Father of the pride

With Father’s Day on Sunday, we salute the Father of our ADI Wildlife Sanctuary Pride, 19-year old Leo. 

We know that Leo and partner Muñeca are parents to at least five lions living at the sanctuary: Rolex, Coco, Chino, Africa and KiaraP.  But it could be several more. Before they were rescued by ADI, Leo and Muñeca were owned by a circus in Peru, which was breeding and supplying almost every circus in the country. So, Leo could also be the daddy of Rey Cusco, KiaraC, Smith and Amazonas, and Grand Daddy to Mahla and Scarc – as some Peruvian officials believed. 

The dealer was notorious in Peru for threatening behavior and an official told us she had once released a lion out of his cage during an attempt to confiscate animals. When Peru banned wild animals in circuses, they defied the law, therefore, we determined that this must be the first circus to be raided.

August 2014: The showdown would be in Huaral, 70 miles north of Lima, where the circus had holed up in a walled compound. We were locked outside for several hours, before gaining access with wildlife officials to a typically hostile environment. 

Leo looked broken, sitting alone in cage about the size of a double bed, while in the next cage of the same size, were his three sons Chino, Coco and Rolex. His coat was pale and dull, his eyes sad and lifeless, and one was almost completely obscured by a white deposit.

We loaded Leo first – he was the first lion to be rescued during ADI’s Operation Spirit of Freedom to empty Peru’s circuses – the first of over 100 animals to be saved.

As he walked into the ADI ‘Freedom cage’, we got our first good look at the Leo we have come to know and love, as he playfully rolled in the hay, his first ever soft bedding.

We loaded his sons, but the circus lawyer managed to block the removal of the three lionesses. Leo’s mate Muñeca and daughters Africa and KiaraP. We were told we would have to leave and that the matter would be heard in court in a few weeks.

Inevitably the circus fled, and the lionesses disappeared.

In our care, in our Temporary Rescue Unit, Leo was beginning to transform. He no longer looked sickly, and our vets gave him treatment which cleared his eye. He became playful. The circus had smashed all four of his canine teeth, but he loved to chase and catch footballs, then very slowly crush and burst them! He’s since had root canal to his teeth.

Six months after removing Leo and the boys, we received a tip off that a circus had three lionesses over 600 miles away, in Piura, near the border with Ecuador. 

We raced there, but as we started to move in, the circus vehicles fled in all directions. We had teams watching the roads and one of them followed two vehicles, with the lions and monkeys. A chase through the desert followed, before we finally cornered the circus in a village. Muñeca, Africa and Kiara were saved. Leo was reunited with the love of his life, Muñeca, and we had the whole family. In 2016, we relocated 33 ex-circus lions from Peru and Colombia to South Africa and then later, moved them to our ADI Wildlife Sanctuary in South Africa. 

Leo is starting to show his age now. After seven years, his cataract had grown and became infected, making it necessary to remove the eye. This has not dampened Leo’s spirit and he and Muñeca still wander the whole of the near 4-acre Abbey Habitat. This year, he has started to lose weight and wander off before finishing his food. We adapted, and Leo is hand fed, using tongs, twice a day – the only sanctuary resident we need to feed twice a day, but quite appropriate for the king of the sanctuary.

This old warrior and his queen endured everything the world threw at them, spending more than a decade in a stinking, bare circus cage. Leo came through it all with a spring in his step, to spend his later years under the African sun as a lion should. 

You can watch their inspiring story in Love Reunited – including Leo playing with his footballs!

How about honoring this old warrior and father of our pride with an adoption?

Our campaigns to educate and secure laws to protect animals are the key to making a difference. Sometimes we are lucky to meet inspiring survivors like Leo, but we must not forget that our campaigns save many others when laws and whole industries change. Please help us and we will never give up on them.

To all the Dads out there, have a happy Father’s Day weekend.

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