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COCHABAMBA, Bolivia (Reuters Life!) - After growing up in a Bolivian circus and being confined to a small cage, Simba the lion is getting in touch with his wild side in preparation for a new life in a big U.S. wildlife sanctuary.
The three-year-old feline, who weighs about 440 pounds, is one of the first animals to benefit from a new Bolivian law that defines the use of circus animals as "an act of cruelty."
Turned over to an animal rights group by his former circus trainer, Simba is living in a temporary home in a public park in the central Bolivian city of Cochabamba, waiting for veterinary clearance to be sent to the United States.
With him, and also waiting for travel permits, are his mother, Maiza, and his brothers, Gordo, Daktar and Camba, as well as a monkey, Tilin.
The animals' new handlers are trying to put them back in touch with their instincts and undoing their habits of performing and being afraid of humans, said Enrique Mendizabal, a veterinarian with the Bolivian branch of Animal Defenders International, a British-American group that campaigns around the world for circus animal rights.
Bolivia is the only country in the world to have banned both wild and domestic animals in circuses. Other countries, including Austria and Costa Rica have banned wild animals, but not domestic ones, according to the London office of Animal Defenders International.
"Law No. 4040 is the only one (of its kind) in the world because it doesn't just prohibit the use of wild animals, but also dogs, cats, doves and all types of domestic animals," Congresswoman Ximena Flores told Reuters.
"No matter the animal, circus workers always use violence to train them."
Flores sponsored the law, which passed in July, and that gives circus owners in Bolivia until July 2010 to take animals out of their acts. Those that don't will face fines.
Simba and his family and the monkey were turned over before the deadline, by a circus animal trainer who had fallen ill and could no longer care for them.
While animal rights groups are in favor of the law, some worry about the logistics of what will happen to the 50 or so wild animals that currently live at circuses.
The few zoos in Bolivia, the poorest country in South America, are severely underfunded and animals are often kept in small, unclean cages.
"We just launched a campaign, 'For Those That Remain,' in which we're collecting funds to build a quarantine in La Paz that would be able to receive those animals," said Susana Del Carpio, director of the Animals S.O.S. rights group.
But construction on the project likely won't finish before the new law goes into effect, which would leave circus owners with the option of either sending their animals overseas, or killing them.
Reporting by Diego Ore; Writing by Dana Ford; Editing by Fiona Ortiz