How to Save Lions from Bolivian Circuses

Lion_Ark_ColoColo_free Infiltrators with video cameras were strategically placed by Animal Defenders International (ADI) in circuses around the world. Their job was to expose the cruelty, deprivation and abuse suffered by wild animals at the hands of an outdated entertainment industry.

In 2007, the videos showing this abuse were released. The outcry from communities around the globe was enormous and steadfast. Countries, almost immediately, started pushing for national legislation to prohibit the use of wild animals in circuses; and in 2009 Bolivia was the first to successfully legislate against this practice.

With the legislation they worked so hard to pass in their back pockets, Animal Defenders International arrived in Bolivia at the end of 2010 to rescue and find a suitable home for 25 captive lions.


These lions were ultimately placed in The Wild Animal Sanctuary, a facility that allows animals to live in large expanses similar to their natural environment, north of Denver. At The Wild Animal Sanctuary, a special facility was built to help them adapt to Colorado climate. The success of this operation and the efforts of Animal Defenders International in Bolivia allowed many other countries to follow suit and pass similar legislation.

The story of these lions’ lives in the circus, their rescue and the not-so-small task of moving them from Bolivia to the Rocky Mountains is shown in Lion Ark, The Movie, a sold-out documentary at the 36th Starz Denver Film Festival. I had the opportunities to chat with Tim Phillips of Animal Defenders International about this rescue and the documentary.

Here is a bit of what he had to say:

It was mentioned in the movie that unspeakable things were being done to these captive animals – can you give me a few ideas, as far as a range of abuses, that could and did happen to them?

We found eight lions, full grown lions, living in a cage that was the size of two queen sized beds. They were all on top of each other. They chewed bits of each other’s tails off. They were half starving, and they were filthy. That kind of horrific confinement is almost unimaginable to us. We found all [other animals] in similar conditions.

We filmed a training session where big cats had chairs thrown at them, were whipped repeatedly and beaten with sticks. We filmed an old lion being pushed into a cage and kicked in the genitals. We filmed a bull being pelted with rocks.

There was a scene in Colombia, which absolutely gripped the entire country. There was an elderly chimpanzee named Carla. She was the equivalent of a poor little old lady. She was dressed up for a show and forced to do things. One night the trainer loses his temper with her and starts punching her in the face, and then he picks up a chain and beats her with it. This poor old chimp is just screaming and cowering, and trying to put her hands over her face.

Now, that chimpanzee is far stronger than that man. She could have killed him. But these animals don’t, because they have been so subjugated. People will often say, “If these people were cruel to these animals, the animals would turn on them.” And they do occasionally.

However, subjugation from birth and complete deprivation and control over everything that is pleasurable in your life, is an extremely powerful tool, and it shows that these really powerful animals can be absolutely subjugated.

We have seen a lioness urinating in fear when she saw people coming toward her threatening her.

This is their life. They are stripped of all things that are natural of them. They are deprived and abused. They are told if you step out of line at all, you will suffer. It is a terrible life, and it is just in the name of a few minutes of entertainment, and that is why countries and people are saying, “Enough is enough. We should not have this in the 21st century.”

Would you say the net overall sentiment of banning wild animals from circuses in Bolivia was positive with the local people?

Without a doubt.  There was outrage at what was happening to these animals. This is a small country doing something that is setting the standard for the world, and there was a lot of pride in it.

We secured bans in the Bolivia’s major cities before the national legislation passed. One thing I found very moving was, when we saved Kimba, an old circus lion that was dumped in a zoo for 10 years without proper facilities or other lions as companionship. Loads of local people came out on the streets and were just applauding and cheering as the old lion, who had gone half blind in captivity, went on to his new life.

What are your thoughts on zoos?

The difference between zoos and circuses is if you have animals in a traveling environment you cannot possibly improve their conditions beyond the minimal levels. If you are working out of parking lots they will always be profoundly limited. They will always be the worst possible conditions to keep the animals. You will never have the acres these animals needs.

There are many, many poor zoos and many that are simply stockpiling and breeding animals that are not needed, and there is not the expertise of the species or the specialization people should have when caring for animals. But there will be wild animals in captivity for generations to come, even if it is just animals injured on the road or taken from illegal traffickers. There are ways of improving those facilities, and that is already happening with a handful of zoos and sanctuaries in the U.S.

I think if attitudes steadily change where people want to see fewer animals in big natural environments, such as The Wild Animal Sanctuary to see our Bolivian lions.

They are going to see lions in the distance, but they will see them in big habitats looking lions, and I think people get much more from that. They certainly learn more about the animals that way, and the animals get much more from it too.

You have places like The Detroit Zoo that say there are certain animals that are not suitable for our environment, and consequently they handed over all their elephants to a wonderful sanctuary. Oakland Zoo is leading the way in stopping physical contact with elephants. There can be a dramatic shift in zoos. There should be much less of them and many less animals in them. They should be much more specialized and more like sanctuaries.

What does captivity do to animals?

There are many forms of suffering. I think many people see the footage we get of animals being beaten and physically abused, and that tends to make the headlines.

Some of these animals, like elephants in circuses, are chained and unable to move for at least 50% of their life. It is the human equivalent of being either shut in your bathroom or being taken prisoner and chained to a radiator for years. The big cats and bears are put in small cages on the back of trucks.  They spend years and years and years in these cages. They are not just in them the week the circus is in town. They spend their entire year in that cage, on the back of that truck. They are deprived of exercise, enrichment, play and all the things that, if it was the human equivalent, would make our lives meaningful.

Then you add what I think is the worst of the deprivation, which is complete social isolation. One of the key things we do is not only take these animals from the circuses or from horrible living conditions, but we very often reunite them with their own kind.

When you see these animals integrate together and are with their own again, that is the most magical moment. That is the moment when you know their lives are transforming. That is one of the things we really wanted to show in Lion Ark. How these lions become lions again. How slowly their lives get more enriched; and by the end they are stronger and fitter. They are running and playing, licking and washing each other.

Were you surprised by how, in the film, it was shown how quickly the lions started to play once they were put in a natural environment after so many years of abuse and captivity?

They adapt amazingly well. I have seen lions we have released who danced about because they have never walked on grass, and they find it extraordinary. They do retain their natural instincts. They do come out [of captivity] with problems and difficulties, but they respond to having the right environment.

Why is it that Bolivia, Ecuador and Peru can ban wild animals in circuses – but the U.S. can’t?

The US is steadily moving towards it. It is not that the US can’t. We introduced, at the end of 2011, the Traveling Animal Protection Act in Congress, which was the first such legislation to be introduced here. That legislation got some good support and a good start. It failed, but it will be reintroduced, and we expect more support.

These things can be slow, but the main thing is for people to be demanding they happen. The U.S. is a huge country and demanding federal legislation is a big task. Nevertheless, over 30 local U.S. cities and towns have ordinances prohibiting the use of wild animals in circuses.

I think the American public has no appetite for circuses, and we will see an end to it here. And once the U.S. prohibits wild animals in circuses, many, many countries will follow.

Outside of circuses where are the other areas where there is extensive animal abuse and neglect? Are there any particular project ADI is currently working on in these areas you would like to highlight?

ADI also addresses other areas of animals in entertainment including exposing cruel training methods for elephants used in movies.  Another of ADI’s core area includes working towards the elimination of animals in experiments.  Successes in this field include the prohibitions throughout Europe on cosmetics testing on animals and using chimpanzees and wild caught primates in experiments.

What specifically can people do to help?

They can spread the word by “Liking” Lion Ark The Movie on Facebook and also circulating our trailer [found] on www.lionarkthemovie.com.  They can also get involved in the campaigns by contacting Animal Defenders International at www.ad-international.org.  People can adopt the lions, and help us pay for their care. They can make donations towards the next rescue mission in Peru, and they can get involved sending letters and emails to their members of Congress to help secure legislation here in the United States.

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