DENVER (Reuters) - Twenty-five Bolivian circus lions rescued from poor conditions arrived safely in the United States, bound for a Colorado wildlife refuge.
Dubbed "Operation Lion Ark," the 14 males and 11 female cats arrived at Denver International Airport Wednesday on a jet chartered by Animal Defenders International (ADI), a British-American venture that advocates circus animal rights.
"This has been a dream for so long, to empty a whole country of its circus animals," ADI president Jan Creamer told a crowd of about 100 who assembled at a United Airlines hangar to watch the event.
Former game show host Bob Barker, a longtime animal-rights activist who funded the relocation, was on hand to welcome the cats alongside actress Jorja Fox of TV's CSI franchise.
Workers unloaded the animals in individual crates amid applause from animal-rights advocates in attendance.
Veterinarian Mel Richardson, who accompanied the animals on the 11-hour flight from Bolivia, pronounced them in relatively good health ahead of their move to The Animal Sanctuary in Keenesburg, Colorado, about 40 miles northeast of Denver.
The sanctuary is constructing a biosphere on the 80-acre site so the lions can weather the cold Colorado winters. Their long-term care will be paid for by ADI.
The cats were taken from eight circuses after Bolivia after passed a law in 2009 outlawing use of animals in circuses. Many were found emaciated and in poor health, and the animals underwent rehabilitation in Bolivia before the trip.
After passing the law, Bolivian government officials gave circus owners one year to cease using animals, even domesticated ones, in their acts or face criminal penalties.
ADI rounded up the animals from the circuses, effectively shutting down the industry in South America's poorest nation.
The cats will be kept in four prides to keep them close to family members as they adjust to the new climate and altitude.