By David Rosenfeld
Jan Creamer and Tim Phillips come across some ferocious lions in their jobs rescuing animals from circuses around the world. But it’s the people they encounter who can be the most dangerous. In a scene from their new documentary Lion Ark, which covers the rescue of 25 lions from circuses across Bolivia to a wild animal sanctuary in Colorado, circus handlers slash the tires on a trailer and even shove Jan at one point during a heated confrontation.
But they have the local police and the law on their side – a nationwide ban on circus animals – brought about from the undercover investigations and political lobbying by the organization they founded in 1990 called Animal Defenders International. So the situation in the film resolves peacefully. The circus owner is actually relieved to give up the lions she says were getting more aggressive by the day. ADI agrees to return the cage once the lions are relocated, and it’s mission accomplished.
“It’s about changing people’s minds, and they aren’t going to change immediately,” said Jan during a recent stop-over in Los Angeles.
We caught up to the animal rights activists, and married couple, at their West LA headquarters as the two were in the middle of a campaign in Peru, once again as they had in Bolivia, rescuing lions after they successfully achieved a nationwide ban on circus animals. As before, they are filming their efforts, this time in hopes of producing a reality television program. They have all the right elements. One of their recent operations drew some 60 riot police.
“The most eye-catching part is rescuing the animals,” said Tim. “But we will clear Peru of all its circus animals in an operation that takes about a year. It took seven years to get the law and that’s the really important thing that ensures these animals don’t go back.”
Romance on the campaign trail
Originally from Great Britain, Jan and Tim met on the animal rights speaking circuit. Tim was publishing a magazine and Jan was speaking about animal testing in research. You could say it was a case of love and animal rights at first sight. They say their passion fuels their bond. And how can it not? Their jobs are all-encompassing, around the clock ordeals. Turns out they also make a pretty good team.
“We do like each other,” Tim joked.
The pair first made a name for themselves in 1998 when they produced video evidence of animal cruelty in European circuses. The tapes led to some of the first prosecutions and eventual bans on the use of wild animals in entertainment. ADI soon earned a reputation for its hidden camera investigations and well-researched evidence on animal behaviors in captivity compared to the wild.
Due in large part to their campaigning 28 nationwide animal circus bans exist around the world, including five in South America. In the United States, 45 cities or counties in 21 states have passed laws that create some form of protection for animals in entertainment.
“If we want to change the world we have to work for it and be prepared to lose some battles along the way,” said Jan. “But the prize is winning at the end. We changed the way a whole continent felt about the use of animals in circuses.”
The group put undercover workers with hidden cameras in South American circuses beginning in 2005. It took years to bring abuse to light and persuade public opinion. In the end, it’s the governments that need their help. As part of the sweep in Bolivia, officials asked them to include a male lion from a local zoo that was confined in a small cage for the past 12 years. That lion, extremely aggressive during his transfer, is now living comfortably in Colorado for the remainder of his natural life.
Despite how dangerous many of the lions act, the film illustrates how tranquil and content they can become in the proper setting. For these captive animals, their home is now The Wild Animal Sanctuary outside Denver, Colorado, founded by Pat Craig 35 years ago.
“It’s amazing how quick they change,” Pat said about the Bolivian lions. “They are very intelligent animals. They pick up on a lot of things instantly, so when they see other lions being calm and level headed, they pick up on that vibe and advance quickly.”
When we spoke over the phone at the beginning of November, Pat was still waiting for at least 30 more lions from Peru. In preparation, the sanctuary created another 80-acre habitat with an indoor space for the few weeks during the winter when the Colorado plains get snow. The entire park encompasses 720 acres, with plans to expand over another 600 acres, where the planet’s most beastly animals can roam free. Pat considers it a humane society for large carnivores. About 85 percent were rescued as former pets.
“Up until the mid-70s there were no animals in the private sector like these,” he said. “Maybe a Hollywood actor or a circus or zoo had one. Then people started breeding and selling them and that’s how we ended up getting involved. Law enforcement was finding them everywhere and there was no answer at all.”
As for groups like ADI, Pat said, “they do an incredible job. We have a lot of admiration for their group.”
Power to change
As founders of a worldwide non-profit group, Jan and Tim spend much of their time lobbying and raising money from offices in London and West LA, but neither of them is afraid to put their bodies on the line when it comes to handling some of the most dangerous animals on earth. For instance in the film, Tim and Jan have the job of prying the stuck gate open from an extremely aggressive big cat.
“It’s not something we can ask people to do who work for us,” said Jan. “If we’re going to do something that’s a bit dangerous, we do that bit ourselves. I wouldn’t want to put someone else in danger.”
After completing operations in Peru, the pair plans to make the film festival rounds to sell their documentary for worldwide distribution. They already have many prominent supporters such as Bob Barker, who hosted The Price is Right for many years and is outspoken on animal rights. He said ADI and their work is like a snowball rolling downhill.
“It’s getting bigger and bigger and faster and faster,” Barker says in the film. “There will be a time, not in my lifetime, where people will be saying, ‘They had animals performing in that sort of thing and they were cutting animals up in laboratories? My God that was the dark ages.’ Well we are living in it now.”
Actress Alexandra Paul, known for her role on Bay Watch, is another ardent supporter who called their work courageous. “Most of us do not have the courage to face the cruelty humans inflict upon animals, because knowing the truth about how animals are treated in labs, circuses and zoos makes us cringe, and would inconvenience us,” she wrote in an email. “Most of us prefer to stay ignorant, so groups like ADI step in and right the wrongs of society.”
There’s a moment in the film where Jan says, “This is one of those cases of be careful what you wish for,” because as she says, they had “certainly wished hard enough for this moment.” There they were, staring down an angry lion. It had taken six years of investigating and documenting abuse to get here. Now the actual logistics of removing lions and getting them on a plane to Colorado was the reality.
“It’s amazing the power people have to change things,” Tim said. “Many people have it beaten out of them you can just feel helpless, but in fact change is coming. In a way we’re the lucky generation of campaigners who are actually seeing laws changed.”
At the time of our interview, the pair was heading to London for just a few days before returning to Los Angeles for a day of meetings and then back to Peru where they already had 22 lions in temporary enclosures. They seized 13 in Peru and nine in Colombia with at least 10 more they believed in Peru. They needed to collect as many as possible for a single flight to Colorado.
“We do something very unusual,” Tim said. “We are a start to finish organization. We identify the conditions, we target the law, and in the end the animals are in a much better place. There’s a confrontation element. We say here are these animals in terrible condition and we are going to fight you tooth and nail from keeping them.”
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