Thirty-three former circus lions are finally walking upon the ground of their ancestors after a life spent in cruel captivity.

Rescued from circuses in Colombia and Peru, the 33 malnourished, declawed and mutilated lions were airlifted from Lima to O.R. Tambo International Airport in Johannesburg, from which they made their final trip to the Emoya Cat Sanctuary in Limpopo province, South Africa.

The rescues were initiated by the non-profit Animal Defenders International (ADI), which collaborated with both the Colombian and Peruvian governments in changing — and enforcing — laws preventing the trafficking and use of wild animals in circus acts. Colombian circuses voluntarily freed nine captive lions, while 24 had to be retrieved via surprise roundups in Peru.

What’s it like to witness a liberated lion?

“Magical,” says Tim Phillips, vice president of ADI. “These animals have never, until today, walked on grass and soil, and smelt the ground and soil. When you see them rubbing against the trees, that’s the first time they’ve ever done that.”

 

Although the big cats have returned to their natural habitat, their life spent abroad — isolated, abused and neglected — needed to be taken into careful consideration for their rehabilitation to be successful.

“These lions are now in their phase one enclosures, where they basically will stay for six months to a year,” confirmed Savannah Heuser, co-owner of the Emoya Cat Sanctuary. “This is their adaption time, which is the most crucial … so they need to be monitored quite closely.”

Since the lions have never had physical contact with their own family, Minunette Heuser, Savannah’s mother and co-founder of the sanctuary, says the next steps involve getting them used to their new environment and slowly reintroducing them to their kin and other lions to see which relationships work out.

Each of the nine enclosures is filled with trees, natural veld, water troughs, and of course, bursting with natural African smells and sounds — all of which are completely unfamiliar to these lions.

Their diet won’t include freshly caught prey, as having been born and bred in captivity, stripped of their natural wild instincts, the animals do not possess any type of survival skills such as hunting. Therefore, they will be fed game meat for the rest of their lives.

“The lions to where they belong,” Savannah happily declared. “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.”

Thanks to the dedication and hard work of animal activists, these lions have been given a second lease on life, a life that they can hopefully still remember is theirs for the taking.

For updates on the lions visit 33lions.org or www.facebook.com/EmoyaBigCats