Yet they were Royal*

They were forced to jump through rings of fire, to walk across thin wood bridges, to sit on two paws and to run in small circles. They didn’t want to, but they did. They had to survive. So they abode to the rules of their masters and ran in circles, sat on two paws and jumped when they were ordered to.

They lived in perfect misery. Their food was thrown on the floor, where it mixed with their faeces. Drinking water was very often filthy and their manes were knotted, for they were so dirty. A miserable life.

Yet, they were royals, enslaved yes, but still kings and queens.

They were lions kept in captivity in seven or eight circuses working in rural Bolivia, mainly in the tropical lowlands, where the climate is warm and humid. Some of them had been captured in Africa when they were still young, then sold to many owners and eventually found themselves in South America. Others were born in circuses and small zoos but were still of royal blood.

The circuses presented the lions in small towns where laws and regulations could be ignored easily.

In 2009 Animal Defenders International (ADI) surveyed the use of animals in the entertainment industry in Bolivia and found a surprisingly large number of circuses owning a great variety of animals. That finding led the Government to pass a law banning the use of live animals for human entertainment. In 2010, ADI decided to rescue the animals held by circuses. A “covert” operation was then developed with the ultimate aim of rescuing the animals. ADI staff, disguised as clowns, jugglers and cleaning workers infiltrated the circuses to glean the exact number and species of animals kept, and to get photographic evidence.

The ADI, supported by the Government body in charge of biodiversity conservation -the Dirección General de Biodiversidad (DGB)- seized animals from more than seven circuses; the lions were confined in cages. All were in bad condition; they were undernourished, weak, covered by wounds and scars and suffered various diseases. One of them even had deformed bones as a result of chronic malnutrition. Another one had become so aggressive that he lunged against the bars of the cage every time a person approached it. A female that gave birth to three cubs had barely enough milk for all. One was almost unable to endure the trip to Santa Cruz due to its condition. While some owners decided to accept the laws and cede the animals, others refused and resisted. One threatened to stab the ADI and DGB staff.

Following the request of the ADI and DGB, some local workshops built new cages to transport the animals to a temporary refuge. The Bolivian blacksmiths did well on this novel work.

Circus by circus the ADI and DGB seized the lions, sometimes confiscating the cages, others compensating the owners. The lions were transferred to the newly built cages. For some towns, the seizing operations were the most exciting event had happened in many years. In some towns, children gathered for an impromptu farewell. All in all, the ADI and DGB seized 25 lions.

A “lion den” to hold them was organized in Santa Cruz to keep them until their condition improved. The lions travelled more than 800 miles by land, on difficult and dangerous roads to get to their destination. Transportation was carried out with the utmost care, as having an accident with a cargo of lions on winding roads that brush the edge of deep cliffs would have been unwelcome. When the lions came under ADI’s protection, they were dewormed, and given proper food, vitamins, clean water and more space. They were also given good bedding and places to rest but, most important of all, the shows were over. No more jumping, crawling, running and sitting on two paws at their tamer’s orders.

While this was happening, a large, permanent refuge was being built in Denver, Colorado. The lions would go from summer in the tropics to winter in the North. Special lodges had to be built to help the animals grow accustomed to the hostile winter.

Finally, the lions were transferred to cages appropriate for plane travel. The ADI team ensured that while every animal was in one cage, families could be together, animals could see each other and mothers would travel with their cubs. An old DC-130, a veteran from the Viet-Nam war, took off from Santa Cruz and arrived twelve hours later in Denver. There, the ADI team and a number of supporters–including the renowned TV conductor Bob Barker and the CSI star, Jorja Fox, were awaiting their arrival.

The lions were set free in what is now their permanent refuge. They have formed families. Most have recovered from their injuries and illnesses. Far, very far from Africa, they are finally free from the circus and the tamers. They cannot be reintegrated into the wilderness, for they lack the hunting and surviving abilities a lion must have, nor they will be allowed to reproduce, since the population would increase, posing a further problem. However, they will live a much better life.

I wonder if those lions, when the sunset comes, remember their African savannas. Maybe they do, and in their dreams they see themselves hunting, fighting, killing and dying as the royals they once were. After all, they still have blue blood.

Gonzalo Flores (


This story was told in a film titled “Lion Ark”, directed by Tim Phillips. It was awarded seven awards, including the Mississippi Film Festival’s Best Documentary and the San Diego Film Festival’s Audience Choice Best Documentary. 

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s