DENVER — Twenty-five lions, most of them rescued from Bolivian circuses, were being flown to Colorado to start their new lives at a wildlife sanctuary.
The 13 males and 12 females landed at Denver International Airport around 4:30 p.m. local time on Wednesday. The jetliner pulled into a maintenance hangar, and police officers armed with assault rifles stood by as a precaution.
The animals were rescued from deplorable conditions after a law was passed last year in Bolivia prohibiting all performances involving animals, Animal Defenders International said. Most of the lions were dehydrated and suffered from eye and foot infections when rescued, the group has said.
Television personality and animal advocate Bob Barker financed the $200,000 airlift. He was on hand to welcome Operation Lion Ark and said he was excited to see the animals headed to a sanctuary where they will have room to roam.
"They will be the happiest little babies you ever met," Barker told reporters.
Barker said he hopes someday no circuses will have animal acts.
While three cubs were in one cage with their mother, the rest traveled in their own cages, accompanied by a veterinarian. Before leaving Santa Cruz, Bolivia, they were given sleep medication.
The lions will now be trucked to their new home at the Wildlife Sanctuary in Keenesburg, about 35 miles northeast of Denver. A 15,000-square-foot biosphere was built to help them adjust to the chillier climate.
The sanctuary is already home to about 270 wild animals, including lions, tigers, bears and wolves.