Rescued circus lions Tarzan and Tanya
Rescued lions Tarzan and Tanya enjoying the view in South Africa. All photos supplied by Animal Defenders International

US-based charity Animal Defenders International (ADI) is celebrating the one-year anniversary of the arrival of 12 lions and 5 tigers at their sanctuary in South Africa, following an extraordinary rescue mission that saw the animals rescued from circuses and airlifted from Guatemala. The photos say it all – from cruelty and cages to the freedom of SA’s sunshine and tall grass.

animals rescued from circus
The animals were all, bar one, rescued from circuses.

The animals’ journey to freedom marked the successful conclusion of the 18-month Operation Liberty, in which ADI assisted authorities with enforcing Guatemala’s animal circus ban, removing animals and ending circus suffering in that country for good.

The lions and tigers are now loving their new life at the 455-acre ADI Wildlife Sanctuary (ADIWS) in remote South Africa, where they enjoy huge, natural grassland enclosures with native trees and bushes, platforms, dens, and night houses.

The rescue was complicated by a sudden government-imposed deadline of January 21 to move the animals out of the country, after which they could have been stranded. A planned flight on January 8 was canceled, and country after country refused to let ADI transit.


In the end, the flight happened with just a few days to spare.

Jan Creamer, President of ADI, said the year of freedom the animals have enjoyed at the ADIWS has transformed them, being allowed to express their natural personalities and instincts – a stark contrast to their previous lives.

Caged lion Sasha rescued
After a lifetime of living in a cage, Sasha is now free. The lioness had a limp when she was rescued due to a botched declawing operation in the circus. In November, she underwent ground-breaking surgery to remove diseased bone from her leg and replace it with a titanium scaffold and bone cement. After several months in hospital, she arrived back at the sanctuary last week and is recovering in her home.

“After a lifetime of abuse, fear and deprivation, living in tiny cages on bare boards with nothing of interest to engage their minds, these intelligent, emotional animals had never set foot on grass, never felt the sun on their backs or been allowed to make their own choices. We aim to give them back something of the life they lost.

Max rescued circus animal
Max enjoying life to the max right now! “…these intelligent, emotional animals had never set foot on grass, never felt the sun on their backs…”

“After a long 18 months to get them out of the circuses and into our care to prepare to leave, we were suddenly given a hard deadline – leave now or possibly lose the animals. Arranging a flight for 17 big cats normally takes many weeks, but we had to do it in two. Problems with permits and security blocked flight after flight and eventually, we flew 34 hours to Mexico, Belgium, Qatar and finally Johannesburg. We landed with a huge sigh of relief. We were safe.

“In the end, we realized how close we came to losing them – soon after we landed in South Africa, the COVID pandemic hit – we would not have got them out.”

Operation Liberty was the latest in a series of government circus ban enforcements ADI has worked, helping officials implement new laws in Bolivia, Peru and Colombia.

Since arriving at the sanctuary, the animals have enjoyed running at speed, basking in the sun or lying under trees and for the tigers, relaxing in their pools is a favourite way to spend their time. Sanctuary staff feed and check them each day, and added enrichment is provided with logs, tyres, boxes and other toys sprayed with catnip and lavender oil.

Rescued tigers Sasha and Kumal play tyre
Rescued tigers Sasha and Kumal playing with one of the tyres at their new South African sanctuary.

As the new sanctuary residents have gained confidence, their personalities have started to emerge, along with instincts to hunt and chase local wildlife, although as a result of their circus life, they can never return to the wild.

Physical damage suffered in the circus includes cutting off toes to prevent growth of their claws, broken teeth and head injuries from beatings along with lifetime malnutrition, lack of exercise and inbreeding.

ADIWS is committed to deal with the results of this damage including eyesight, nervous system, degenerative spine problems and cancer. Recent cases have included:

  • Tigers Sombra, Bimbi and Lupe were experiencing seizures soon after being rescued from their circus, due to a spinal problem from inbreeding. After months of treatment, their medication has stopped their seizures.
  • Sombra was also hospitalized and diagnosed with low potassium levels and prescribed treatment. She was also given an MRI to identify the cause of the seizures.
  • Lioness Sasha had a limp when she was rescued due to a botched declawing operation in the circus. In November, she underwent ground-breaking surgery to remove diseased bone from her leg and replace it with a titanium scaffold and bone cement. After several months in hospital, she arrived back at the sanctuary last week and is recovering in her home.

Jan Creamer said: “It’s hard to believe that only a year has passed since they arrived at ADIWS, because the change in their behaviour and demeanour is so vast.

Sun rescued circus animal
The rescued animals are now having fun in the sun.

“The veterinary care and ongoing costs to give these animals the lives they deserve are huge, and the COVID-19 pandemic has hit ADI’s finances hard. We’re incredibly grateful to our generous supporters who help us keep the ADI Wildlife Sanctuary running.”

The ADIWS is now home to more than 40 big cats – all but one rescued from circuses in Latin America.

To support the ongoing care of the animals at the ADI Wildlife Sanctuary, donations can be made here: https://donate.adiusa.org/sanctuary/
To adopt an animal: https://adiwildlifesanctuary.org.za/our-animals/

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