It was a happy moment for animal rights activists and lovers of cats of all sizes.
On Wednesday, Feb. 16, a flight landed at Denver International Airport containing 25 Bolivian circus lions who were on their way to a Colorado wildlife refuge.
The arrival was the culmination of years of efforts by Animal Defenders International (ADI), a British-American venture that works for circus animal rights.
In 2009, the nation of Bolivia passed a law outlawing the use of animals in circuses.
Government officials gave circus owners one year to stop using animals — even domesticated ones — or face criminal penalties.
ADI rounded up the cats, many of which were found in poor conditions, emaciated and unwell. The animals were rehabilitated and nursed back to health in Bolivia before their voyage.
The rescue and transport, dubbed Operation Lion Ark, brought 14 males and 11 female cats to Denver on a jet chartered by ADI.
“This has been a dream for so long, to empty a whole country of its circus animals,” ADI president Jan Creamer told a crowd of about 100 people who had gathered at a United Airlines hangar to watch the event.
Workers unloaded the animals in individual crates while the attendees applauded the lions’ arrival.
Former game show host Bob Barker, a longtime animal-rights activist, funded the relocation and was on hand to welcome the cats alongside actress Jorja Fox, who plays investigator Sara Sidle on the CBS TV series CSI.
Veterinarian Mel Richardson, who accompanied the animals on the 11-hour flight from Bolivia, pronounced them in relatively good health ahead of their move to The Wild Animal Sanctuary in Keenesburg, Colorado, about 30 miles northeast of Denver.
The cats will be kept in four prides in 20 acre habitats with underground dens, shade structures and play structures to help them with enrichment and exercise, as they adjust to the new climate and altitude.
The sanctuary is constructing a biosphere on the 80-acre site so the lions can weather the cold Colorado winters. Their long-term care will be paid for by ADI.