“Lions and tigers are different.” We would hear that phrase over and over again around Animal Defenders International’s (ADI) Temporary Rescue Center.
“That’s obvious,” I thought – without really thinking. “Of course, they are. Just look at them! “
But then, as I stood at the edge of the exercise yard actually looking at them, I suddenly realized that I couldn’t think of anything else. They look different. Yes, of course, (who knew that tigers were this big) and what else?What does make lions and tigers different? I wondered. And thought.
I knew that lions live in prides. Did tigers? At that moment, I couldn’t recall. Lions have close family ties. Tigers? I remembered hearing somewhere that male tigers sire cubs and move on. Or was it mountain lions? Was that true? I wasn’t sure about that either. I searched my mind and could come up with very little that I actually knew about these magnificent great cats. How was it that I, who have loved animals my whole life, could actually know so little about them? I was shocked. That just wasn’t okay.
This situation was about to change, radically, in a way that would forever alter my life. I made the commitment right there to pay attention, to be willing to meet these animals in their world instead of flattening and folding them to fit into mine. I wasn’t sure what that meant then but I was determined to try. That commitment took me into a whole new world.
What had I learned from my experience of being with these 5 lions and 12 tigers during the span of these past few days? A few things:
First, tigers are a swirl of stripes. I knew that for sure. They’re playful and on the move. They love water! Playing in it. Pouncing in it. Splashing it. Dragging tires and tree branches and any other objects they’re given right into it. They love dozing in it. Especially dozing in it. And not just the 2 year-olds. They all revel in water – and playing together, engaging each other – even the adults, hiding and pouncing, charging and rolling.
As I stood there I knew that tigers are stripes and movement, energy and playfulness, and water worshipers.
At long last Mary and I and the rest of the Animal Defenders International (ADI) team arrived at The ADI Wildlife Sanctuary in South Africa. We are all exhausted after weeks of trying to get 17 rescued lions and tigers out of Guatemala. To get here we traveled through four countries, spending thirty-some hours in the air.
The press was on hand and did a raft of great stories including this one on CNN world news, filmed as a big storm was gathering. Unfortunately, what was supposed to blow over in 15 – 30 minutes became a violent rainstorm. The release of the animals was halted for obvious safety reasons. The 5 huge flatbed trucks that brought them on the four-hour drive here from the airport were all able to fit into a huge secure barn for the night. They were fed and given fresh water one more time.
There was no way to get the three tigers that had already been released back into a dry space. They do have several shelters in the large area into which they were released and so everyone just had to hunker down and wait out a terrible night.
The men here were on alert all night long, patrolling this huge area in their cars to make sure that the tigers were okay. Still it was a long, long night. Worst of all, the remaining animals whom we had so hoped to get out of those travel cages had to stay in them for another 12 hours.
During the night Mary and I were each awakened by the sound of lions roaring, talking to each other. They’re the 24 lions rescued earlier who now live here in the sanctuary. It’s a remarkable sound. At dawn when we met in the living room we looked out to see the two young tigers, released the night before, stroll past the windows and lay down in the tall grass 20+ feet from us. No sign of their father, but he did show up later. And we spent the entire day today releasing every one of the other lions and tigers.
We quit work a few hours ago and I am writing this before I head to bed because I know you are all sending your love and your prayers, which certainly have sustained us during the worst of this arduous journey of compassion.
So we are here. Many wonderful stories can be written now that we are here and safe. I will continue this blog that I have started on The Guibord Center’s website and I urge you to look at the Animal Defenders International Facebook page or website which are carrying rich pieces of this journey.
It has been so busy that I am just now downloading the 1100 photos taken in the last 5 days. I will leave you with a few. (Editors note: Due to spotty wifi connections only one photo came through with this message. Stay tuned for more.)
After the long drive out of the city, through a maze of streets and byways, crowded communities and rural areas, over nice highways and unpaved roads, we finally stop. Our driver jumps out and shouts, and somewhere from the opposite side of a wall a large section slides open. We’re here.
We have arrived at long last at the Animal Defenders International (ADI) Temporary Rescue Center, where over the past many months each rescued lion and tiger has been thoroughly evaluated, cared for and brought back to health. They have finally received treatment for painfully broken teeth, atrophied muscles, malnourishment and trauma they received at human hands.
Here at the Rescue Center they have discovered the joy in playing, laying in the sun, smelling the grass beneath their feet, being with their families and companions, enjoying healthy food, clean homes and clear water.
Mary and I have come all this way to witness what caring can do.
I step down from the truck into the rescue center feeling a little disoriented. It seems, at first, that we’re in the middle of the jungle. Then, through a tall line of trees, I begin to recognize the village of night cages where the lions and tigers are fed and monitored. Behind the night cages I can make out the large fenced-in runs where they live and play.
Men begin emerging from several different directions at once, all moving towards us. At the back of the small house that looks like it grew straight out of the undergrowth, a single dog stands at alert, on duty. His large tail wags welcome. I turn to the sound of a voice. A thin young woman moves towards us swiftly through patches of sunlight that bounce off her ADI hat and t-shirt. She arrives at the truck with a smile. Hand outstretched. This is Yani, ADI’s Temporary Rescue Center Manager, and other go-to person on the ground. Her presence clearly commands the scene.
Jan and Tim introduce us. Yani acknowledges Mary and me warmly and then, without missing a beat, begins updating them on the status of whatever has occurred since their last conversation. While I know nothing of the content, nor should I, what strikes me is the professionalism of the exchange. They are colleagues, urgently working together toward something larger than themselves. It is the well-being of their charges, these 17 lions and tigers, and getting them to the ADI Wildlife Sanctuary in South Africa as quickly and safely as possible that matters.
Both Mary and I relate. We get it. We have both worked in jobs where lives are on the line. The AIDS Epidemic saw each of us deeply engaged in different fronts of the same struggle – Mary was in the labs – I was in the streets. We are here to watch and learn, to photograph and record, to help when and where we can and be part of the solution, not add to the problems. We stand quietly to the side taking in the scope of the operation until Jan is ready to move toward the animals.
We follow along a narrow trail that stops at a container of lye set into the ground. The lye is a disinfectant to keep us from contaminating the area with something we track in and also keep us from taking any contamination away with us. We step down into it making sure both feet are dusted. No one here takes chances.
We enter a large clearing where the animals live and are treated. It is an active village where everyone knows their job and all the focus is on the well-being of each great cat. We come around the empty night cages to the runs to meet the tigers and I am unexpectedly stunned by the ocean of stripes churning before me.
These are huge animals, spinning and charging one another, leaping, playing – an explosion of crisp, bright whites and blacks and yellows that are at once majestic and overwhelming. My senses are momentarily staggered by being exposed to more stripes than I have seen in my life.
The tigers are regal, magnificent, awesome and… everywhere. “How am I ever going to tell them apart?” I wonder, concerned and a little ashamed. It’s not that “they all look the same” – but they actually do. My brain hasn’t had enough exposure to them to be able to decipher the elaborate patterning that delineates one from another. I know the stripes form their unique signatures but we haven’t been introduced. I don’t know their names.
Gwynne used to say: “If I know your name, then…” then everything changes. Each one of these beautiful tigers has a name, a story. I am eager to get to know them – together and individually.
Gradually I realize that a few are moving oddly. Stiff-legged. Rocking. I notice where a tail is truncated or crooked. I begin to understand the cost of inbreeding and captivity that is on display.
As I stand there thinking, two of the youngsters are let out to play. They head straight for the pond in the middle of their large enclosure. They’re in the water in a flash – jumping and playing, stalking and splashing, just sitting in the water like little kids grinning. I see how they love the pond, how natural it is for them to be in it, and my heart aches with the grief that not one of them has known the joy of water until ADI created these ponds for them.
While I have been lost in my thoughts one of the two has come to the fence directly in front of me. She snorts and sniffs. I bend down and offer her the back of my hand. She snuffles it through the fence. I resist the impulse to put my hand in to pet her. As sweet as this moment is, she is a wild animal and capable of doing great damage unintentionally to a creature as frail and flimsy as me. If she hurt me it is she, sadly, who would pay. In any other setting it would cost her life. I am touched and sobered at how curious and trusting she is in this moment, at how powerful the drive is to connect to another.
The lions appear in the far enclosures. They climb up on their platforms and relax in the sun. I will go to them soon enough, but for now, my heart belongs to the tigers.
At dawn Mary and I tumbled off the plane and into a different world. As soon as we turn the corner leaving customs, I spot a large, familiar, lion-looking head in the thick of the crowd. It can only be Alexis, Animal Defenders International’s (ADI) Latin American Manager and go-to guy on the ground. Jan and Tim are right there beside him laughing and waving.
It is Alexis bounding over to swoop each of us into a huge embrace of welcome that will forever be for me the door opening into this ADI experience. The size of that hug has been the measure of the warmth and thoughtful generosity that starts with Jan and Tim and moves through every aspect of this rescue.
We load into the car and get a mini briefing on the way to the hotel to unpack and get some rest. Tim and Jan encourage everyone to stay some place comfortable during this stage in a rescue when sleep becomes fuel for the clear thinking and intense emotional stamina that are required.
Things will begin to change quickly, a lesson we are about to learn first-hand. That’s just how it is when moving large dangerous animals, animals that have known years of violence and trauma, through multiple jurisdictions. Each has its own protocols. Permits, time-sensitive and slow to get, are always required. Lots and lots of permits. Rules change. Often without announcement or any apparent rationale. Every step is expensive. Politics are involved – always – local, national and certainly, international. Planes are grounded; routes suddenly shutdown.
Most importantly, with every consideration, comes the grim reality that there are people far more dangerous than any of these animals who are lying in wait for any opportunity to kill them.
The awful truth is: these animals are worth far more dead than alive. Poachers and illegal traffickers will kill them and anyone who gets in their way. Jan is a warrior. No one is messing with these animals! Not on her watch! No more. She has seen enough…way too much. Tim has documented most of it and used that documentation to develop strategies and gradually get laws in place all over the globe to end much of this terrible suffering.
The Guibord Center, through our Animals, Faith and Compassion initiative, has a role to play in raising awareness of the need for this work. That’s why Mary and I are here, to learn from the best teachers we can find. That’s also why I have been working so hard with ADI to name the educational center in the new wildlife center in South Africa after my mother. We must change our consciousness – starting with awakening and supporting children in their instinctive connection to nature.
Even before we get to the hotel, we get our first chance to be nimble and adapt to change. The flight out of here in less than four days has been cancelled. Our job right now is to unpack and rest while Jan and Tim explore the multiple layers of backups already falling into place.
It is a gigantic blur – a dream – but it is real! WE ARE GOING TO AFRICA! WE ARE GOING NOW! Not tomorrow or next week. NOW.
After many months of excited anticipation, unexpected complications and last- minute postponements, suddenly everything is a “go”. I kiss my two “Little Lions” good bye and head out the door. Somehow, I find myself piled into an Uber along with a mountain of luggage in the middle of the night with my dear friend and treasured Guibord Center colleague, Mary Kirchen, racing through LA traffic to try to catch the midnight flight to Guatemala. Yes, at last, this is real!
This trip was planned nearly two years ago, when Animal Defenders International (ADI) was able to rescue more than a dozen lions and tigers from the circus trade in Guatemala. ADI’s Jan Creamer and Tim Phillips were instrumental in getting legislation passed to outlaw these animals in circuses. As long-time followers of ADI’s important work protecting all kinds of animals, Gwynne and Mary and I knew that The Guibord Center would partner with them to share their work in our Animals, Faith and Compassion Initiative.
Mary and I arrive in Guatemala at dawn, eager to learn more about how this remarkable couple has been able to gather and guide people of conscience across the globe to take action to end so many different forms of cruelty and indifference to animals. I am humbled to play a small part in this work that is changing hearts and minds and culturally engrained habits of cruelty that go back for generations.
It brings tears to my eyes as I write these words. What an incredible privilege and the dream of a lifetime it is to get to be part of this extraordinary passage of restoration and compassion. People of goodness like Jan and Tim and their counterparts all over the world refuse to stand aside while these innocent beings are kidnapped and forced into lives of misery. And we are standing with them.
In my heart I know that this is where The Guibord Center needs to be – not doing the rescues – but supporting these works of compassion – bringing the numerous voices of our many faiths and people of good faith together to speak out in the defense of the defenseless. That’s what spiritual values are all about. We have to find ways to raise our voices of conscience in every country and corner of the world. We have to come together to speak and live the unspoken truth that real satisfaction and safety come in acts of decency and compassion
Compassion begins with animals. It is as simple as that. Animals are the place to begin. Science has discovered that every child is born with a brain designed for spirituality: an acute sensitivity towards something larger than ourselves that unites us to one another in the goodness of life. So, children are born with an instinct for compassion, and we have to nurture it however we can. Animals, it seems to me, are the easiest way to begin. We have to find the words and be the examples.
While our plane flies through the early-morning darkness I think about what lies ahead when we arrive. As the president of The Guibord Center, I contacted the Episcopal Bishop of Guatemala, Bishop Silvestre Romero, before we even booked the flight, to ask him if he would join us in this effort by offering a blessing for these animals, a blessing for all of us and for the dangerous journey of compassion that lies ahead. He graciously agreed – instantly, joyfully, whole-heartedly. He even wrote back to ask if his wife could join him. I laughed out-loud. Of course. I look forward to meeting him in person.
My colleague in this adventure, Mary, and I have done everything we can so far. It is a gift to have her here with me. She is the best of sports, a great friend and confidant, and she is also sound asleep right now. It’s time for me to try to do the same.
My feet were already asleep an hour ago, perched amid the luggage crammed beneath the seat. By sunrise we’ll be on the ground and soon thereafter headed for the compound somewhere in the jungle where we’ll finally get to meet 5 rescued lions and 12 tigers and the people who have taken care of them for these many months. It still seems unreal. But it is no longer a dream.