TAMPA — Fresh off a cargo plane and 1,000 miles from his former life, Simba stepped off the rolling transport cage at Big Cat Rescue on Monday and hesitated when his paws hit the cool grass.
The 9-year-old Bengal tiger scanned the 2.5 acre enclosure in Tampa, a world away from the dismal cage where he spent his life in a Guatemalan circus.
He kept his nose low to the grass as he slinked around to investigate. He pawed at a tree trunk and paused for a while under its shade.
Looking on behind the fence, Jan Creamer wiped tears and embraced her husband, Tim Phillips. The couple founded Animal Defenders International in 1990 to end what they call exploitation of animals in circuses, factory farms, laboratories and other hellish places.
Since a circus ban took effect in Guatemala in 2018, the international welfare group is preparing to transfer 18 tigers and lions from the country to a new 455-acre sanctuary it is building in South Africa.
But after the group called for help from other sanctuaries, Big Cat Rescue offered to sponsor the rescue of three: Simba and two of his former circus mates Max and Kimba. It’s an international connection the welfare groups are hoping will resonate in the United States, which does not have a federal restriction on performance animals in circuses.
“All the countries that have banned circuses, they are diverse countries politically, culturally, economically,” Phillips said. “They are all saying, ‘No, you should not do this in the name of entertainment because you can’t have this industry without severe confinement and inhumane treatment.’”
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While the U.S. has no federal ban, there are 96 partial or full restrictions on circus animals in local jurisdictions of 32 states. New Jersey, Hawaii and California have statewide bans.
Animal Defenders International estimates there are around 300 exotic animals still in U.S. circuses.
Big Cat Rescue founder Carole Baskin said the $85,000 her sanctuary spent to feed and house Simba, Max and Kimba in Animal Defenders International’s temporary facility in Guatemala and transport them to Tampa is related to her larger mission to end the exploitation of big cats worldwide.
Baskin said circuses around the world help perpetuate the pay-to-play industry that is helping fuel an overpopulation of captive exotic cats in the U.S.
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At zoos and circuses across America, customers can pay to cuddle weeks-old cubs, which are taken from their mothers at birth. The business model requires a constant stream of babies, leading to backyard breeding that has pushed the number of big cats thought to be living in captivity in America to 10,000. Exact numbers are impossible to know because of lax regulation on private ownership and weak reporting requirements.
While captive numbers swell, tigers are endangered in the wild due to poaching and habitat loss. The World Wildlife Fund estimates only 3,900 remain in nature.
When cubs outgrow the photo-op stage, which is 40 pounds by federal law, most adolescent and adult tigers are subjected to barren cages, roadside zoos, circuses and sometimes the dark market of the illegal wild animal trade, Baskin said.
Big Cat Rescue is one of only 165 facilities in the U.S. with certification from Global Federation of Animal Sanctuaries, considered the gold standard of animal welfare. The Federation accredits only sanctuaries that do not breed, do not offer the public direct contact with animals and that house animals in enriching environments.
The flight from Guatemala of Simba, Max and Kimba is Big Cat Rescue’s largest international rescue in its 25 years. But Baskin said she has taken animals from closer places just as cruel. Nikita, a lion who was found chained to the wall of a crack house in Nashville, arrived at Big Cat Rescue in 2002.
“This is what happens when circuses and roadside zoos have these businesses where people pay to have their pictures taken," Baskin said. “The cubs grow up and they sell them off to breeders and all these other God awful places.”
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Animal Defenders International’s work in Guatemala began in early 2018 as the country’s circus ban took effect.
The group coordinated with the government to track down all the country’s circus animals and negotiate a handover with the owners. Between May and November, the group rescued 15 tigers and five lions from two circuses.
The group has been involved in the passage of bans in more than 40 countries since the 1990s through undercover work and supplying governments with research and expert testimony about the emotional, physical and intellectual needs of animals, Creamer said.
“It’s a brutal life for animals,” she said of circuses. “It’s if I asked you to live in your bathroom on the hard floor and maybe look out a small window for 10 years. That deprivation is the same for all mammals."
While construction of its sanctuary in South Africa is being completed, Animal Defenders International built a temporary facility in Guatemala to house the 21 former circus animals with holding units and exercise enclosures, along with food preparation and storage areas.
Even the temporary facility was a drastic change for the tigers and lions.
At 3 years old, Kimba, one of the three tigers sent to Big Cat Rescue, was thought to have never stepped outside of his 5-foot by 8-foot cage before Animal Defenders International took him to its temporary facility in June.
Creamer described the circus, Circo Ponce, as “an appalling place” that fed its animals only chicken feet.
She said the other two tigers might have been used for some performances, but were also mostly confined for their entire lives in barren cages for exhibition and touring through the country.
That changed forever on Monday.
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Creamer and Phillips touched down at Miami International Airport around 6:45 a.m. on the cargo plane from Guatemala with a pilot and the three tigers.
A trailer from Big Cat Rescue was waiting for them to make the drive to the Tampa sanctuary.
Simba was the first to be dropped off in the 2.5-acre enclosure.
Next came 9-year-old Max. When Big Cat Rescue volunteers secured the travel crate to Max’s new 3,000-square-foot enclosure and lifted the gate, the tiger kept his feet planted inside the crate.
It took almost two hours for him to decide to venture into the enclosure with lush trees, a pool, climbing structures and more grass than he’s ever walked on in his life.
Kimba strode out into the adjacent enclosure with his head down and ears back, a sign of caution.
“You always expect them to bound out, but they have no idea what’s out there,” Phillips said.
By Tuesday, Susan Bass, Big Cat Rescue’s director of public relations, said the three were adjusting to life at the sanctuary, which now houses about 60 big cats on its nearly 70 acres.
“This is what it’s all about,” Creamer said. “It’s a lovely thing to see.”