In 1998, Animal Defenders International (ADI) launched the first comprehensive undercover investigation showing animal abuse in circuses. The evidence from the two-year study in circuses in the UK and Europe was distributed to animal protection groups worldwide, asking them to use the evidence to end the suffering of animals in circuses.

Animal Defenders International (ADI) launched the Latin American “Stop Circus Suffering” in Bolivia, Colombia, Peru, and Ecuador in 2007, following a two-year investigation of Latin American circuses. The findings shocked the continent. Bolivia was first with legislation and ADI assisted with scientific and legal research, pushing for inclusion of animals in zoos, circuses, experiments, and other industries. Colombia and Ecuador quickly followed. In Brazil and Chile, legislation is still being discussed. Others have since passed laws – Paraguay, El Salvador, Panama, and Mexico. Some, such as Costa Rica and Singapore, had already passed legislation following the first ADI evidence.

Operation Lion Ark in Bolivia

Bolivia’s bill prohibiting any and all animals in circuses became law in 2009, with a very short phase-in of one year before enforcement. Governments commonly use a phase-in provision to give circuses time to dispose of their illegal animals. Otherwise, enforcement operations begin against those who defy the law. ADI Bolivia agreed to provide Bolivia’s wildlife officials with the resources and expertise needed to seize and relocate the animals.

The first circus handed its animals over and became animal-free. Eight others defied the law. In 2011, ADI investigators located and tracked every circus with animals as plans were made with wildlife officials to seize all animals. At the end of the nationwide raids, every animal had been removed, ending and entire cruel industry – a landmark in terms of animal protection law enforcement. The story of the Bolivian circus raids, including 25 African lions, is told in the award-winning movie, “Lion Ark.”

Operation Spirit of Freedom in Peru

In July 2011, Peru passed its law ending the use of wild animals in circuses following an intense campaign by ADI Peru and partners. ADI supplied video, photos, scientific, legal and economic arguments. Enforcement was set for 2014. ADI again worked with wildlife officials to plan and execute seizure operations. Operation Spirit of Freedom was launched with the objective to locate all the animals, assist on seizures and rehome the rescued animals.

When Colombia banned wild animals in circuses in 2013, ADI supplied fresh evidence from Colombian circuses to legislators and officials.

Ricardo, the lion, was rescued from a miserable life in a Peruvian circus. He will enjoy a full life in a sanctuary in Africa.

g Rescued lion Ricardo - destined for Africa

Relocating the Animals 

Bolivia, Peru, and Colombia all hold a policy that exotic or non-native wild animals should be removed from their country, so as to encourage people to support government campaigns for their own native wildlife, fight illegal trafficking, and preserve the environment. So while the native wild animals and domestics such as horses, dogs, and cats are re-homed in country, ADI has to find other solutions for the non-native wild animals and our preference is for native habitats, so during Operation Spirit of Freedom our policy has been to place animals in their natural habitats, or as close as we can get.

The Operation Spirit of Freedom rescue in Peru and Colombia has been our largest and most challenging to date.  After 18 months, we are nearing the end of the mission – over 100 animals have been saved from circuses and the illegal wildlife trade including spectacled bears, a mountain lion, six different species of monkeys, coati mundis, kinkajous, birds, tortoise and, of course, the African lions and a tiger.

Every circus has been tracked down, the animals removed and taken to ADI’s temporary rescue center near Lima where they have been nursed back to health.  Animals stolen from their families are reunited with their own kind.

d ADI veterinarian checks rescued lion



ADI’s temporary custody centers for the rescued animals are like building a “mash” sanctuary unit. We install electricity and water; build cages, alarmed fencing, play runs, veterinary surgery, kitchens, sinks, plumbing, lighting – everything needed for a functioning rescue center.

Native wildlife – monkeys, bears, and others are now in their forever homes – ADI built habitats in Amazon sanctuaries.  Some lucky animals have already gone back into the wild, and others are scheduled for wild release after rehabilitation.  In Colombia, the first nine lions have been handed over, but a major operation is needed to save the other 70 or so now illegal non-native wild animals in Colombia’s circuses.

Next, ADI must fly 33 lions to their forever home in their native land, Africa.  ADI has partnered with Emoya Big Cat Sanctuary, where they will live out their lives in safe, natural bush enclosures under the African sun.  ADI has funded enclosures between two and a half to five acres for each family group or individual males.

Nine rescued lions will be traveling from Bucaramanga in northern Colombia to join 24 lions on a specially chartered flight from Lima, Peru direct to Johannesburg, South Africa.  The ticket for each lion is $10,000 and together with all the trucks and equipment needed in three countries, ADI expects the whole rescue to cost around $400,000. The lasting legacy of such a huge mission is the ending of a cruel trade in two countries and the increased public awareness about animals in entertainment and illegal trafficking on two continents.

Changing Times for Animals in Entertainment 

From the time of the first countries outlawing the use of animals in circuses following the launch of the original “Ugliest Show on Earth” investigation in 1998 countries on every continent have looked at the evidence and followed suit.  Thirty-one countries have banned the use of animals in circuses.  ADI helped introduce a U.S. bill and in 2012, the British Government promised a wild animal circus ban, though neither has yet passed a final bill.

In the U.S., more than 50 jurisdictions have bans or restrictions on animals in entertainment, and active state campaigns are gaining ground in U.S. states Hawaii, California, Massachusetts, New York, and Pennsylvania. In the last few years, even the industry itself appears to recognize changing public opinion; in the U.S., more than two-thirds of the public do not approve of animals in circuses. Over 95 percent of the UK population want to see an end to animal acts.

Why Investigations Matter

The behind the scenes evidence is vital for the public to be properly informed about what actually happens to animals. People base their decisions on whether to attend a show with animals, on what they have heard, or what they have seen. The whole point of a circus show is to create an illusion – that the animal is enjoying the performance or likes the presenter.

From time to time, public prosecutors have used ADI evidence to secure cruelty convictions. In 1999 Hollywood and circus animal trainer Mary Chipperfield, her husband Roger Cawley and their elephant keeper Steve Gills were convicted of cruelty to elephants and a baby chimpanzee. In 2002, ADI’s evidence was used by prosecutors in Chile to support a case for seizure of Toto, a chimpanzee who eventually, ADI was able to relocate to a sanctuary in Zambia. In 2011, ADI’s footage of the beating of Anne the elephant at Bobby Roberts’ Circus winter quarters resulted in a conviction of the owner.

a ADI Undercover exposé-



Sadly, sometimes the law is inadequate and so evidence that ADI releases, although depicting unacceptable cruelty cannot result in the rescue of the animals.  For example, ADI’s footage of the brutality towards the elephants owned by Have Trunk Will Travel and used in movies such as “Water for Elephants” and “Zookeeper.” Or the beating of an elephant owned by Trunks and Humps, at a circus. Or the bears traveling in the Halls Bears show where, although not an example of physical violence, the barren environment with too little space, no fresh air and nothing to interest the animals represents an unacceptable level of suffering.

Emotional Reconstruction and Moving the Lions

Moving large and dangerous animals like lions requires a great deal of care, and skill – these are abused animals, frequently aggressive, and although their teeth have been smashed, and their toes cut off to remove their claws, they must be treated with respect. ADI refuses to sedate animals unless it is absolutely necessary. Sedation is dangerous for the animals, especially ones that are already in poor healthy from their terrible life in the circus.

To remove the animals from the circus, we must build our special cages (they can be linked together to form a bigger space), rent trucks and drivers then take our cages to the circus. We put our cage up against the circus cage and lock them on, open the connecting doors and move the animal across. With an aggressive circus, this can be problematic. Especially as the animals are afraid of the circus workers who have beaten them all their lives, so it is easy for the workers to disrupt the transfer.

Once back in our ADI temporary rescue center, our objective is to make the lions understand that no matter what they do, they will never be hit again. They get regular food, vitamin supplements, plenty of water and play. Our rehabilitation program changes terrified, aggressive, and dangerous lions into lovely animals who start to understand that they can enjoy life.

When we are moving lions from country to country, we always try to ensure that we get a non-stop flight. This is best for the welfare of the animals because they already have to spend a very long time in their travel crates. The travel crates are very different from our cages at the rescue center. They have to comply with international transport standards – so they are quite small, bare boards and not much to see – no bedding is allowed.

i ADI's Operation Lion Ark in Bolivia - 25 lions about to be loaded



It takes about six to seven hours to load about 25 lions into their individual travel crates. So by the time the last animal is loaded, we are conscious that the first animal has already been in his or her crate for at least six hours or so (and that is if everything has gone smoothly).  On top of that, the lions have to be at the airport about 4-6 hours ahead of the flight. So they are sitting there in a cargo building, in their crates, and all we can give them is a little food and plenty of water. Then there is the flight – if a flight is, say 9 to 13 hours, they are still lying in their crates. Unloading at the destination is always several hours to unload and then a road journey – once we get to Johannesburg, it will be about another 4-6 hours by road to Emoya Big Cat Sanctuary.

j Emoya Big Cat Sanctuary - destination for Peru lions



For the flight, I always insist that the lions are loaded in family groups, or friends next to each other – the crates are numbered and coded to keep everyone together so that they can see and hear each other during the flight. Sometimes they are very vocal!

To help fly the lions home to Africa, visit

All images: ADI