Nine lions from war-torn Ukraine now call Colorado home after airlift rescue

The Wild Animal Sanctuary
One of the rescued lions lounging in his cage at the Bio Park Zoo in Odesa, Ukraine.

Nine lions airlifted out of Ukraine have now settled in Colorado’s Wild Animal Sanctuary.

An 11-lion pride was rescued from the Bio Park Zoo in Odesa, a port city in southern Ukraine, during the early stages of Russia’s invasion. The pack of lions arrived in Romania in May after traveling more than 600 miles. Once there, rescue officials worked out a final destination.

The Wild Animal Sanctuary in Keenesburg, a small town in Weld County, immediately offered to bring the lions into their facilities. A spokesperson for the sanctuary said their executive director worked with several global agencies to ensure the lions were resettled to permanent homes.

The Wild Animal Sanctuary
One of the rescued lionesses caged at the Bio Park Zoo in Odesa, Ukraine prior to being sedating for travel.

Once the logistics were sorted out, seven adult lions and two cubs were airlifted to Dallas, where they were then driven to Colorado. Two more were rehomed to the Simbonga Game Reserve and Sanctuary in South Africa.

Executive director Pat Craig said his organization hasn’t rescued animals from a war zone as active as Ukraine. He said many zoo animals are often abandoned when people have to evacuate. 

“Whether they're hurt by the war itself through bombing and other things, most of [the animals] will end up starving if they don't have the food supply,” Craig said. 

The lions arrived Oct. 6, and are currently adjusting to their new habitat before being let loose on a large parcel of enclosed land. 

The Wild Animal Sanctuary
A rescued lioness travels via truck convoy from Odesa, Ukraine to Targu Mures, Romania - May 24th, 2022.

“They're still in a transition stage where they're acclimating to a new environment, new language, all these things change for them,” spokesperson Derek McCormick said. “They're used to small enclosures where they come from. So we have to acclimate them and keep an eye on them.”

The sanctuary will serve as the lion’s forever homes, even if the war in Ukraine is resolved. Visitors are welcome at the sanctuary, but they may have a tough time finding the new lions. Rescued animals live on more than 10,000 acres, most of which is not viewable from the elevated sightseeing walkway. 

More than 600 rescued animals, ranging from bears to exotic cats seized from the infamous Tiger King zoo, live on the nonprofit sanctuary’s grounds.