Meet Mufasa, a mountain lion who was kept in a Peruvian circus for some 20 years, despite a national law passing in 2011 to ban wild animals from circuses. Yes, Mufasa’s captors did everything in their power to evade the crack-down from authorities that followed the ruling. In fact, poor Mufasa remained in chains even as police systematically removed big cats and other wild animals from circuses and relocated them to sanctuaries in other countries.
What’s more, Circo Koreander, the circus that was taking advantage of Mufasa, had already been mistreating the animal for years before the passing of the law. For instance, whenever Mufasa wasn’t performing on stage, he was locked in the back of a pick-up truck.
Indeed, the poor animal was trucked around from place to place with about as much care as was given to the hodgepodge of circus equipment that also occupied the cat’s tiny space. As a result, the beautiful cat was unsurprisingly suffering from poor health. Still, there was one animal rights organization on the lookout for animals just like him.
For years, Animal Defenders International (ADI) had been fighting against the abuse of circus animals. In fact, its efforts helped convince the Peruvian government of the need to outlaw the use of wild animals in circuses.
For instance, after concluding a two-year investigation on the appalling treatment of circus animals in South America, ADI spent another five years lobbying countries to put bans in place. Its behind-the-scenes look at circuses found that captive animals were often treated cruelly and left to live in squalid conditions.
In 2009 Bolivia became the first country in the world to ban not only wildlife from circuses, but also domestic animals. Other countries followed, and in 2011 President Alan Garcia of Peru signed into law his country’s ban. Interestingly, the Peruvian ban aimed to end the abuse of wild animals in circuses and find them all new homes in sanctuaries wherever possible. And, after the ban took effect, many circuses in Peru impressively stepped forward to voluntarily hand over their animals. Others, like Circo Koreander, however, chose to ignore it.
ADI, though, knew that circuses traveling through small towns could more easily defy the ban, so it put out a call for circus attendees to report if they ever saw wild animals in a performance. ADI then teamed up with the Peruvian government to conduct Operation Spirit of Freedom, with the goal of freeing all of the remaining wild animals held captive.
Ultimately, the operation successfully freed about 100 animals: including lions, monkeys and exotic birds. Most of the rescued animals were moved to habitats in the Amazon funded by ADI, while others, such as the lions, went to sanctuaries in the United States and elsewhere.
However, Circo Koreander had remained elusive, darting between remote villages to avoid being caught. But ADI did not give up, as it believed Circo Koreander held the last wild animal in a Peruvian circus: Mufasa.
Finally, in April 2015, ADI received a tip-off that Circo Koreander was in a village in northern Peru. A rescue team of ADI, police and wildlife officials quickly organized a raid to save Mufasa.
The entertainment group, however, would not let anyone near the cat. And the circus was not clowning around; news reports claim the activists and police first on the scene encountered “hostile resistance.”
An eight-hour standoff ensued. In the end, it took getting a public prosecutor on the scene alongside police in riot gear to resolve the situation and liberate the cat. The rescue team also managed to free a condor that the circus had illegally kept as well.
“It was heartbreaking to see Mufasa chained among the circus equipment, living on the back of a pickup truck,” said Jan Creamer, ADI President and leader of the rescue team. “A heavy harness and chains were wrapped around his body and as we cut them away, he stretched, free, for the first time.”
To document the event and garner support for its cause, ADI filmed the emotional rescue and posted the video on its website. In the clip, you can see the change on Mufasa’s face the moment that the lion’s chains are cut away. It’s almost as if he can’t believe it’s really happening.
Mufasa was later taken to ADI’s Spirit of Freedom rescue center near the Peruvian capital of Lima. He spent time there recuperating and getting the food and care he needed to become stronger and healthier.
The veterinarians who treated Mufasa thought it likely that he had been taken from the wild as a baby. As a result of his many years spent in captivity, then, Mufasa could never return to the wild.
Still, Mufasa would get the next best thing: a large and safe habitat at a sanctuary within the Amazon rainforest with all natural amenities. So, as soon as Mufasa’s health had improved, he made a long three-day journey by truck and boat to reach his new home.
Finally, Mufasa arrived at his forever home, the Taricaya Ecological Reserve in Peru, where he was able to enjoy a life free of chains. “It is magical to see him moving about in and out of the trees in his own piece of protected forest,” said ADI’s Creamer. “Mufasa was torn from the wild and has endured the worst possible life.”
Unfortunately, though, Mufasa was only able to experience his natural habitat for a short while. It seems that, after years of mistreatment by the circus, his body had reached a breaking point. Mufasa passed away from kidney failure in December 2015.
It had only been a few months since Mufasa was rescued and moved to his new home, but rescuers were thankful that they were able to give the lion any time at all. One could argue that Mufasa spent his final days having the best possible life, and for that he could be happy.