Animal Activists Are Raiding Circuses to Liberate Abused Bears, Lions, and Monkeys

Many of the mistreated animals found in Peru will soon make their way to a sanctuary in the United States.

The traumatized, bald bear known as Cholita in her cage in the weeks before her rescue. (Photo: Courtesy Animal Defenders International)

Apr 9, 2015· 2 MIN READ
John R. Platt covers the environment, wildlife, and technology and for TakePart, Scientific American, Audubon, and other publications.

More than 30 lions, dozens of monkeys, four raccoon-like coatis, and a very sick bear are among the animals breathing free this week after an animal rights group raided circuses in Peru to liberate them from squalid and abusive conditions.

Peru banned the use of wild animals in circuses in 2011, but a handful of small shows have ignored the law. “They fought the government every step of the way,” said Jan Creamer, president of Animal Defenders International, which rescued the animals and is finding new homes for them in Peru and the United States.

“These animals were living in deplorable conditions,” said ADI campaigns director Tim Phillips, Creamer’s husband. “They’re absolutely archaic. The animals were kept in small cages about the size of a queen-sized bed.”

ADI is now working on a plan to place the rescued animals in permanent, safe facilities. The monkeys and other animals indigenous to Peru will be placed in a sanctuary ADI is building on the Amazon. “Whenever possible, we want to keep animals in their range states,” Creamer said.

One animal that may make the journey to the United States is a spectacled bear named Cholita.

Tramatized Cholita sits in her cage. (Photo: Animal Defenders International)

“Cholita is a very sad story,” Creamer said. Her teeth and parts of her paws were removed by her circus, a trauma that left her almost completely bald. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has granted an emergency import permit for Cholita, but ADI is waiting to make sure that she is healthy enough to travel. “We don’t know what the state of her health is. We know she’s quite elderly. Over the next couple of weeks we’ll be checking her every way that we can,” said Creamer.

Meanwhile, Cholita has already improved since ADI took her in a week ago.

“She’s in a way station, like an animal hospital,” Phillips said. There, she’s been placed on an appropriate diet of fruit and vegetables—she had been fed milk and chicken, which gave her constant diarrhea—and Phillips reported that she “seems to be relishing her newfound comfort. She’s built a big nest of hay and blankets. She just looks really, really content. I hate to anthropomorphize, but it was good to see.”

Many of the animals had spent their entire lives in cages, which were often displayed around the outskirts of the main circuses.

No government records kept track of these circuses and their animal performers, so ADI relied on social networking and informants to help track them down. Most recently they got a call about a circus arriving in a town in the northern part of the country.

“ ‘They’ve got lions,’ they told us,” Phillips said. ADI sent an investigator to gather evidence and then contacted the authorities. “About eight days later we did a surprise raid in the morning.”

That rescue went smoothly, but others have not. One seizure in the southeastern city of Cusco “was very aggressive,” said Creamer. “About 30 circus workers surrounded us, shouting and screaming, as we were trying to rescue the animals. It was quite a mob. They ended up keeping some of their animals.”

The following week a castrated male lion attacked and wounded a teacher who had brought her class to the see the circus.

ADI expects to fly the lions to the U.S. in June, when they will take up residence at Wild Animal Sanctuary in Colorado. “Peru doesn’t have the space of the facilities for these kinds of animals,” Creamer said.

“Wild Animal Sanctuary has decades of experience with big cats,” Phillips added. “When you’re dealing with big, dangerous animals like lions, you want to take them somewhere that’s established and has good protocols so you know they’re going to be well looked after.”

It will cost about $250,000 a year to keep the animals, money the two organizations are currently working to raise.