Twenty-five lions boarded a plane bound for freedom today. Their destination: just east of Denver, where wild animals roam on acres of Colorado prairie land.
But instead of the buffalo, deer and antelope of American folklore, this stretch of earth is home to lions and tigers and bears.
After Bolivia passed a law banning live animals in traveling circuses, animal rights groups celebrated, but soon paused with the question: where will the lions, raised in captivity, be able to live a good life? Keensburg, Colo., was the answer.
Who is responsible for transforming this swatch of the American Mountain West into a safe haven for the wild cats?
Enter Pat Craig, whose dream 30 years ago to provide a home for mistreated animals has materialized in a big way on family farmland. His Wild Animal Sanctuary, a massive expanse of 320 acres of rolling grassland, welcomes the Bolivian cats with open arms and gives the animals a life-saving gift.
When spring arrives, Craig said some of the lions will experience something they were never able to before: "Two months from now, those lions will be roaming freely, enjoying freedoms they never understood -- stepping on grass for the first time in their lives."
Animal Defenders International, after conducting undercover investigations at circuses across the country, worked with Bolivian authorities to rescue the lions and transport them to the United States. "Operation Lion Ark" is the biggest rescue and airlift of lions in history and includes lions of all ages: from cubs just 3 months old, to an elderly 15-year-old.
They will join the 270 large carnivores who already call the Wild Animal Sanctuary home, the oldest and largest nonprofit sanctuary dedicated to rescuing captive and endangered large carnivores in the United States.
In November, ADI began seizing and relocating the lions from eight circuses in Bolivia to enforce the ban on live animals. The animals were taken to a temporary compound in Santa Cruz, Bolivia, where they received necessary veterinary care to begin recovery from years of abuse.
Corey Evans, a legal and political adviser for ADI, said Operation Lion Ark sets an important precendent to "show the world that ... someone will be there to step up and help relocate these animals to a safe harbor." He said he hopes today's air lift will be the first step in "changing the tone and the discussion" of live animal circus bans around the world.
Their journey is in part due to the contributions of some household names, including former "The Price Is Right" host Bob Barker. A longtime vegetarian and animal rights activist, Barker is in Denver today to welcome the lions to their new home.
"To look into those eyes, and those cubs, and to think I've played even a small part in making their lives not circuses, not those horrific conditions, and bringing them to the nearest possible thing to their natural habitat brings a lump to my throat," Barker said from his hotel before the lions arrived. He will meet the lions at the airport and travel with them to the Wild Animal Sanctuary.
The once-described "full-time animal rights activist and part-time television host," Barker's name will forever be connected with Operation Lion Ark. "I'm delighted to say they've paid me the honor of naming one of the [cubs] Bob," he said.