Bam Bam, a once angry, snarling circus lion is now a contented king of the plains living in Colorado.
One of the most heartwarming films at the 36th Starz Denver Film Fest is the Lion Ark. The ark was a huge cargo plane that transported 25 circus lions out of Bolivia. The lions had lived in isolation or crammed into cages, 8 to 10, all of their lives. What I did not know is that lions should not be isolated, they are social animals, they want to be with other lions, a la, a lion’s den.
In the early 1990s Animal Defenders International (ADI) caught wind of the horrid conditions for circus animals in Bolivia. To confirm the reports they covertly infiltrated the training sessions as circus employees. Sadly, ADI witnessed unthinkable atrocities. Thus began immediate maneuvers to ban wild animal circuses and rescue as many circus lions as possible, and, get them out of Bolivia.
The documentary displays the circus owners’ rebelliousness and struggle to keep the animals as their own, which as tradition, has been their livelihood. That part was painful to watch. Despite the living conditions, many trainers loved their animals and, in a circus heritage, most of the trainers and performers followed the footsteps of those before them. South American countries, where many circus performers come from, are born into the circus. Generation after generation live the circus life.
Unfortunately, abusing animals crosses all borders and not just in South America. The trend around the world is to ban all wild animal circuses thanks to ADI. Even in the United States. Hence, the rise and popularity of Cirque de Soleil, which features all human performers.
As the documentary unfolds we become attached to the lion, Cola Cola who has been living alone and has become one big angry cat. Then there’s Champion who lived in such a small cage his left leg and paw was deformed. You get to know Bam Bam and three lucky little cubs born in a Bolivian circus cage. Luckily, before they are old enough to be physically abused they are transported with their mother to Colorado where all 25 lions live to this day, thanks to The Wildlife Sanctuary just north of Denver.
Thank goodness for people such as Tim Phillips and his wife, Jan Creamer. Without their love and dedication for freeing circus animals in Europe and South America the Lion Ark would not have left Bolivia. And, many thanks goes to our own, Bob Barker, of the Price is Right who is known for his animal rights and support for all animals. Without his help all 25 lions would still be cooped up in cages, whipped, beaten and starved.
Tim Phillips and Jan Creamer have been traveling and promoting the Lion Ark since last summer. They’ve traveled to film festivals from Los Angeles to Mississippi, New York and Denver. The Lion Ark has been a hit on the circuit because animals like one old movie actor whined, ‘never play next to a kid or an animal.’ Animals are stars. The Lion Art documentary is heartwarming and an eyeopener to educate us all on the need for banning wild animal circuses.
I spoke to Tim Phillips after the screening of Lion Art at the Sie Film Center.
DAM: How were you able to go in a take these animals from the circuses?
Phillips: Jan & I have been campaigning for animals for 35 years. In 1990, we started receiving reports about abuse in circuses in Bolivia. We asked ourselves, how do they get these animals to perform? Using investigative research in 1998, we had the first evidence of animal abuse. By 2005 we had recruited a group to infiltrate circuses in Bolivia, Ecuador, Brazil, and Columbia and, by 2007, the evidence was overwhelming for violent treatment of the animals. It shocked the people and the government. It started the wheels turning toward banning wild animals in circuses in South America, especially Bolivia. After several overturned bills, in 2009, a bill was passed that banned wild animals in circuses in Bolivia.
DAM: Were the circus people aware of this new bill?
Phillips: Yes. You see in the documentary how they resisted. It got violent a few times. But we were working with the government in Bolivia and insured them we were committed and we wouldn’t embarrass them. We reiterated, we were there to help them get the animals relocated.
DAM: What is the circus culture in South America?
Phillips: It is a culture of cruelty where they control the animals with deprivation and confinement. We found that a constant thread throughout the culture. There is ignorance involved but, the animals are considered a commodity that doesn’t matter. Making them perform with whatever it takes is the tactic. They’ve been doing it for many years.
DAM: Is it that way in the U.S.?
Phillips: Unfortunately, yes. There is evidence of electric shock used here. And the sad part about the U.S. the animals are kept on trucks in parking lots.
DAM: Are we working on banning wild animals?
Phillips: Yes. But the traveling animal protection act has been tabled and it’s going to take several reintroductions. The first step we’re looking at here is a reintroduction in the US Congress.
DAM: So, in other words, no animals in circuses anywhere?
Phillips: Until the late 1800’s a circus’s main attraction was humans. It was then they introduced exotic animals. Now we are trying to replace animals with humans, such as Cirque de Soleil, which is an animal free circus.
DAM: Did the Bolivian government pay the circuses for their animals?
Phillips: The government agreed with us and was shocked by the evidence of cruelty. We raised the money to save the lions and transport them to Colorado. The Bolivian government allowed us to take them from the circuses but we were responsible for their well-being once they left their cages. That’s where Bob Barker came in. He contacted us when he heard about the Bolivian government banning wild animals in circuses. He said, “I’m going to help you. I’m giving you a substantial amount of $2 million, to get those animals to a safe place.” His involvement enabled us to do everything we needed to do for their relocation. We’re now working in Peru to save the circus animals. All laws have passed in South America to ban wild animal circuses. It’s just a matter of time. We’re having trouble in Peru right now. Our counters (workers that count the wild animals in capitivity throughout the country) have been beaten, assaulted, their legs have been broken.
DAM: I loved seeing the animals as they stepped on the ground in Colorado. It is cold here, they are African lions. How did they adapt to such a cold climate?
Phillips: It was February when they arrived, in the middle of winter. They came from 100 degree temps. We had to build a dome with grass and trees to protect them until they could begin to adapt. By the spring they had formed families and were living in underground dens outside the dome. It was so cute, when they saw their first snow the next winter they frolicked like young puppies do, jumping and rolling in it. All of the animals had problems but they are thriving. Cola Cola was such an angry lion. He is content and peaceful now. I feel the best about him. I didn’t think he’d ever mellow. Champion, with the deformed leg, is strong and still with his family. He was weak when he arrived at the Sanctuary but with the help and constant attention from his mother and sisters he is a happy boy. He’s lame but it doesn’t matter. It was certain he would have died if he hadn’t been rescued from the circus.
DAM: Who’s paying for the upkeep of the group?
Phillips: We’re still funding the care of the animals through fundraisers. You can visit the sanctuary daily and if so inclined and you can adopt a lion for $36 a year which helps with their up keep. There’s also volunteer opportunities and you can visit the sanctuary and walk along the mile long walk way over the 25 acres. I was told occasionally a rabbit will wander in and meet his demise by Bam Bam or Cola Cola.
The Wildlife Sanctuary is located in Keenesburg, CO. To adopt go to AD-Internationaladopt.org, or check the Wild Animal Sanctuary on Facebook. A trailer for the documentary can be seen at LionArkthemovie.com.