Animal Defenders International


Animal Defenders International

Welcome to Paradise - Bolivian Circus Rescue

Posted: 4 November 2010. Updated: 16 April 2015


Late at night in San Francisco Airport, with two transport trucks waiting nearby, film and camera crews at the ready, ADI Ambassador Jorja Fox and the ADI Rescue Team on hand with supplies of water, one of the runways at SFO was about to play host to a contingent of lions flying in from Bolivia.

As the aircraft touched down, the level of excitement hit fever pitch: after months of negotiations, the four lions had finally made it: Camba, Simba, Bambek and Dactari were going to a new home. It had been a hard, hard week with challenges every step of the way.

It had been our most ambitious and complicated rescue mission ever, but it was the culmination of five years of investigative and campaign work, leading up this amazing moment. Our field officers had infiltrated Bolivian circuses and caught the brutality on camera; the campaign was launched and Bolivia gave us the world’s first national ban on all animals in circuses. Now we had rescued the first animals from Bolivia’s circuses and brought them to freedom.

Actress and campaigner Jorja Fox and the ADI team had barely slept for days and would not sleep this night. But as the aircraft rumbled to a halt and the cargo doors opened to reveal the precious cargo of lion crates, it was all worth it. Here was everything we fight for, representing the undercover investigations, the campaigning and lobbying to secure new laws, overcoming the logistical difficulties, and giving animals a new life.

When the lions were on the tarmac and the crates opened they began to roar – first Bambek and then everyone. This time they were roaring freedom.
Handed over

In the last issue of Animal Defender we reported on the campaign for the ban on animal circuses in Bolivia and the five lions and a baboon being handed to ADI as the first Bolivian circus went animal-free.

As we go to print, preparations are being made to relocate Tilin the baboon to the Lakeview Primate Sanctuary in the UK – but for the lions, the road from Bolivia to California was quite a journey.

We took charge of the animals in Cochabamba, a fairly remote city in Bolivia, where the authorities requested we keep the lions until they could be permanently relocated. This meant building a temporary quarantine facility and involved protracted negotiations with various levels of local and national government. In both logistical and political terms, this was a difficult location.
The animals came into our hands, skinny, with shaggy hair, malnourished from a poor diet. Our first task was nutrition, health tests and the animals were treated for internal parasites. In fact, since arriving in the US one of the lions was found to be suffering from a shellfish parasite, very unusual, and something not killed by the normal anti-parasite treatments, however he is now recovering well.
The lions were put on a high-quality food regime, with nutritional supplements. The local veterinary surgeon coordinated and monitored on the ground, under the direction of veterinary surgeon Dr Mel Richardson.

Initially, the animals all remained in their beast wagon (their cage on a truck), in which they had lived all their lives, while permissions were obtained and the temporary facility built. This had to be made into a quarantine unit to satisfy the local health authorities. Unfortunately due to threats from locals, including local “animal lovers” who threw stones at the animals, a perimeter fence had to be erected and security guards employed.

Meanwhile, several thousand miles away at the Performing Animal Welfare Society sanctuary in California, work began on construction of a state of the art ADI-funded habitat – a home for life.

The logistical and bureaucratic difficulties mounted – delays in getting permits, which had to be re-issued several times; airline strikes prevented vital documents getting to their destination on time; delays in personnel reaching the animals; a volcanic eruption closing down airspace around the world; strikes and riots across Bolivia, with mountain roads blocked. Then during the final few days, technical difficulties at the local airport meant that the animals could not be loaded into the aircraft; after several days another aircraft was found, but that developed a hydraulics failure.

The journey begins

As the rescue unfolded, we deployed two teams to ensure everything went smoothly, a rescue team in Bolivia and a reception team in San Francisco.
ADI President Jan Creamer, Supporter Relations Director Lisa Mitchinson and vet Dr Mel Richardson, flew down to work with the ADI Bolivia team in Cochabamba.
Vice President Tim Phillips travelled from Los Angeles with the US team to oversee operations in San Francisco. CSI actress and ADI Ambassador Jorja Fox, who had written personally to Bolivia’s President Morales when the ban was passed, joined the ADI Rescue Team.

Daily video diaries kept everyone updated with events; these were put on our rescue blog, YouTube, Facebook and Twitter. Jorja Fox provided video updates of the status of the US preparations. The diary is now available on DVD and online.

In Bolivia, the team hit the ground running. The animals were checked by Dr Mel and given the all clear to fly, travel crates were constructed and tested; it was all systems go, for loading on the Sunday and a flight to San Francisco via Medellin, Colombia.

Then on the Friday afternoon, the technical staff at Cochabamba airport reported that they were not able to lift the lions onto the aircraft, and it would take over a week to get other equipment. We went into the weekend utterly dejected.

A feverish search ensued, for alternative aircraft, or airports. A senior Technical Engineer from Boeing advised the ADI US team which of their aircraft could take the crates, supplying diagrams and specifications for us to review as we assessed flight options.

The ‘other airport’ option was not good. It would take about 18-24 hours to drive the lions through the mountains; there was potential for rockslides and strike protestors were blocking many roads. New permits to leave Bolivia would need to be issued; these had already taken months to obtain.

In San Francisco, there was a different headache. President Obama was coming to town. San Francisco Airport – who proved to be the most helpful and co-operative airport we have ever worked with – understandably did not want a bunch of lions being disembarked at the same time as the President!

On day six, the team in Bolivia secured a new flight with Bolivia’s TAB airlines from Cochabamba via Panama, to arrive on the Thursday, two days after the President. The excellent team at SFO then generously allowed the lions to use the same unloading spot as Air Force One!

With less than 12 hours to go and everything for the move in place, we were notified that our aircraft had suffered a hydraulic failure and had been turned back. After several heart-stopping hours a replacement was secured, although the six-hour delay would push our SFO arrival into the night. It was all systems go.

It was always important that this rescue publicized the suffering of animals in traveling circuses in the U.S and worldwide. By now the operation was attracting massive media attention in South America, with regular Bolivian TV updates.

Take Off

In the early hours of the morning, the lions were loaded into their individual travel crates. Camba first, followed by the three brothers. They were then lifted by crane onto trucks. The Cochabamba police were wonderful, closing roads and providing the convoy with an escort all the way to the airport.

Camba was nervous and was shifting in her crate but settled when she heard Bambek, Dactari and Simba calling out their locations. After a long wait on the tarmac, before being loaded, all of the lions talked to each other, first one, then another, until finally all four joined in the morning roaring – farewell Bolivia.

This was a cargo aircraft so the team had access to the animals throughout the flight, giving them their first drink of water at 35,000 feet, heading north. Periodically the lions would call to each other, checking each other’s location, and the settle down for a few hours. Members of the crew, unused to flying in an aircraft with four lions roaring around the empty cabin, anxiously checked back each time to be reassured that the lions were definitely still in their crates! During refuelling in Panama the San Francisco team got news that everything was going well and cell phone pictures of the journey poured in.


9pm at San Francisco Airport, the gantry that had been set up for the President was bristling with TV cameras and photographers and Jorja and Tim were briefing the media. It was a magical moment for the team waiting as they watched the aircraft approach.

Finally, the aircraft rumbled into place and the huge cargo door opened: the hatch opened, the ADI team waved and there were the lions in their crates. They had finally arrived safely on U.S. soil.

Each crate was gently lowered from the aircraft and opened up so that they could be checked and watered. Bambek began bellowing to announce his arrival, and everyone else joined in. Jorja gave each of them a good drink of water, the crates were closed and loaded onto the trucks to take them to PAWS and we drove into the night.

The extended convoy all finally arrived at 4am at the PAWS ARK2000 sanctuary. The sun rose over Calaveras County as we unloaded the animals, with PAWS Director Ed Stewart skilfully organizing everyone to move the crates into place, and moving the lions into their night dens.

As the morning light shone through the trees surrounding their new home, Camba, Dactari, Bambek and Simba were then released into the two night enclosures. They ran around, playing with the shrubs and logs, Camba chasing along the fence as the three brothers chased each other in sheer joy at their freedom – more space than they have ever had in their lives. It was 6am and although the release into their main enclosure would be later in the day, it was utterly exhilarating. A family united and at play.

This is freedom

The PAWS Ark2000, sanctuary is one of the finest wild animal sanctuaries in the world and specializes in animals rescued from circuses. Camba, Simba, Bambek and Dactari could not have come to a better place. A year earlier they had been in a stinking cage on the back of a truck, now they are in paradise.

Following a brief press conference, Jorja tugged open the doors to the larger daytime enclosures (Camba is separated from the males until they can all be neutered). Camba appeared to be the smartest, heading out down the hillside and into the bush first, while the three brothers watched her, baffled as to how she had got into the outer enclosure. Eventually, they worked it out, with a little help from Ed Stewart and Pat Derby of PAWS!

It was the first time they had walked on grass. It was the first time they had looked up into the sky overhead, with no solid ceiling or bars; the first time they had run more than a few steps; and the first time they could play together properly, in a natural environment. They charged up and down the hillside, Camba running alongside them. They stalked each other through the undergrowth, playfully leaping out from behind bushes. Eventually they wore themselves out and settled down in the sunshine together.

Today their coats are lush and glossy; they have the space to run and play; they can build muscle so that they can walk properly; they have specialized care and a healthy diet; and they live in a natural and safe environment. These four lucky lions have been on the journey of their lives – one which has taken them from a small cage on the back of a truck, being forced to perform demeaning tricks, to an expansive natural enclosure surrounded by stunning hillsides.

Each morning they roar together and it echoes across the valley. Ed says one of their neighbours said how much they enjoy hearing their morning song.
Help support Tilin the baboon, and Camba, Bambek, Dactari and Simba
ADI funded this entire operation, with the kind and generous support of Bob Barker; this included construction of the quarantine units in Bolivia, veterinary care, food, legal fees in preparation for travel; crates, ground and air transport; construction of the facilities at PAWS.

It was necessary to move Tilin the baboon to a secure location in Bolivia, and we continue to care for him in his quarantine unit. We are funding Tilin’s relocation to the Lakeview Primate Sanctuary in the UK, where a new quarantine unit and permanent enclosure are being prepared for him. Tilin will be in the presence of other primates and eventually, for the first time in his adult life, he will have the company of other baboons.

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