The biggest circus lion rescue of its kind just happened, and it was epic.

An animal rights activist spent over a year fighting for the biggest transcontinental lion rescue ever.

The circus can be a really cruel place for animals.

You might think the lions and tigers (hopefully not bears — oh my!) performing in circus acts are tough, wild beasts doing just fine, but we’re starting to understand that these magnificent creatures are actually treated really poorly.


All photos courtesy of Animal Defenders International, used with permission.

Paws.org describes life as a circus animal as “a monotonous and brutal routine of boredom, stress, and pain.” The animals spend virtually 100% of their lives in chains or caged and are subjected to extreme forms of discipline, such as whipping, choking, and electrical shocks.

No living thing deserves to be treated like that.

But recently, an organization called Animal Defenders International launched the biggest rescue operation of its kind to save some of these animals.

Their small team, led by founder Jan Creamer, has been saving wild animals from cruel captivity all over the world since 1990.

All GIFs via Animal Defenders International/YouTube.

Creamer gets things done.

Over the past year, Creamer and ADI have rescued 33 lions from circuses in Peru and Colombia and slowly nursed them back to health.

Working with local governments, Creamer and her team investigated the biggest offenders of the countries’ wild animal trafficking laws.

They discovered 33 lions (and hundreds of other animals) being kept in conditions of extreme abuse and neglect. Nine of the lions were voluntarily surrendered by a circus in Colombia, but the rest had to be forcibly removed by armed government agents.

Many of the big cats were starving, with the tips of their toes cut off as a primitive de-clawing method, and some were even missing their teeth, so they couldn’t survive in the wild. The ADI immediately provided the lions with the medical care they needed.

But in addition to medical care, love and TLC were part of the lions' recovery plan too, and that included making sure the lions were all given proper names.

Meet some of these incredible animals:

Joseph

Rapunzel

Liso

You can meet all 33 of the beautiful cats here.

The lions needed a home, so ADI teamed up with Emoya Big Cat Sanctuary in South Africa to create one.

After they fully recuperated, in late-April 2016, all 33 rescued felines were flown across the Atlantic Ocean toward freedom.

With fundraising partner GreaterGood.org, ADI successfully raised the more than $330,000 needed for the flight to transport the 33 lions back to Africa on a gigantic MD11F cargo plane (the flight was appropriately named Spirit of Freedom).

On the morning of April 29, the nine cats in Colombia were treated to a nice preflight meal.

You can see their whole journey in this video. The lions were loaded onto the Spirit of Freedom aircraft in Bogota.

Later that morning, the MD11F landed in Lima, Peru, to pick up its 24 remaining passengers.

By the time the plane landed in Johannesberg on the afternoon of April 30, the lions were (understandably) eager to see their new home.

As they were unloaded from the plane, Creamer held a press conference reminding reporters what these lions have been through.

She also explained what this entire rescue operation is for:

After that, it was just a day’s journey by car from the airport to the Emoya Big Cat Sanctuary.

Once they reached their destination, the animals were unloaded from the truck one by one…

... and released joyously into their new habitat!

Our (big) feline friends are now feeling right at home in their sanctuary.

Photo by Emoya Big Cat Sanctuary, used with permission.

Jan says, “[At Emoya] these animals will live in safety, in their natural environment and freedom from fear, pain and distress caused by humans. They will be cared for in a loving environment where they are respected and protected.”


Compared to what they’ve been through, this sanctuary is like a five star resort for the lions. Even better, the lion habitats will be steadily expanded as the lions become familiar with all their new free-space, and with each other.

Fingers crossed this leads to a new reality show called "The Real World: Big Cat Sanctuary on Animal Planet" ... but hopefully without any drama. These cats have had enough of that.

Hakuna matata!

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Brian Olesen never imagined he would end up homeless.

The former U.S. Air Force medic had led a full and active life, complete with a long career in the medical field, a 20-year marriage, and a love of anything aquatic. But after hip surgery and chronic back pain left him disabled in 2013, he lost his ability to work. Due to changes in eligibility requirements, he couldn't qualify for federal veteran housing programs. His back issues were difficult to prove medically, so he didn't qualify for disability. Though he'd worked his whole life, having no income for five years took its toll. He got evicted from a couple of apartments and found himself living on the streets.

But in 2018, two things completely turned Olesen's life around. He was able to both qualify for disability and to move into an affordable housing community in Miami's Goulds neighborhood called Karis Village.

When people think of affordable housing, they don't usually picture a place like Karis Village. The 88-unit development is brand new, and built with an attention to design that is not always expected for developments that serve as home to people on limited incomes. The apartments have tile floors, marble countertops, and all new appliances and furniture, and the grounds are beautiful and well-kept, with a playground and common areas for residents to gather.

Brian Olesen in his kitchen at Karis VillageCapital One

Karis Village isn't just a housing development; it's a home and a community. Half of the units are set aside for veterans who have experienced homelessness, like Olesen. The other half are largely occupied by single-parent families.

"To me, this building was just a gift," says Olesen. "All of the different parties that got together to put this building together… making half the building available to veterans. We've got no place to go."

Addressing veteran homelessness was one of the goals of Karis Village, which was built through a partnership that included Carrfour Supportive Housing — a mission-driven, not-for-profit affordable housing organization in southern Florida — and Capital One's Community Finance team. More than just an affordable place to live, the community has full-time staff on hand to help coordinate services—from addiction recovery programs to transportation options to job search and placement. Also included are peer counselors who provide emotional and psychological support for residents.

Karis Village, an affordable housing community in Miami, Florida.Capital One

Carrfour President and CEO Stephanie Berman says the core function of the services team on site is to build a supportive community.

"Often when you think of folks leaving homelessness and coming into housing, you think of shelters or some kind of traditional housing," she says. "You don't really think about a community, and that's really what we build and what we operate. What we're really striving to create is community. We find that our families thrive when you create a sense of community."

The intention to create a supportive community at Karis Village was a priority from the get go. Fabian Ramirez, a Capital Officer on Capital One's Community Finance team, says the bank did a listening tour in southern Florida to explore community development and affordable housing options in the area and to hear what was most needed. After deciding to partner with Carrfour, the bank provided not only an $8 million construction loan and a $25 million low income housing tax credit (LIHTC) investment to help build Karis Village, but it also kicked in a $250,000 social purpose grant to help fund the social support services that would be put in place for residents.

"It's not just all about providing the brick and mortar," says Ramirez. "It's about being able to contribute to the sustainability of the development and of the lives of the people who move into the building."


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Olesen says he and his fellow residents benefit greatly from the network of support services offered in the building. He says a counselor comes to meet with him once a month, sometimes right in his apartment. He also gets help maintaining a connection with the Veteran Affairs office. Other services include social workers and counselors for drug addiction and alcoholism.

Olesen loves being around other veterans, and he says hearing the sound of children playing keeps the community lively. He says anywhere else he could afford to live on disability wouldn't be nearly as nice and would likely involve shared kitchens and bathrooms and neighborhoods you wouldn't want to go out in at night.

If it weren't for Karis Village, Olesen says he doesn't know where he would be today: "I had nowhere to go and this is a safe, beautiful place to spend my retirement."

"I don't think they could have done a much better job of putting this place together and supplying us with what we need," he says. "I have so much appreciation for the ability to have a place to live. And then you add to that that it's beautiful and completely furnished and you didn't need to bring anything—I don't know what more you could ask for."

Karis Village and another development for veterans built the same year enabled the neighborhood of Goulds to meet the requirements set forth by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development to declare an end to veteran homelessness in the area.

Ending veteran homelessness altogether is a complex task, but communities like Karis Village show how it can be done—and done well. When government agencies, non-profit organizations, and corporate funding programs come together to solve big problems, big solutions can be built and maintained.

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