Animal Defenders International (ADI) recently hosted the Canadian premier of Lion Ark, a documentary that takes a raw and intense look at ADI’s work in Bolivia to track down and rescue all animals being kept in illegal circuses. Despite the serious nature of the film Lion Ark is truly a feel-good story filled with hope and, it gives us a look at what can happen when humans decide animals should no longer be exploited as an ‘act’ under the Big Top.
Prior to the screening I sat down with ADI’s Rescue Team Leaders and founders Jan Creamer and Tim Phillips to talk about the film, circuses, their rescue work and why ADI will never leave an animal behind.
For those who don’t know, what is Lion Ark about?
JC Lion Ark tells the story of the rescue of 25 lions from Bolivia following ADI’s undercover investigation of the suffering of animals in circuses and a campaign to get animal circuses banned. It shows how we worked with local wildlife officials and police to seize the animals once legislation was passed in Bolivia. The law gave circuses a year to stop using animals and for those circuses that defied the law, there were 8 of them, ADI went in to seize the animals.
TP It’s a film people shouldn’t be afraid to watch it – come to see it, cheer on the lions, and also enjoy some moments that will make you laugh out loud. It shows what can be achieved when people pull together to help animals and sometimes in the least expected places.
What was the emotional and physical impact like on those working on this rescue?
JC There was the stress of long journeys over mountains, jungles and various circumstances and, there was tension around rescuing the animals, worrying would the circus find out that we were coming and would they escape. Then when you finally see the animals themselves it’s just an enormous sense that we have to get them, we have to save them there can be no failure. That’s the biggest emotion we had. It’s a lot of pressure and we have to be determined that we do not leave these animals, there is that one chance that if we leave without them we have lost them forever.
Are there any lions in particular whose story stood out during the rescue?
TP Interesting that during the making of the Lion Ark we filmed all the lions everyday and we were able to see how they changed. With these large groups of lions you got to see their different personalities and you noticed how they were like people’s dogs and cats, there were playful ones and timid ones. There was a lioness called India and she had never been out of a tiny cage, it was the size of a single bed and she was frightened to leave it. Many of these animals were frightened to leave their cage so we thought she was going to be the ‘story’ but slowly this incredibly aggressive lion called Colo Colo emerged as the hero. He tried to attack us and was defiant to the end but we all warmed to him because he’d never been broken by the circus, so it’s especially poignant when he goes free at the end.
It’s been a number of years since the rescue, can you say that your work in Bolivia is done?
JC In terms of animal circuses in they are done, Bolivia has a ban on all domestic and wild animals in circuses. When circuses try to enter the country with animals then they won’t be allowed to take them into perform. Where there have been circuses trying to travel with animals we are pleased that the government is determined to enforce the law to ensure there are no animals performing in a circus.
TP ADI tries to rigorously enforce these laws like we did in Bolivia, and because of public support others saw these bans could be successful, we then did the same thing in Peru and have begun operations in Colombia. By going after all the circuses we do not leave the country until we have rescued every single animal so it’s a really clear messages – ‘if you come with wild animals in your circuses to Peru or Bolivia they are going to seized by ADI. So it completely removes the incentive of trying to get around the law, in Peru we tracked and chased circuses for almost two years. Anyone who slipped through the net we found and then rescued every single animal.
Why do you think audiences have been so receptive to Lion Ark?
JC Lion Ark was done differently, we wanted to tell the story of the animals and make them the stars, the film is really a mixture of facts and genuine emotions. We also wanted people to get up close and personal to feel that they had a direct connection with the lions on the screen. You see the animals as we found them and you see the joy of the animals as they start to become individuals again. They are no longer terrified shells and they develop into lions – I think that’s what grips people. We are just an ordinary group of people who wanted to make a difference for animals and we chose not to go the route of looking for a celebrity to do a voice over, we decided to make the film raw and I think that is also part of its appeal.
A example of ADI’s commitment to ensure no animal is left behind is the rescue of Mufasa the mountain lion in Peru. What was that like?
JC We had seen him years earlier during the investigation and what was interesting on that particular day is that we had gone to get other animals but didn’t realize he was there. It was the truck that we recognized as Tim and I had seen him in the truck years before when he appeared in our investigation. We didn’t know whether we would find him, but when we drove up to pick up the other animals we realized it was him so Tim and I jumped out, stood in front of and behind the pick up to stop him from getting away.
TP You are going into remote and challenging places in terms of surveillance with these rescues. Mufasa was the last circus seizure but they almost got away, we were there from about 8:30 AM to sunset and that was when we got the animals out. It was a really aggressive confrontation, we had the riot police turn up, but we would not leave until we had those animals no matter what abuse or threats were held against us, our team will hold the line. Mufasa, who was a very old man by then, had the final part of his life back in the forest where he belonged. Sadly he passed away eight months after the rescue, however he did so back in the forest and not on metal in the back of the truck.
Why do you think it is important to highlight the rescues of big cats in circuses?
TP All animals suffer in circuses, whether wild or domestic – lions, tiger, camels, zebras and so on suffer appallingly from the deprivation. There seems to be more violence inflicted and more frustration of movement for some of these wild animals, but all animals suffer when they are living in temporary accommodations or when moving from place to place whether in the U.S., Europe or South America – all the animals live the same.
The violence and some of the suffering we uncover goes unseen, for example when a lion gets aggressive or is being trained they are usually coming at the person front first. They get hit with metal bars and get broken teeth (almost all the lions we rescued in Peru had their teeth smashed) and those teeth are never treated, so some of these animals sit there in their cage in pain for life or, if the teeth become infected it can kill them. Another lion had been beaten about the head and was brain-damaged he had no sense of distance – so there is a huge amount abuse of these animals.
It is important for people to get behind getting rid of all these animals from circuses and not favor certain species as there is no evidence that any animal suffers more or less than others, camels are treated poorly, lions and tigers live metal boxes on the back trucks and they are regularly beaten. Just recently one tiger got out in Georgia and was shot, that’s their fate if they get out or become to aggressive, or if they just behave in a minor way as nature intended then they will be probably be beaten or possibly killed.
What are your thoughts on the Ringling Brothers circus?
JC They have had every opportunity to change their acts. ADI did a study where it showed that in an average two-hour show the animals occupy about 15 minutes – it is very easy to change to human acts. So Ringling Brothers had the choice, they have known their audience is going down, they knew they could replace the animals with human acts and the audience would like that because they disapproved of the animals, but they chose not to. They would rather close than move with the times.
Can you talk about the incident that took the lives of two of the rescued lions?
JC ADI took 33 lions to Africa at the tail end of our Columbia and Peru rescue, nine from Columbia and 24 lions from Peru. We wanted all of these animals to go back to their natural habitats wherever possible and we were pleased to do that for all except the Tiger Hoover who had to a go a lovely sanctuary in Florida. The 33 lions went to Emoya Big Cat Sanctuary in South Africa where we have been caring for them ever since. Tragically, we suffered a recent devastating loss when a few months ago poachers broke into the sanctuary and killed two of the lions José and Liso.
This is something we have been tracking and we told the South African government when they made their decision to continue the lion bone trade, that it would paint a target on the heads of all of captive animals including ones in sanctuaries. There’s been a huge increase this year in attacks in animals held privately in sanctuaries because they look like easy targets and although sanctuaries have been increasing their security it is a huge risk for all of us.
What precautions are you now taking at the sanctuary?
JC We swore that we that when they killed José and Liso that we would be relentless in our pursuit of the criminals and, we have continued to work with the strong police investigation currently going on. We have increased our security massively, it costs about $7,000 a month on physical security and that’s men with guns. If we sense the threat is increasing and getting closer to us we have improved electronic security at various levels and men will sleep close to the lions. We want people to know that there are two important targets, the first is, José and Liso are going to get justice by ensuring we catch and prosecute the people responsible and second, we have absolute top security for our lions to make sure everyone else is safe. That has been our focus for the last two months.
Since the poaching incident is ADI rethinking South Africa as a safe haven for lions?
TP There is simply not enough homes for these animals around the world. If we say these animals don’t got to Africa – they aren’t going to be rescued and will end up dying in circus cages. The reality is this is where these animals live and we must get used to protecting them in their natural habitat otherwise it’s going to be used as an excuse to continue to plunder animals from the wild, put them in western zoos and say they are going to be safer.
There were no reports in the media between 2014 and 2015 of any lions being killed this way in private sanctuaries, then in 2016 there were 18 attacks, this year there have been 22. It’s a massive escalation and is already spilling into other countries. We must catch these people and we must boost the security, but we cannot throw our hands up and simply say we will send them all to the U.S.
People must think of how important these very big scale rescues are, they are not symbolic and just rescuing worst cast, we are trying to eliminate entire industries and make sure it doesn’t happen again. If we are going to do that we need as many homes open to these animals as possible and you cannot beat their natural habitats if available.
JC We have to take on the poachers, the animal protection movement has to now stand up and say we are going to take them on and crush poaching. We must also work to crush the markets for wildlife products like lions bones, Chinese medicine and trophies. All markets must be closed in the both Western and Asian countries.
How can people get involved in helping circus animals?
JC The best way is to go to ADI’s Facebook page and take the actions we suggest – send emails, write letters, educate, speak to legislatures, use social media, reach out to others in school or at work and get them on board. If everyone works together and supports ADI in one way then, we can save these animals. It’s about the numbers of people speaking up and deciding enough is enough, as well as taking steps to ensure governments protect these animals.
TP If people can support us financially it makes a huge difference. We are essentially running a global sanctuary and these large-scale rescues mean no one is left behind. It’s a huge challenge and ADI is a small organization where we empty entire countries, we did that in Peru with people donating $10, $20, $30 at a time. If people can host a small or large fundraiser, adopt one of our animals or donate it makes a massive difference. If they can do that we will go out to rescue these animals and enforce these laws.
ADI has launched, with the support of Moby, the José and Liso anti-poaching fund to make sure the poachers are caught and to create wider anti-poaching initiatives. If people can support this initiative, we can ensure all funds will go to directly to this fight.
Lion Ark is now available on DVD