“If you live on a desert island for all of your life, what would it feel like to suddenly hear a human voice?”
Jan Creamer asks this question, but her tone suggests that she already knows the answer. She has spent four decades as an advocate, reconnecting mistreated animals with their own kind in wild habitats, and helping them to recover from years of abuse while performing in circuses around the world. In October, her organization, Animal Defenders International (ADI), will rehome 33 former circus lions from South America to a wild habitat in South Africa — a rescue mission she calls “the largest of its kind.”
The effort began in August 2014, when undercover investigations conducted by ADI revealed massive abuses against animals occurring in Peru’s circuses. These lions, bred in captivity over generations, faced miserable conditions.
“Most of them have had their toes chopped off and their claws… [they have] smashed teeth because when [circus workers] handle the lions and want them to do something, they hit them in the face with an iron bar,” she explained in an interview with Women in the World.
After ADI revealed the atrocities, Peru’s government quickly passed legislation banning animal circuses (“For them, it’s about law and order”). Creamer says some circuses disappeared after they caught wind of the crackdown. “Some animals disappeared, too,” she says, her voice low. ADI was going to end the mission in February but decided to wait, in hopes that more illegal circuses — and animals — would emerge from the jungle and mountains. “We don’t leave anyone behind if we know there are animals somewhere,” Creamer says, as the cost of a raid and airlift, made possible through donations from the public, makes most missions a one-time opportunity. She estimates that their work in Peru will cost a least a half-million dollars.
The wait paid off. Between April and July, ADI secured an additional nine lions from Colombia and raised the count of total Peruvian circuses raided to “10 or 11.” The 33 big cats will soon travel on a 747 aircraft, then on trucks to the The Emoya Big Cat Sanctuary in South Africa, making it “one of the largest lion sanctuaries in the world” upon their arrival. Citing safety concerns, Creamer refuses to sedate the animals during travel. Each lion will fly in an individual crate, placed next to their families so they can hear and see each other throughout the flight.
“It’s a pretty amazing sound, to hear them all communicating with each other and talking together,” Creamer says. The Emoya Sanctuary will bring the animals “close to the wild as they can get, as close to freedom as possible,” but still provide necessary care and support from trained staff and volunteers.
“Anyone who has domestic cats know that cats do have a sense of humor, and so do lions,” she says. Despite years filled with trauma, the lions remain “highly intelligent.”
In a similar raid, Creamer and the ADI team rescued 25 lions from Bolivia, bringing them to the United States a few years ago. It became the focus of “Lion Ark,” a 2013 documentary aimed at changing the way humans perceive animals, helping them “to see their will to live and their right to exist.”
“People look at lions and think they’re beautiful, they’re majestic, they’re scary,” Creamer says, adding, “People see them more as objects, or like a beautiful tree…but not as an individual with emotions and caring for their own family.”
Her commitment to saving animals started in England in the mid-1970s, when she was handed a leaflet that detailed experiments in which beagle dogs were forced to smoke cigarettes. Creamer has since been committed to defending their rights, especially those forced to perform in circuses that often try to evade the law by using illegal animals as entertainment. She and her husband, Tim Phillips, founded ADI in 1990 and have helped secure national bans on animal circuses in 31 countries and 23 states in the United States.
She tells of a chimpanzee named Toto, who was stolen as a baby from his native Africa and spent 25 lonely years performing in a circus in Chile. She visited Toto with Phillips in 2002 and, once the pair witnessed his living conditions, began pushing for his release, to great success. The following year, Toto made the 7,000-mile trip to a rescue center in Zambia, where he was reunited with chimpanzees for the first time in decades.
“It was an amazing experience for us, when we heard him speak chimpanzee for the first time,” she recounted. “He was such a good chimp that…all the rescued babies that came in from traffickers went into Toto’s group.” The beloved chimpanzee died in his sleep last year after 11 years of freedom.
Creamer says Toto’s rescue sparked a series of ADI raids in Latin America, including the missions currently underway in Peru. With great love in her voice, she recounts the victories her team has coordinated over the past year, like the 39 monkeys who were relocated to “their part” of the Amazon, including a spider monkey named Pepe who had been beaten and starved, and never seen another monkey before his rescue.
“He’d been entirely alone for eight years of his life to living with a family of six,” Creamer explains. “And now, [after rehabilitation] he’s the alpha male. He swings in the trees, he’s very muscly and beautiful. But still gentle.”
Last week, Creamer and Phillips trekked across the Andes to help release Cholita, a 25-year-old endangered spectacled bear who was stolen from the wild as a baby. With her front feet “cut off down to the knuckle” to stop her claws from growing and her canine teeth removed, Cholita was unable to defend herself and worked for a Peruvian circus for about 10 years before she was transferred to a zoo for another decade. Her alopecia, caused by nerves, made her “too ugly” for many zoos, Creamer explains, and her poor health made international travel a challenge.
“We said to the Peruvian government — we’ll find a place in Peru and we will build a home for her. We’ll take her back to the jungle as far as possible, and take her back to where she belongs,” she says. Cholita’s new home, constructed in the Taricaya Ecological Reserve on the edge of the Tambopata reserve in the Amazon Cloud Forest, is as close to her natural habitat as possible. It includes trees to climb, a pool for play and a cave, which Creamer says the bear enjoys greatly. The mission also returned Mufasa, a 20-year-old puma, five monkeys, and a military macaw to wild jungle habitats.
Raids like those in Peru start with an undercover mission. ADI agents infiltrate a circus where they suspect animals are being forced to perform and document abuse through photographs and video, which are then released in a larger report. In an ideal situation, public outcry will lead to legislation. After laws are passed, Creamer and the ADI team try to work quickly, usually over the span of two weeks, to relocate the animals to temporary rescue facilities built by the organization and its volunteers in the area. Then, intense rehabilitation and planning begins for a final trip home to a special sanctuary, determined by the animal’s needs.
Creamer likes to be present during raids and has seen her fair share of horrors — “some very violent scenes where police brought in riot squads and SWAT teams” — but her commitment to justice for animals has only strengthened. In Peru, she will leave behind a legacy. An official rescue center for spectacled bears like Cholita is in the works, introducing the bears to neighbors and friends. ADI has supported the government’s new campaign to educate the public about the illegal wildlife trade, which includes posters from the animal’s perspective that read, “Your house is not my home.”
After the 33 lions return to South Africa, the ADI team will move to Columbia, where animal protection laws have passed but officials believe 75 exotic animals still remain imprisoned in circuses. Then they will travel to Mexico, where “somewhere in the region of 500 animals” will have to be rehomed. She is exhausted from a long, hard year, but determined in the face of the rescues to come.
“I’ve not met an animal I don’t like,” she laughs.
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