A trio of circus tigers rescued from Guatemala will have a new home in Tampa. But first, they made a pit stop in the 305.
Kimba, Max and Simba landed at Miami International Airport early Monday after a long and challenging journey to escape their abusive past.
“These are really beautiful tigers we found in a desperate situation and in a terrible, terrible circus,” said Jan Creamer, the president of Animal Defenders International. “These are animals who had never walked on grass before we got them out of the circus cages. They had never felt the sun on their back. ... They hadn’t touched a tree.”
The adult Bengal tigers were among a group of lions and tigers rescued from Circo Hermanos Ponce in June 2018.
The rescue happened shortly after the Guatemalan government ordered a ban on circus animals, according to Animal Defenders International, an animal rights nonprofit organization that led the rescue.
Called “Operation Liberty,” the animal rights group rescued 21 big cats — 15 tigers and six lions.
Kimba, Max and Simba were the first rescued and relocated, said Christina Scaringe, general counsel of the organization, with offices in Los Angeles, London and Bogotá. The other big cats are expected to be relocated to the new ADI Wildlife Sanctuary in South Africa in December.
But the mission wasn’t easy.
Kimba, the youngest of the trio, was beaten twice on the day of the rescue.
Pictures shared by the animal rights nonprofit show Kimba’s mouth and leg bleeding from the abuse.
Activists had to intervene both times to stop it, she said.
The hardships didn’t end there.
“The circus refused to turn over six of its other tigers and it took us from June to November to get the remaining six tigers,” Scaringe said. “We weren’t going to give up so we kept fighting, and we did get them.”
The six tigers, including two cubs, were later found and rescued from a junkyard in November 2018 with the help of the Guatemalan government, according to activists.
“We are very happy that we are changing the lives of these animals,” said Ronnie Espino Rodríguez, coordinator for Guatemala’s Animal Welfare Unit, in Spanish. “Those animals were destined to live their whole life inside a trailer so what we are doing today is incredible and we are very grateful especially to ADI [Animal Defense International] and the government of Guatemala to make this possible.”
Guatemala’s government created the unit under the Ministry of Agriculture and Livestock to implement the country’s animal protection law, which went into effect in September 2017. The law prohibits dogfighting, circus animals, cutting animals’ ears and tails for aesthetics and using animals in experiments and research in the cosmetic industry, according to the Humane Society International.
Several groups, including ADI, were already lobbying for the law when a circus worker had both of his arms ripped off by a group of tigers he was feeding in a makeshift cage. The tigers, who were starving, ate the arms as villagers threw rocks and beat the cats with sticks, according to Big Cat Rescue.
The story, which drew national attention, brought tigers and circus animals into the public eye and influenced the law’s passing, Rodríguez said.
Out of the four circuses in the country, only one — Circo Rey Gitano — is still fighting to keep their circus animals, Rodríguez said. Rescuers have had to go through the judicial process and are working on getting a judge’s order. There are about 20 animals in the circus, he said.
Rodríguez said the other circuses eventually turned the animals over “voluntarily” to not have a “problem with the law.”
Christian López, the son of Rey Gitano’s owner, told elPeriodico last year that the accusations of animal abuse were false and that the circus, which opened in 1903 and has undergone several name changes through the years, would rather leave the country than give up their animals.
“For the animals, they have threatened us, they have offended us, they have insulted us and they have shot at us,” López told the newspaper in Spanish. “But, we are not going to leave them. They are our children.”
Circo Hermanos Ponce — which owned Max, Simba and Kimba — is still operating but without any animals. The more than 50-year-old circus had a show this past weekend in Escuintla, a city in south central Guatemala, according to its Facebook page.
Last year, Pamela Ponce — whose family owns Circo Hermanos Ponce — had told soy502.com that she also believed the accusations of abuse and mistreatment were false and that she considered the animals to be “de la familia.”
But activists said many of the 21 rescued animals were malnourished, beaten and frightened. Rescuers even had to call for help when a mob attacked the organization’s temporary rescue center in the country, Creamer said.
“Our guys had to shut themselves inside until police could come,” she said. “It gives an idea of how much these animals are worth. ... For lots of people these animals are just worth a lot of money either dead or alive.”
The wild cats are also pricey to maintain.
Big Cat Rescue, the animal sanctuary that is taking in the trio, said it has been supporting the animals since they came to ADI’s temporary rescue center in Guatemala last year, said Susan Bass, spokeswoman for Big Cat Rescue.
The animal sanctuary in Tampa, which had previously worked with ADI during a 2016 rescue operation in Peru, also started paying for the three tigers once they arrived at the temporary rescue center in Guatemala, she said.
In total, the animal sanctuary says it has spent $85,000 on the cats, including the flight to Miami, which was around $9,000. Everything was made possible through donations, the sanctuary posted on its website.
After a stop in Miami to give the cats a break from the stresses of flying, they were boarded onto a truck trailer less than an hour after landing for the road trip to Big Cat Rescue, 12802 Easy St. in Tampa.
They arrived at the sanctuary shortly after 2 p.m. Monday. Each tiger is expected to cost $10,000 a year for medical care and food, Bass said.
Kimba, who is 2 1/2 years years old, and 9-year-olds Max and Simba could each live up to the age of 20 at the sanctuary, she said.
For these activists, the cost, time and risk is worth it.
“It means everything to us. This is what we do,” Bass said. “We need to be the voice for these animals that can’t speak up for themselves.”
Each tiger will have its own 4,000-square-foot private enclosure with a den, trees, foliage and a pool to “play and splash around,” she said.
They’ll also eat a mixture of raw chicken, meat and a musk meatloaf filled with animal organs, ligaments and bones.
“As soon as these cats get a little bit acclimated at Big Cat Rescue they’ll be enjoying and receiving their own butterball turkey for Thanksgiving and they’ll be getting their own Christmas treat,” Bass said.
Bass and Creamer said they hope the tigers will continue to heal, and eventually enjoy their life in peace.
“Their enjoyment in everything in life becomes really empowering,” Creamer said. “It’s like they wake, they become tigers.”
Those interested in donating or learning more about the the Animal Defenders “Stop Circus Suffering” campaign can visit http://www.ad-international.org/adi_home/
Those interested in donating to help care for Kimba, Max and Simba at Big Cat Rescue can visit https://bigcatrescue.salsalabs.org/givingtuesday2019/index.html