Inside the Daring Mission to Rescue Wild Animals From a Peruvian Circus

Animal Defenders International assists wildlife authorities in seizures.

ByABC News
September 9, 2015, 3:32 PM

— -- British activists Tim Phillips and Jan Creamer raced through the Peruvian jungle moments after receiving word that a “lost” circus they had been trailing for months had just been spotted in the arid outskirts of Sullana.

The couple says this circus, called the Koreander Circus, was one of the last defiant ones in Peru that refuses to give up the wild animals they use for its circus acts. It is the latest target of a national, multi-agency operation to enforce a new ban on wild animal acts in circuses across the country.

“The stakes are high for the animals. That’s the way we see it,” Creamer said. “If we don’t get them – that’s it. They die where they are… we can’t afford to fail them.”

Phillips and Creamer are the driving force behind Animal Defenders International (ADI), an animal rights group based in the United Kingdom assisting authorities in Peru.

“Nightline” was granted exclusive access to the final days of ADI’s operation to rescue circus animals throughout Peru, which included going after the Koreander Circus, an operation that led to a tense standoff between wildlife authorities and the circus animal owners.

This story is part of a YouTube channel called timesXtwo, a joint venture between "Nightline" and BBC Digital Current Affairs.

Phillips and Creamer have been at the forefront of the global animal rights movement for decades, making it their life’s mission to rescue circus animals and place them in sanctuaries.

“The problem in the circuses here is that lack of understanding of the suffering they’re causing just by the way the animal is being kept,” Creamer said.

ADI’s undercover investigations documenting horrific abuses have inspired several Latin American countries, including Bolivia, Colombia, El Salvador, Panama and now Peru to outlaw wild animal acts in circuses.

“There’s a routine and casual violence towards animals in circuses to keep them subjugated and keep them in their place,” Phillips said. “These animals are chained. They’re kept in tiny deplorable conditions. Teeth snapped off. Claws cut off … and I think people have said enough is enough.”

Creamer said Latin America is way ahead of the U.S. in terms of ending the use of animals in traveling circuses. But actually enforcing the law is a whole different challenge, and often times angry circus owners are desperate to hold on to their biggest stars, like lions and tigers.

After the animals are seized, they brought to ADI’s Spirit of Freedom center near Lima, Peru, where they receive medical care and much needed playtime.

“We give them footballs and toys and try and keep them exercised and try and get the guys to play with them every now and again,” Creamer said, referring to a lioness living at the center.

The couple had 24 lions and more than 40 primates living at their center when “Nightline” was there, and many carried scars from abuse. After caring for the rescued animals, Creamer and Phillips then find them new homes. The monkeys were taken to the Pilpintuwasi Wildlife Sanctuary deep in Peru’s rainforest, and the big cats will be taken to a nature reserve in South Africa.

When Phillips and Creamer arrived on-site at the Koreander circus, along with a few wildlife officials, they immediately spotted a mountain lion and condor -- animals forbidden under the new laws.

Phillips, Creamer and the officials tried to convince the Valderama family to surrender their animals, but they refused, insisting that they have never harmed them. Outnumbered by circus workers, ADI thought they would have to abandon their mission.

But then reinforcements, including the local prosecutor, arrived and stepped in.

“[It’s] a bit like the cavalry coming,” Phillips said. “I suddenly look up and there's a little truck coming and it's full of riot police … They all jump out with the riot shields.”

The issue, the prosecutor told the circus owners, was not how the animals were being treated, but that the circus had them in the first place. The circus negotiated with law enforcement for about an hour, but after being threatened with arrest and imprisonment, they relented, and agreed to release the animals.

As the animals were rounded up, the family appeared to be heartbroken, but Creamer has little sympathy for them.

“The only empathy I feel for them is that they’re losing something they’re fond of… but I feel more sorry for the animals,” she said. “The animals are the real victims. They’re really suffering."