"This organization and this legislation is opening a door that we hope will open wide around the world" through the work of ADI, Barker said. "I'm proud to be a part of this and I've been blessed in a lot of ways, in that I can help the animals around the world now, and I look forward to doing this as long I live."
With him in Denver is Jorja Fox, known for her role as Sara Sidle on "CSI." Fox, who has been involved with ADI for five years, described the animals' journey from circus to freedom. She was there for ADI's first lion air lift from Bolivia in May, when a lion family was transported to northern California.
After seeing photos and video of the lions during their rehabilitation and transport, Fox said she's most excited to see Kimba, the 15-year-old veteran circus lion rescued from a zoo where he never left his cage.
"There's something about this elderly lion getting a second shot," she said. "My biggest challenge today is not to get too emotional."
Though financial donations are needed to fund the organization's efforts, it "takes an army" of people to care for the animals once they're settled at the Sanctuary, Craig said. The small staff of 12 is supplemented by over 100 volunteers. Those 200 extra hands are a necessity: just feeding the large animals requires 17,000 pounds of food each week.
In order to help acclimatize the lions to cooler temperatures than they're used to, the Wild Animal Sanctuary constructed a huge indoor facility. "That was one of the big parts of the equation. If they wanted to bring lions from Bolivia, especially in February, we'd have to build buildings for them and wait for spring," Craig said.
After observation, they will be released into an 80-acre outdoor enclosure; Colorado's natural grasslands and lakes mimic the lions' natural habitat. Already home to two prides of lions, the Sanctuary has underground dens that stay a mild 60 degrees year round, where the lions can cool down in the summer and warm up in the winter.
Lions are the only social cats, Craig said. "They want to live together, and they can't really function well without having some hierarchy and order that makes their life seem like they're working right."
Some of the rescued lions already have that order. Eight lived together in a cramped trailer just 8 feet wide. Others were rescued as singles or pairs and will need to adjust to living in a pride. One, India, had never interacted with other lions before her rescue.
Lions have "the inner desire to want to be together, and live with that structure," Craig said. "It's nice they'll be able to live in these family groups and function like a wild pride of lions."
The Wild Animal Sanctuary has two goals: rescuing animals and educating the public about the captive animal crisis.
The experience of visiting the animals at the Sanctuary isn't like an average trip to the zoo. While watching a pride of lions living freely, visitors read their stories and learn where each animal came from. Some of the tales are heart-breaking, Craig said -- neglected pets rescued from garages or basements of homes of overwhelmed or abusive owners.