Editor’s Note 6/24/15: On June 24, 2015, it was announced that the lions will no longer be brought to Colorado. A press release stated, “As a result of changes in critical circumstances, Animal Defenders International and the Wild Animal Sanctuary determined that they could not meet each other’s needs with respect to this rescue, and ultimately concluded that for the sake of the animals first and the two organizations second, it was better for ADI and TWAS to pursue more conducive alternatives.”

Colorado has a limitless number of locations that make you feel as though you’ve been transported to another place or time. Standing atop a fourteener, looking at bald peaks stretching to the horizon, for instance, one might think she’s traveled to an era before civilization (if all those fellow hikers would just quiet down). But no place carries you farther from where you think you are than the Wild Animal Sanctuary in Keenesburg, a small farming town about 40 minutes northeast of Denver, where lions and tigers (among other large carnivores) roam free on more than 700 acres.

For 30-plus years, founder Pat Craig and his team have rescued, rehabilitated, and offered a new home to large carnivores, from those felines to wolves, bears, bobcats, and even a camel. Next month, that herd is set to grow even more. The Wild Animal Sanctuary, in conjunction with Animal Defenders International, has agreed to house 33 former circus lions—24 from Peru and nine from Colombia. (Both countries recently passed laws banning the use of animals in circus acts.) The rescue is expected to take place in early April when the carnivores will be airlifted to a special hangar at DIA via a Boeing 767 cargo jet.

(Learn more about the Wild Animal Sanctuary in “At Home on the Range.”)

“We dedicated 100 acres and built about 10 different large-acre habitats [for them],” Craig says. The animals won’t roam in that large area immediately; in order to give them time to acclimate to their new home—and each other—they’ll live in smaller (but still generously sized) pens within the habitat for a few days or weeks depending on the animal. Craig expects the animals will eventually group into about five or six prides. The majority of them should be free roaming in their new home by June.

While this sounds like quite an undertaking—and it certainly is—there is precedence: The Wild Animal Sanctuary now houses 25 lions successfully rescued from Bolivia in 2011. Craig expects the Peruvian and Colombian lions to have similar health issues as the Bolivian ones. “Most sit in a cage for their entire lives. They don’t perform,” Craig says. “A lot of them will be beaten up and bruised. One or two are blind. Most of them need to gain a lot of weight and get healthy again.” The Sanctuary already sent a dentist to visit the lions to take care of any major dental issues; the caged animals were often jabbed with steel bars that they’d bite and thus break their teeth.

All of that work comes with a hefty price tag. Craig estimates each lion costs $8,000 annually—or $264,000 total—to care for. (The animals could live for another couple decades.) The Sanctuary is trying to raise $75,000 to finish building the dens and habitat as well as look after the animals’ health. Visit the Peru Lion Rescue website to make a donation, or consider adopting an animal ($120 to $360 annually) for a more long-term connection.

And make plans to visit the Sanctuary this summer where you can find these formerly caged animals running wild.

Editor’s Note 4/10/15: Due to some scheduling issues, the animals will now arrive at the Wild Animal Sanctuary in June.

Daliah Singer
Daliah Singer
Daliah Singer is an award-winning writer and editor based in Denver. You can find more of her work at daliahsinger.com.