Denver Zoo Lion "Baby" Dies; Sanctuary Prepares for 33 Rescued Circus Lions

On March 29, the Denver Zoo lost one of its five lions when Baby, a seventeen-year-old female who mothered three cubs from two litters, was euthanized. "Baby had been battling several, chronic age-related health issues over the last few years," zoo veterinarian Betsy Stringer said in a statement. "When she began refusing her food and medications, we knew she wasn't going to recover. These decisions are never easy, but we felt the humane decision was to euthanize her."

Baby came to Denver from a zoo in Ohio when she was six years old. She was part of the original pride at the Denver Zoo's Predator Ridge exhibit. While in Denver, Baby gave birth to three cubs: a female named Asali in November 2005 and a male and female, named Razi and Zuri, in August 2006. Her mate, Krueger, died in 2013. "Baby was a great lion," Hollie Colahan, the zoo's vice president for animal care, said in a statement. "She could be pretty stubborn sometimes but was very playful and incredibly smart."

Baby's death, Colahan continued, "is also, unfortunately, the end of an era, as she was the last of her pride. We loved them all and will miss them a great deal."

But Colorado lion-lovers mourning the loss of Baby will soon have a reason to rejoice. A lot of reasons, actually. The Wild Animal Sanctuary, a 720-acre refuge for big cats and other animals located outside Keenesburg, is getting ready to welcome 33 rescued circus lions along with a circus bear named Cholita that was badly abused. Twenty-four of the lions were rescued from Peru and nine were rescued from Colombia; they'll be flown to Denver International Airport on April 20 on a flight chartered by the British group Animal Defenders International. From there, they'll be driven to the sanctuary, which was the subject of a 2008 Westword cover story.

Organizers say it will be the biggest airlift of its kind. In 2011, the sanctuary took in 25 circus lions from Bolivia. Bob Barker greeted them at DIA! (See photos below.)

In addition to lions, the Wild Animal Sanctuary is home to tigers, bears, wolves, leopards and other species, including one camel and two porcupines. It's an expensive operation, and caring for each rescued lion is expected to cost an additional $8,000 a year. So the sanctuary is currently accepting donations: For $30 a month, contributors can "adopt" one of the lions, which have names such as Shakira, Rolex, Rapunzel and Ricardo. Before being rescued, the sanctuary claims, the lions spent their lives 'in tiny cages on the backs of dilapidated circus trucks and in run-down zoos." Their new habitat in Colorado will be more than a hundred acres and include lakes and grassland.

"Their new lives will really begin when they arrive here in Colorado," sanctuary executive director Pat Craig said in a statement. "These lions have endured incredible pain and hardship, but their new home with us will be a natural oasis where they can live freely in family prides the way nature intended."

Below, see more photos from when the 25 Bolivian lions arrived at DIA.

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Melanie Asmar is a staff writer for Westword. She joined the paper in 2009 and has won awards for her stories about education, immigration and epic legal battles. Got a tip? She'd love to hear it.
Contact: Melanie Asmar