These lions were confiscated in Cuzco after Peru banned wild animals in circuses.

(Photo: Courtesy of the Wild Animal Sanctuary)

Thirty-three lions removed from circuses in Peru and Colombia will get their first taste of freedom on the Colorado plains any day now when they arrive at the Wild Animal Sanctuary in Keenesburg.

Pat Craig, the director of the sanctuary, says other than performances, the animals have lived most of their lives in cages.

“Back when circuses started they didn’t tour all year round," he says. "Animals didn’t spend anywhere near the time on the road that they do now.  They can spend all year in a transport crate. It was never designed to live in.”

This lion, which has lost an eye, was confiscated in Peru.

(Photo: Courtesy of the Wild Animal Sanctuary)

Tim Phillips of Animal Defenders International, a non-profit, worked with the Peruvian and Colombian governments to pass bans.

“It’s a huge operation to get the laws and go to the circuses and get the animals,” he says.

The logistics of bringing the animals to Colorado are daunting. A Boeing 767 has been chartered and special crates were constructed. The flight will leave Lima, Peru with 24 felines, stop in Colombia to pick up nine more, and then head for Denver International Airport.  Former TV game show host Bob Barker contributed $500,000 to help fund the airlift.

When the plane lands in Colorado, it will be met by a virtual army of inspectors, including officials from Immigration and Customs and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. When animal advocates have cleared the paperwork, the lions will be loaded onto trucks and driven to their new home in Keenesburg.

The Wild Animal Sanctuary has been preparing for months to accommodate the new lions, building new habitats including dens and specialized fencing, at a cost more than $250,000.

Lions at The Wild Animal Sanctuary in Keenesburg.

(Photo: Courtesy of the Wild Animal Sanctuary)

The Wild Animal Sanctuary has been criticized for its fundraising tactics in the past. When donations dipped in 2005 as givers focused on helping the victims of Hurricane Katrina, Craig stated that he might have to shut down and possibly euthanize animals if money wasn’t raised quickly.

Any discord appears to have blown over.

“I believe its the best captured circus animal sanctuary in the world,” Phillips says.  “There’s something very special that Pat’s doing, which is building up the animals in a proper pride." 

The Wild Animal Sanctuary in Keenesburg covers 720 acres and is home to more than 400 rescued lions, tigers, bears, wolves and other large carnivores.  In 2011 it took in 25 circus lions from Bolivia after that country became the first in the world to ban wild animals in circuses.  “The Bolivian lions are doing well,” says Craig.