A former circus lion rest inside a cage in the outskirts of Lima, Peru, Tuesday, April 26, 2016. Thirty-three lions rescued from circuses in Peru and Colombia are heading back to their homeland to live out the rest of their lives in a private sanctuary in South Africa. The largest ever airlift of lions will take place Friday and was organized and paid for by Animal Defenders International. (AP photo/Martin Mejia)

Two Lions “Freed” From Circus Poached in Africa

The notion of freedom is something we as human beings hear and talk about frequently. For many years, people have seen the freedom of animals as a beautiful and emotional symbol. From the soaring bald eagle representing freedom in the United States to the heart-warming movie “Born Free,” the freedom of animals seems to always cause an emotional reaction among the media and the general public.

On the set of the movie Born Free.

On the surface, it appears to be a no-brainer that animals being free physically is a sensation that overpowers even the most enriching and open habitats at zoos and other facilities. Some even claim that absolutely nothing that humans can do for animals will replicate the feeling of having no boundaries or limitations. But, what is not mentioned by anyone in this movement is the cost of freedom for animals. The most recent example of this came after two lions were rescued from South American circuses, only to be poached in Africa for their body parts.

Ricardo lost an eye at the circus.

In March of 2017, 60 Minutes aired a special about the rescue and release of 33 lions from abusive conditions in circuses in Columbia and Peru. In a mission led by Animal Defenders International (ADI), the lions were removed from their small cages and sent in wooden crates to a sanctuary in South Africa.  ADI said in a statement that several of the animals had been declawed, one was missing an eye, and many had broken and rotting teeth (Meet the 33, 33lions.org). There is also evidence to suggest the animals were trained using negative reinforcement and beatings. There is no excuse for conditions such as these and the animals were in grave need of help. ADI was admirable in recognizing this; however, no matter how well-intentioned they were, the extreme relocation of the animals was unnecessary, irresponsible, and ended in tragedy.

A former circus lion rest inside a cage in the outskirts of Lima, Peru, Tuesday, April 26, 2016. Thirty-three lions rescued from circuses in Peru and Colombia are heading back to their homeland to live out the rest of their lives in a private sanctuary in South Africa. The largest ever airlift of lions will take place Friday and was organized and paid for by Animal Defenders International. (AP photo/Martin Mejia)
One of the 33 lions in a cage in Peru.

After a very difficult and long journey, the 33 lions finally arrived at the Emoya Big Cat Sanctuary in South Africa in May of 2016. But tragically, 60 Minutes reported a heartbreaking update on the story yesterday: two lions (named Jose and Liso) were poisoned and poached for their bones and other body parts. The poaching of these two lions despite being in a sanctuary is unfortunately not a rare occurrence.

Cecil the lion.

In July of 2015, Cecil, the beloved lion from Hwange National Park, was lured out of his sanctuary by poachers and killed for his head. This past January, poachers cut holes in the fence of a game lodge in Limpopo to cut off the paws and heads of three male lions after feeding them poisoned meat earlier that day. Just three months prior to this incident at the same lodge, two other lions were poisoned and butchered for their bones.

Jose (left) and Liso.

So why, with so many poaching incidents within sanctuaries, would a group trying to improve the lives of these lions decide to send them to a place so dangerous? The answer is that sending the lions Africa made the humans involved feel better about themselves. As discussed earlier, nothing warms the heart of people more than the thought of an animal being free in its natural environment. Sending these animals on the largest airlift of its kind back to the native home of their wild cousins seemed so admirable and that it was the right thing to do.

A lioness plays with a male lion.

This decision was made with no regard for what was in the best interest of the animals, but rather, what would seem like a happy ending to the people involved. The animals have no way of knowing that they are in the country from which they originate, as they have minimal reasoning based only on instinct for survival (Animal Cognition, 2008). Sending them to a beautiful sanctuary in a country such as the United States would have yielded the same effect as that of one in Africa, but without a major risk of poaching. Larger reserves like the one these lions were sent to (over 19 square miles) are also much more difficult to monitor as there is just too much space to police.

One of the 33 lions rescued.

The sanctuary chosen for the lions in Africa is large, open, and is essentially a fenced off portion of the savanna, a space the organization deems “semi-wild”. But with that kind of freedom comes consequences. Animals raised in captivity lack many of the skills and biological developments that those born in the wild have learned and attained. For example, one of the lions placed in this reserve died of a botulism toxin, which was admitted by ADI to have been caused by “a lifetime of malnutrition and abuse” resulting in a “vulnerability to diseases despite rehabilitation efforts.”

A male lion in transit to Emoya.

With an understanding of this, it was incredibly inappropriate to place animals with weakened immune systems into environments where risk of exposure to disease is high. The contraction of disease among animals in sanctuaries is highly dangerous to wild populations of lions as well. Should a lion within the sanctuary contract a disease that wild lions have built an immunity to, the virus or bacteria could mutate in the sanctuary lion and spread to wild lions and kill them.

A former circus lion scratches its head against a tree inside an enclosure at Emoya Big Cat Sanctuary in Vaalwater, northern, South Africa, Sunday, May 1, 2016. Thirty-three lions rescued from circuses in Peru and Colombia are heading back to their homeland to live out the rest of their lives in a private sanctuary in South Africa. The operation is the largest ever airlift of lions, organized and paid for by Animal Defenders International.
A rescued lion enjoys a nice scratch.

Animal rights activists like those who lead this rescue have a warped sense of what freedom is. They believe that freedom is attained when an animal is put into its natural environment (Operation Spirit of Freedom, 2017). While this is true to some degree, the release of animals into reserves like Emoya does not even meet the definition activists assign to freedom. The animals are still confined by fences, they are still dependent on people, and they still cannot exhibit behaviors such as hunting. This is not necessarily a bad thing, but directly contradicts what activists are advocating against. In fact, these three limitations are exactly the same as that of a smaller, safer zoo: places that activists are opposed to. But what makes what ADI did so alarming goes beyond the contradiction of their values and goals. ADI put these animals in a much more dangerous and potentially inhumane environment than if they had put them in a zoo.

Lion in transit.

By placing them where they did, ADI most likely caused the now deceased animals more challenges than they would have faced in a smaller facility in a safer area. At a regular zoo, disease is controlled better through decontamination and vaccination, and poaching is extremely rare. Additionally, captive animals of all kinds are statistically proven to be less stressed than their wild counterparts. According to a study conducted by Shelby Proie, Bottlenose dolphins in captivity have shown lower cortisol (a stress indicator) levels than those in the wild (Proie, 2013).

Arrival at Emoya.

Another study shows that Guinea pigs are significantly less stressed than their wild counterparts, the Cavy, because of the care they receive from people (Kunzel, 1999). By choosing an option that seemed like a less stressful, happy ending to them, ADI added greater risks to the animals’ well being that probably would not have existed elsewhere. Sadly, those risks turned into reality and killed three animals.

Liso the lion.

The efforts of ADI were well-intentioned. They gave the animals proper food, water, medical care, and attempted to give them what they believed was a better quality of life. There is no doubt that the lions face a far better life now that they have been removed from their deplorable conditions. However, the loss of Jose and Liso to poaching and the death of one other lion due to disease may have been prevented had they been sent to an appropriate facility.

Relaxing in transit.

It is time for the animal rights movement to start thinking about what is truly right for the animals and not what makes the humans involved feel better. What was right for these lions was for them to be sent to smaller and more secure zoos with a very low risk of disease or poaching. Instead, the activists that led their “rescue” chose an outcome that favored the emotions of humans over the well being of the animals, a sad reminder of the unintended consequences that come with freeing animals.



The Behavioral Endocrinology of Domestication: A Comparison between the Domestic Guinea Pig (Cavia apereaf.porcellus) and Its Wild Ancestor, the Cavy (Cavia aperea)

A Systematic Review of Cortisol Levels in Wild and Captive Atlantic Bottlenose Dolphin (Tursiops truncatus),
Killer Whale, (Orcinus orca), and Beluga Whale (Delphinapterus leucas)

Animal Cognition

33 Lions

Spirit of Freedom

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