Their trip home was a roaring success.
Last month 33 lions rescued from circuses in South America were relocated to Emoya Big Cat Sanctuary in South Africa.
They arrived by jet in what was called the largest lion airlift ever — more than 10,000 pounds of king of the jungle.
They had survived “hell on earth,” said their rescuers with Animal Defenders International, an animal rights group. Through mistreatment and abuse, one had lost an eye, one was almost blind. Some who had chewed on the metal bars of their cages needed dental work.
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Africa opened its arms wide to the broken beasts. “The lions are returning to where they belong,” said the sanctuary’s founder, Savannah Heuser.
“This is their birthright. African sun, African night skies, African bush and sounds, clouds, summer thunderstorms, large enclosures in a natural setting where they can remember who they are.”
The big cats found new lives at a time when, around the world, minds are changing about how captive animals are used for education and entertainment purposes.
Ringling Bros. stopped using elephants in its acts last month. The National Aquarium in Baltimore is retiring its dolphins. SeaWorld has freed Willy. Like the lions, scores of animals rescued from circuses and animal shows are finding sanctuary in safer, greener pastures.
Even Hollywood is being kinder to animals, using computer-generated ones instead of live ones, as in Disney’s hit “The Jungle Book,” AdWeek noted this week.
A 2015 Gallup poll revealed that a majority of Americans have concerns about the treatment of animals in captivity: animals used in circuses (69 percent), zoos (57 percent) and marine parks and aquariums (62 percent).
Nearly a third of Americans, 32 percent, said animals should be given the same rights as people, a stronger animal rights sentiment compared with the 25 percent who held that opinion in 2008.
“Public opinion has always been, and will continue to be, the driving force behind lasting change for animals used in zoos, circuses and marine parks around the world,” Adam Roberts, CEO of the wildlife organization Born Free USA, said when the poll came out.
Public outcry over the death of Harambe the gorilla last month reflected this swelling sea change.
The beloved, 17-year-old male gorilla was killed at the Cincinnati Zoo to save a 4-year-old who fell into his enclosure. During all the finger-pointing and second-guessing over Harambe’s death, a guest blogger for Scientific-American wondered, “Why was Harambe in the zoo in the first place?”
Pressure from the public, especially from young people armed with Instagram, Twitter and Facebook, has helped bring about big changes in recent months. In what has been described as an unprecedented move, the National Aquarium in Baltimore announced last week that it will close its dolphin exhibit and retire eight Atlantic bottlenose dolphins to a seaside sanctuary by the end of 2020.
All but one of the dolphins, ranging in age from 7 to 44, have lived their entire lives in tanks. Now, no more doing tricks for the public.
“The American public is increasingly uneasy with the notion of keeping dolphins and whales in captivity,” John Racanelli, the aquarium’s chief executive, wrote in an op-ed in the Baltimore Sun.
The announcement followed on the heels of major change at SeaWorld Parks, too, which saw attendance and public favor dramatically drop after the release of the award-winning 2013 documentary “Blackfish,” a blistering indictment of SeaWorld and its treatment of animals.
In March, SeaWorld announced it would stop collecting orca whales from the wild and end its breeding program. The Florida company has also hired a new reform-minded CEO and signaled that it might drop its controversial whales-doing-stunts shows and become more of an exhibit, like an aquarium.
Conservationists credited the changes in part to shifting public attitudes.
Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus also bowed to changing public sentiment, and years of protests by animal rights activists, when it ended a 145-year-tradition of using elephants under the big top. The last of them performed in May and are now living in retirement in a 200-acre sanctuary in South Florida.
In April, officials with the Shrine Circus in Saskatchewan, Canada, announced they will no longer use elephants or tigers in their long-running show and might even drop the word “circus,” too.
“Our moral compass is switching us in the direction of going away from exotic animals in the circus,” Shriners official Stuart Larson told CBC News.
Noting public comments made about the circus on social media, Larson said, “probably the old circus model is not going to be the model.”
Some people don’t want the circus to come to town at all.
A city councilman in Pittsburgh has proposed a ban on wild-animal entertainment, including circuses, similar to laws already in place in about 30 other U.S. cities. The ban would prohibit lions, tigers, bears, camels, elephants, monkeys and other animals from performing at circuses and other shows in town.
At a public hearing on the issue last month, Syria Shrine clowns showed up in full costume — painted faces, red noses and all — to protest the ban.
“Councilman Kraus makes clowns cry!” said one clown-protester’s sign, referring to Councilman Bruce Kraus.
No vote has been scheduled yet on the proposal.
When Mexico last year became the 29th country to pass a nationwide ban on circus animals - joining Austria, Greece, Costa Rica and others - owners of the exotic animals were challenged with what to do with their lions and tigers and zebras.
Lucky rescues like a tiger named Hoover find new homes in sanctuaries.
Hoover was the sole survivor of a roadside circus in Peru that kept up to a half dozen tigers. Whipped and beaten by his trainers, Hoover was a thin, emaciated creature starving for medical attention and love when he arrived at a natural woodland sanctuary in southern Florida this month in time for his 12th birthday.