Animal Defenders International


Animal Defenders International

An epic journey to freedom for 17 rescued circus big cats

Posted: 22 January 2020. Updated: 23 January 2020


January 21, 2020 marks the beginning of a wonderful new life for 12 tigers and 5 lions at the ADI Wildlife Sanctuary (ADIWS) in South Africa, the big cats relocated to their forever home after being rescued from a life of circus suffering in Guatemala by Animal Defenders International (ADI) .

The animals’ journey to freedom marks the successful conclusion of the organization’s 18-month Operation Liberty mission, during which ADI assisted authorities with enforcement of Guatemala’s animal circus ban, ending circus suffering in yet another country.

The epic journey to freedom began on January 18 at the ADI Temporary Rescue Center in Guatemala, where the animals have been cared for since their rescue. One by one, the 17 big cats were coaxed into their individual travel crates. Once secured and given time to settle, their journey of a lifetime got underway. The travel crates were lifted onto the trucks to take the animals to board the Operation Liberty Flight from La Aurora International Airport in Guatemala City.

During the flight, which made stops in Mexico, Belgium, and Qatar to load and unload cargo before reaching its final destination in South Africa, the big cats were monitored by veterinarian Dr Howard Rosner and provided with in-flight meals and water by ADI founders and rescue team leaders Jan Creamer and Tim Phillips.

After more than 34 hours flying, on the morning of January 21 the animals touched down at OR Tambo International Airport in Johannesburg to an eager audience of reporters, and ADIWS and airport staff.


The Operation Liberty Flight was largely funded by nonprofit leader, whose fundraising efforts included a competition for supporters to name two male tiger cubs (Max and Stripes) who were rescued by ADI with their family from a junkyard where the circus had been keeping them.

For the final leg of their journey home, the animals traveled once again by truck to the 455-acre ADIWS in Free State. After arriving at the sanctuary, during the late afternoon of January 21, a fierce storm blew in as ADI began unloading the big cats. Although it was possible to release young tigers Max and Stripes – who after their first cautious steps prowled opposite lengths of the huge habitat perimeter before bursting into a run when they spotted one another – and their father Itza, the release of the other animals had to be abandoned until this morning due to the worsening weather.

With the storm passing, and the sun shining, lions Kimba, Sasha, and Tomás were the first to be released on January 22, followed by Tanya and her doting partner Tarzan, and then the remaining tigers Sasha and Kumal, Sun and Moon, Luna and Jade, and Sombra, Bimbi, and Lupe.

The animals, once confined to bare cages about the size of a queen size bed, now enjoy natural grassland enclosures with native trees and bushes, platforms, dens, and night houses. The 5 lions have acres to enjoy in the natural homeland of their ancestors, while the 12 tigers have a huge 650,000sqft Tiger Territory complete with a series of spring-fed pools for the tigers to play in.


Banning the use of animals in circuses in April 2017, the government of Guatemala invited ADI to help enforce the law after it came into effect 12 months later, as several circuses were defying the law. With the organization having successfully completed similar missions in Bolivia, Colombia, and Peru, ADI sprang into action. Launching Operation Liberty in May 2018, ADI quickly established a Temporary Rescue Center in the country to care for the rescued animals until they could be relocated to their forever homes. All of the animals have received veterinary treatment since arriving in ADI’s care, with several experiencing health issues due to inbreeding, and others requiring dental surgery to repair damaged teeth.

The first two lions (Kimba and Sasha) were voluntarily handed over by Circo Navarro in May 2018. In June 2018, two more lions (Tarzan and Tanya) and nine tigers (Sun, Moon, Luna, Jade, Sasha and Kumal – and Kimba, Max and Simba, who have been relocated to a US sanctuary) were surrendered by Circo Hermanos Ponce but they refused to hand over a family of seven tigers. Handed to a zoo after the circus ban, ADI was given just 20 minutes’ notice that another lion, Tomas, was on his way to the ADI Temporary Rescue Center in September 2018, the zoo no longer able to care for him. In November 2018, ADI returned to Circo Hermanos Ponce to rescue the remaining tiger family. Tragically, one cub had since died, but the two surviving cubs Max and Stripes were removed from the junkyard where they were being kept along with their parents Itza and Sombra and aunts Bimbi and Lupe.

The ADIWS is now home to 43 big cats—all but one rescued from circuses in Latin America. Due to the abuse these animals have suffered and their years of confinement, it is not possible to release them in the wild. Most of the animals were declawed in the circus, a cruel mutilation to remove the claws.

ADI is urgently calling for donations to support the lifetime care of the animals, which will be a great many years for youngsters Max and Stripes:
Donate US $ | Donate UK £ | Donate Euros €

Find out more about the ADI Wildlife Sanctuary, how to volunteer and adopt animals here.

Find out more about the ADI Operation Liberty mission to enforce the ban on animals in circuses in Guatemala.

ADI is thankful to for its very special support, as well as Dr Lo Sprague (President of The Guibord Center), Dr Betsy Coville, Priority Worldwide, Imperial Logistics, the departments of Unidad de Bienestar Animal MAGA (UBA) and Conap Consejo Nacional de Áreas Protegidas, ADI’s animal protection partners in Guatemala, ARCAS, and the Guatemala government for passing the ban, and everyone who donated towards the historic rescue mission.

© Animal Defenders International 2020