Jan Creamer - Photo credit: José Rafael Vilar

Jan Creamer – Photo credit: José Rafael Vilar

“If you live on a desert island for all of your life, what would it feel like to suddenly hear a human voice?”

Jan Creamer asks this question, but her tone suggests that she already knows the answer. She has spent four decades as an advocate, reconnecting mistreated animals with their own kind in wild habitats, and helping them to recover from years of abuse while performing in circuses around the world. In October, her organization, Animal Defenders International (ADI), will rehome 33 former circus lions from South America to a wild habitat in South Africa — a rescue mission she calls “the largest of its kind.”

The effort began in August 2014, when undercover investigations conducted by ADI revealed massive abuses against animals occurring in Peru’s circuses. These lions, bred in captivity over generations, faced miserable conditions.

“Most of them have had their toes chopped off and their claws… [they have] smashed teeth because when [circus workers] handle the lions and want them to do something, they hit them in the face with an iron bar,” she explained in an interview with Women in the World.

After ADI revealed the atrocities, Peru’s government quickly passed legislation banning animal circuses (“For them, it’s about law and order”). Creamer says some circuses disappeared after they caught wind of the crackdown. “Some animals disappeared, too,” she says, her voice low. ADI was going to end the mission in February but decided to wait, in hopes that more illegal circuses — and animals — would emerge from the jungle and mountains. “We don’t leave anyone behind if we know there are animals somewhere,” Creamer says, as the cost of a raid and airlift, made possible through donations from the public, makes most missions a one-time opportunity. She estimates that their work in Peru will cost a least a half-million dollars.

The wait paid off. Between April and July, ADI secured an additional nine lions from Colombia and raised the count of total Peruvian circuses raided to “10 or 11.” The 33 big cats will soon travel on a 747 aircraft, then on trucks to the The Emoya Big Cat Sanctuary in South Africa, making it “one of the largest lion sanctuaries in the world” upon their arrival. Citing safety concerns, Creamer refuses to sedate the animals during travel. Each lion will fly in an individual crate, placed next to their families so they can hear and see each other throughout the flight.

“It’s a pretty amazing sound, to hear them all communicating with each other and talking together,” Creamer says. The Emoya Sanctuary will bring the animals “close to the wild as they can get, as close to freedom as possible,” but still provide necessary care and support from trained staff and volunteers.

“Anyone who has domestic cats know that cats do have a sense of humor, and so do lions,” she says. Despite years filled with trauma, the lions remain “highly intelligent.”

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