From the time I was a small kid I had an affinity for animals; growing up, my dog was my best friend and I even liked our grumpy cat until the day he disposed of my bunny rabbit (we think). I thought someday I might be a veterinarian, until I figured out that meant dealing with blood and guts, giving shots and other stuff that makes my legs woozy and wobbly, ready to pass out—damned blood and guts ruin everything. I’m also an overly empathetic person who cries at way too many things, especially cruelty toward kids or animals. Both are defenseless, and there isn’t much more upsetting than people abusing either. When I read about Lion Ark, a story of a group of people committed to rescuing 25 African lions from Bolivia, even though I knew it might be difficult to watch, I wanted to know more. I had an aunt who spent her life rescuing cats; she’d find them on the street, take them into her home, bathe them clean of fleas and dirt, take them to be spayed or neutered (her vet would do it for free), and then painstakingly interview people who might adopt them—if someone didn’t *feel* right to her, she wouldn’t let him have a cat. But the animals in Lion Ark are no housecats; they’re neither wild nor tame and have to be handled with utmost care.
Animal Defenders International is a non-profit group founded by Jan Creamer that investigates animal cruelty and has brought attention to the worldwide mistreatment of exotic circus animals. Along with government agencies and some star power, their efforts have helped bring about circus animal bans in Bolivia and Greece; several countries have put restrictions in place and ADI continue their campaign to “stop circus suffering.” Tim Phillips, ADI Vice President and director of Lion Ark takes us along on the arduous and often emotional journey to Bolivia to round up and find homes for several prides and individual lions. Despite the government ban a few circuses were refusing to comply, so the group—accompanied by police at times—would have to confiscate animals, sometimes from unwilling “owners” who wanted to be compensated for the animals, or even the rickety cages that were barely containing them. ADI is supported by the likes of Ricky Gervais, Brian May, Julie Christie, Paul McCartney, Joanna Lumley, John Nettles and Brian Blessed; Jorga Fox and Bob Barker (who funded the operation) make brief appearances, but the film’s focus is where it should be—on the rescue and relocation efforts. After a few horrifying flashbacks of undercover video that documents the investigation which preceded the Bolivian ban, we ride along as Creamer, Phillips, Alexis Diaz Limaco (ADI Investigations Manager, South America) and Veterinarian, Dr. Mel Richardson travel to remote locations where they observe the terrible conditions under which most of the lions live. The group and their crew plan how they’ll transport each pair or group of animals and deal with uncooperative locals—like the owner who quickly uses his knife to deflate the tires of the wheeled cage that houses illegal lions. It is utterly unnerving to see these professional people, including the vet, holding back tears as they observe the small containers in which the animals have spent nearly their entire lives. The deprivation and neglect has reduced what should be the most majestic of creatures to limp, lifeless beings for whom “…the day they die is probably the best day of their lives.” Some of the lions nervously pace, as Creamer explains this is behavior displayed when the animals are unable to deal with their environment. Others are intent on defending themselves, like Colo Colo, a ferociously angry male who attacks anyone and everyone who dares near his cage; the group tries not imagine what sort of treatment Colo Colo has endured. A few unexpected animals are also discovered, including a pair of monkeys. Perhaps the most upsetting portion of the film is when the rescue group discovers a tiny cage that houses eight lions together, giving them so little room that they must lie on top of each other. They look sickly and even pale, if one could say such a thing about a lion, and Dr. Richardson has concerns that the weakest of the group will live through the night. But as difficult as it is to observe alongside these people, their tenacity and single-minded goal to save the animals and transform their lives is inspiring. ADI is not some faceless entity, it is made up of these tireless and caring people who have thrown themselves into this project headfirst. The small group does everything from raising funds to conducting and filming the undercover investigations. They personally retrieve each animal, negotiate with the circus owners, feed the animals and provide toys to chew. Phillips works on cage repairs with the crew; Creamer pours water into the mouth of an angry lion who makes it clear he’d just as soon rip her to shreds as take a drink. The realization of just how transformative this experience is overwhelms as the animals’ most basic needs are met. After having endured such sensory depravation, a bit of hay placed in the bottom of cages is met with absolute joy; even the lions’ expressions change as they roll about.
In addition to gathering these former circus animals, ADI must try to find them safe haven. Because they’ve spent their lives in captivity, the lions are ill prepared to live in the wild; they need sanctuary. The same people who performed the rescue are involved with all the logistical details of finding the lions new homes and coordinating with government officials—they’re allowed only one cargo plane and all the lions must leave the country on it. While lions are still being gathered, the crew build new holding cages and the confiscated prides are carefully transferred, as watch is kept over the stressed out animals and the weak ones are monitored. Still, almost any life would easily be better than what the lions had while in their circus masters’ captivity.
Lion Ark was filmed with an eye for drama and it’s sporadically heavy-handed; certain moments underscored with in-your-face music and jarring, cut-together editing. There were several instances when the people speaking couldn’t be heard (and I wanted to hear them) because of the overlaid score. Regardless of minor flaws, the story is compelling, and one can’t help but be drawn in by the lions themselves. Whether or not you are an animal lover, this documentary is a journey worth taking.