Maria was the first, and then came Rosita. Soon other members of a pride of eight lions, rescued last fall from a life of deprivation in a Bolivian circus, braved their way out of their shelter at the Wild Animal Sanctuary and into a spring snow shower. “It’s something they’ve never seen, not to mention grass and dirt, but snow,” said Pat Craig, executive director of the sanctuary near Keenesburg.
This pride, or family group, was the first of the 25 circus lions airlifted from Bolivia this year to be released into four specially built lion habitats that cover 80 acres. There are four prides in the group, each of which will have access to 20 acres of habitat. In Keenesburg, the female lions eased out first, lured by hunks of raw chicken and turkey thrown just beyond the shelter walls. The head of the pride, a 6-year-old male named Bam Bam, eventually made his appearance and immediately began staking out his turf. The other prides will be released from their enclosures into the habitats as they grow more confident in the coming weeks.
In November and December, a team from Animal Defenders International working with Bolivian officials raided every circus in the country, rescuing animals in the most wide-ranging enforcement action of its kind, said ADI president Jan Creamer. “When we arrived, there was a huge confrontation. The circus owner pulled out a knife and then slashed the tires of the vehicle we were loading the lions into,” Creamer said. “Eventually we calmed the situation down, changed the wheels and took the lions to safety.” In addition to the lion airlift, the work of “Operation Lion Ark” also resulted in Bolivia banning the use of all animals in traveling circuses.
The arrival of the Bolivian lions in the U.S. on February 16th drew national attention. Since they arrived in Keenesburg, the lions have lived in a special 15,000-square-foot, 44- foot-tall biosphere where they have become acclimated to living outside of a cramped cage. They also encountered snow in small open-air enclosures adjacent to the lion house a few times over the winter. “They were running around, rolling around in it,” Craig said. “They were having a good time.”
On Thursday, after just a few minutes of gingerly inching their way through the enclosure barrier into the habitat, the lions were bounding over the terrain, nipping at one another and nosing around their new surroundings. It wasn’t long before the sun was shining on their backs. “I think they are going to like it here,” Craig said.