing on the rights of circus animals. Although many countries have laws against using wild animals in circus performances, it’s a new concept in some places. Latin America is one of them.
ADI began fighting for South American circus animal rights in 2007. During that time, animal activists went undercover to reveal the shocking truth behind the lives of performing animals. The group’s co-founder, Tim Phillips, explained what they had found to ABC’s Nightline.
“There’s a routine and casual violence towards animals in circuses to keep them subjugated,” Phillips said. “To keep them in their place. These animals are chained; they’re kept in tiny, deplorable conditions. Their teeth are snapped off, claws cut off.”
Following the circus industry’s exposure, ADI’s investigations bore fruit. Its efforts resulted in a government investigation of the issue over the two years that followed. The consequence was a new law prohibiting the use of circus animals.
The law’s implementation shook Latin America and some circus owners objected to it. Subsequently, at least one travelling circus even went into hiding to prevent authorities from taking their animals away. However, together with the continent’s law enforcement, ADI moved to liberate performing animals from their cages.
ADI called their campaign Spirit of Freedom and it was captured in a video broadcast by Nightline. The footage followed Phillips and his wife Jan Creamer – ADI’s other co-founder – in their efforts to protect circus animals. It seems, though, that not every business gave up their star attractions without a fight.
Some owners told ADI that their animals meant more to them than just the crowds that they lured in. For example, when rescuers went to collect a tiger called Hoover from a circus in Piura, Peru, it devastated the owners. They described the big cat as a part of the family.
Despite the family’s tears and protestations, though, ADI notices that Hoover looks skinny and malnourished. “They say that they love the animal,” Phillips said, “but they’re just making it really stressful and difficult for it.” The circus owners adamantly deny abuse, however.
Although tensions escalate as ADI prepares to take Hoover away, the family submits the animal willingly. Phillips told Nightline, “It’s a frustrating and trying day, but we’re driving away with the tiger. And that’s really the only thing that matters.”
As with all of the animals that ADI rescued, carers take Hoover to the Spirit of Freedom center at an undisclosed Peruvian locale. There, she gets to sleep on a bed of soft straw for perhaps the first time in her life. The center’s animals also receive expert medical treatment.
The Spirit of Freedom center is just a temporary stop for the rescued animals, though. ADI has much more work to do and it’s not long before they take off to seize another circus victim. But this time, the owners are much less reasonable than Hoover’s were.
When ADI races to intercept a travelling circus and save a chained puma, they face considerable resistance. The owners even build a barrier around their big cat. Ultimately, Phillips and Creamer have to call in the local riot police as back up until the animal’s owners finally relinquish it.
At the end of ADI’s Spirit of Freedom crusade, there were over 100 liberated animals at the center. Rescuers re-homed some of them in sanctuaries within Peru, whereas other were transported much further afield. This was the case with the 33 lions housed at the center.
“The dream would be to put these animals back in the wild,” Phillips said. “But you can’t do that; they’ve had torn from them the ability to cope in the wild.” So ADI began a gargantuan transport mission. Rescuers took the lions all the way from Peru to a sanctuary in their native South Africa.
The operation took 18 long months, but the effort was worth it. That’s because the rescue team got to witness the animals’ first steps on African ground and in freedom. Not only that, but cameras captured these monumental moments.
The footage shows that when the big cats’ transports are first opened, their inhabitants are initially cautious. Having spent their lives in metal cages, the soft ground under their paws must seem alien to them. Their hesitance doesn’t last long, though.
Soon, the big cats act as if they were born wild and set out to explore their new surroundings. The sight of a grown lion rolling around like a kitten is truly a heart-melting moment for those involved in their homecoming.
Phillips expressed how happy he is to have played a part in their rescue. “It was incredibly affecting to have done this epic journey in the company of these magnificent animals,” he said. “And to see them step out on to the African soil for the first time was so moving.”