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Lions that were caged at Panama fairgrounds have new home

By Phil Gast, CNN
updated 11:18 AM EDT, Thu September 29, 2011
Two of the three rescued lionesses lie down in a cage in Panama before being rescued to Colorado.
Two of the three rescued lionesses lie down in a cage in Panama before being rescued to Colorado.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Three sister lions are rescued from zoo at fairgrounds in Panama
  • Underweight siblings lived in a small concrete and metal enclosure
  • They were flown to animal sanctuary in Colorado
  • They already can hear the roars of other big cats

(CNN) -- After 14 years of undernourishment and overcrowding, Elena, Kaitlyn and Alyssa heard the roar of other rescued African lions Wednesday at their spacious new home in Colorado.

The siblings arrived earlier in the day at the Wild Animal Sanctuary, about 30 miles northeast of Denver, officials said. The lionesses had spent their entire lives in a fairgrounds zoo in La Chorrera, outside Panama City.

The sanctuary helped rescue the lionesses at the behest of the Panamanian government and its National Environmental Authority (ANAM), said Pat Craig, executive director of the sanctuary in Keenesburg.

The lionesses, at 200 to 225 pounds, weigh about half of what they should.

"Nobody really took care of them," Craig said. "They got no medical attention."

Non-governmental organizations ran the fairgrounds for years as a way to raise money, Craig said.

The lions usually were housed in a 6-foot-by-8-foot concrete and steel cage in a zoo at the fairgrounds.

"These three girls didn't have a family structure," Craig said. "It was more or less that they were isolated for (nearly) 15 years."

Wednesday afternoon, they were in a 1,500-square-foot temporary area at the sanctuary.

"They are in their enclosure, and they are resting comfortably," according to Craig. "They are enjoying the space."

He expects that the lionesses will eventually join a pride of African lions that were rescued in Bolivia. "African lions are the only cats that have a strong instinct to live together," Craig said.

One of the big cats, Elena, is named for Elena Castejon, who actively assists with animal rescues in Panama.

On several visits to the zoo, Castejon noticed the animals had to depend on rain or leftover cleaning water to quench their thirst. The carnivores, she said, largely depended on scraps from a slaughterhouse for sustenance.

Zoo visitors often bothered the animals and rattled their cages in the wee hours of the night. "It was horrible," she said.

Castejon credits ANAM with getting the large cats removed from the fairgrounds. The zoo also featured gnus, deer, crocodiles and turtles.

After a protracted legal battle, the zoo was closed, with a mountain lion, two jaguars and an ocelot being temporarily cared for at Summit Zoo in Panama City.

Jorge Garcia, a biologist and wildlife technician with ANAM, said the animals were being kept without proper permits.

Over two weeks, La Chorrera hosts one of the biggest fairs in Panama, Garcia said, with school groups visiting the zoo the remainder of the year. Because groups that sponsored the fair and zoo changed every two years, he said, it was difficult for the government to force organizers to make improvements.

It's important for government and animal rights groups to work together, Garcia said. "We need to make alliances."

In February, 25 lions rescued from harrowing conditions at circuses in Bolivia were flown to the Colorado sanctuary, where they live uncaged.

The flight, part of an Animal Defenders International operation, followed the passage of a Bolivia 2009 law that bans the use of any animals in circuses.

The sanctuary built an 80-acre fenced site for the Bolivian lions, which are split into four prides, Craig said. "They all have practically doubled their weight" in the past seven months.

The 720-acre sanctuary of rolling grasslands, split into habitats, houses about 300 large carnivores, including bears, tigers and other big cats.

Most of the lions have a lifespan of about 21 to 23 years, double their expected longevity in the wild. That's largely because they have no predators or competition from within their population.

Lionesses receive estrogen implants so they won't go into heat. That also reduces the competition and fighting among males.

FedEx carried the felines from Panama to Memphis, Tennessee, on Tuesday and then to Denver early Wednesday.

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