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.
"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.
The Wild Animal Sanctury was born after Craig, at just 19, knew something had to be done about the treatment of animals in captivity. While working at a zoo, he saw several animals euthanized because there was no room or resources to keep them. He took matters into his own hands, and converted family farmlands into the Sanctuary. His first month in operation, Craig received 300 letters from zoos across the country. "From that day forward, we were knee deep in rescuing animals."
There's something special about the large animals, he said. "They can tell when people are trying to help them, they're ecstatic."
Watching the lions go through the steps of rehabilitation, and experiencing new things for the first time, will be like "raising a child," Craig said. "It's pretty amazing to watch them grow and develop."
To learn more about the Wild Animal Sanctuary, click here