A month after 33 circus lions released from captivity in Colombia and Peru were handed over by the Animal Defense Institute (ADI) to the Emoya Big Cat Sanctuary in South Africa, The City Paper spoke with Minunette Heuser, co-owner of the Emoya sanctuary. After relocating to a new continent, we wanted to find out how “Colombia’s lions” are doing in a natural environment and back on ancestral turf?

TCP: How are the lions enjoying their newfound freedom?

Minunette Heuser: We were surprised and saddened by the fact that they’ve never had this kind of freedom. They didn’t know trees – this was the first time in their life they saw and touched trees. Each lion is reacting in a different way to this new environment. Some of them quickly explored their new home, played with the toys and things that are given in the sanctuary, and played with their companions. For some lions, it takes a little bit of time to understand the huge change, but finally, all are doing really well, and step by step they are en- joying and discovering happiness and freedom.

Can you describe what you are seeing in the bonding camps?

MH: At this first stage, it has been interesting to see the first encounters be- tween some lions that used to live separately but now can share their lives with friends or family – to see how some of these lions reacted to neighbors, whom they’ve never had, and to space. They were in different circus cages and different holding pens at the rescue centers, and so some of them have never actually seen another lion face to face, but they could hear them.

"Africa" one of the 33 rescued lions at home in South Africa. Photo: Suzanne de Jongh
“Africa” one of the 33 rescued lions at home in South Africa. Photo: Suzanne de Jongh

Each lion has its own “personality.” Some are more expressive than others, but in all of them it is possible to see how they are recovering their feline and lion nature. Also, they are discovering new smells, flavors, sounds, and feelings. They understand that they don’t have to worry about food or space.

How is the feeding carried out?

MH: It was amazing to see how quickly these lions learned that, if we come through with a vehicle, they get up and start associating the vehicle with food. They were all fed separately in the past, so we had to establish a totally new feeding program so that the alpha lions get fed first. Then we go down the hierarchy to the lion with the least say in the pride. Very quickly they showed us who has to get fed first.

How will you decide which lions will live together in their final enclosures?

MH: With the 33, we have currently identified nine families. Whether the family members, especially of the bigger groups, will all be integrated and bonded is something we cannot plan now because it is not up to us, but the individual animals. But let’s say some of them do bond and we can put them together, then they will first live a certain time together in the bonding enclosures and when they are eventually let into their permanent enclosure, they will move together as a family.

Will the lions be free to roam the entire 5,000-hectare sanctuary?

MH: No. Each little pride will live totally separate from others. They do live in the same area so they all do hear each other and some of them can actually see each other too. But they will never be mixed all together with other families or other prides, and they will never go out- side of the fence perimeter of their specific enclosure.

How big will the final enclosures be?

MH: The permanent enclosures have different sizes depending on the potential families. The minimum size is one hectare and the biggest size is currently three hectares.

Knowing that they are essentially wild animals, will the lions ever be able to recover their primitive instincts now that they are in their natural environment?

They are indeed wild animals and some of them have great instincts, but these animals will never ever be “re-wilded.” They will never ever hunt. They will always be cared for. They will always be fed. They will always have water. And they will never leave their enclosures.

What do you hope to achieve in terms of rehabilitating the lions?

MH: We hope to just achieve optimal health and that does mean that some of them will never turn into healthy lions because the damage in some is quite extensive. Our goal is for them to adapt and enjoy their new home, and live as pain- free and comfortable as possible with no discomfort, hunger, or thirst.

Will the lions be allowed to breed?

MH: These lions will not be allowed to breed. They have no conservation value and most of them would have been inbred anyway. If you allowed them to breed, there are just more lions in captivity.

This is why we’ve got bonding-adaptation phase. During this phase, once they’ve been here for a certain while and we are sure that they are stabilized we sterilize the lionesses. There are several reasons why we choose sterilization. Not only do we prevent any pregnancies, but it will tone down the hormonal changes in the lions. Also, healthwise, it’s a good thing as they get fewer infections and cervical cancer.

What has been the public’s response, both in South Africa and abroad?

MH: The interest and support from the South African and international public has been more than I expected. We have had lots of inquiries for volunteers, and there have been donations and incredible sponsorships for the project.

What is the future of the sanctuary?

MH: We would definitely like to help more animals in the future, but since it is privately owned it does depend on donations we receive and the organizations we work with. There is a need around the world for animals that have been mistreated, neglected, and abused by humans to have a sanctuary. You also just need someone to do something to make people join hands and work together.