Rescuing animals during disasters – Europesave human lives by saving animals before, during and after disasters
IFAW is proud to fund the rescue, transport and care for four lion cubs and a black leopard cub who survived drone attacks and sporadic bombings in Ukraine. As their stories unfold, we will continue to update this list of questions that we’re frequently getting asked about the cubs.
why are we helping these cubs? what is the situation in Ukraine for big cats?
In Ukraine, there is rampant, unregulated breeding of lions and other big cats for private zoos and the global exotic pet trade. While authorities have started to crack down on breeders, the dangers and hardships of war have compounded the challenges leaders face in making progress on these issues. Experts within Ukraine estimate that there are at least 200 more lions in private homes in need of rescue within the country and many big cats have been abandoned or surrendered as the resources required to care for them become scarce.
IFAW will continue to work with partners in Ukraine and Poland to facilitate the rescue of as many of these animals as possible.
who are the cubs and where did they come from?
The four lion cubs who moved to live with our friends at The Wildcat Sanctuary (TWS) in Minnesota, United States, are Taras, Stefania, Lesya and Prada. The plan is for them to live together in a specialized habitat that is designed for a pride of lions.
Three of the cubs—Taras, Stefania and Lesya—were rescued in Odesa, Ukraine while Prada was rescued in Kyiv.
The black leopard cub Kiara was rescued with Prada in Kyiv. The two cubs are friends, but as Prada will grow larger than Kiara, they will need to live separately in order to prevent accidental injuries.
where are the cubs’ parents?
Ukraine has many private zoos and other private owners who illegally breed lions and other animals for the national and international exotic pet trade. IFAW applauds the recent increased efforts by Ukrainian law enforcement authorities to end these illicit activities, but the realities of wartime make comprehensive assessment and enforcement difficult.
All of the cubs were surrendered by individuals to animal rescues in different parts of Ukraine. We suspect that three of the cubs were purchased as pets and the owner surrendered them to avoid potential prosecution. The other two cubs were possibly rescued by good Samaritans from breeders who were unable or unwilling to continue to care for them as resources became scarce.
In all cases, those who surrendered the animals would not share information on where the animals came from, making rescue of their parents impossible at this time. We continue to work with local partners to assist in the rescue of big cats in need in Ukraine regardless of their age and location whenever it is both legal and safe for human rescuers.
where are the cubs going?
The four lion cubs arrived at TWS on November 29, 2022. They were flown to the US and, after an eight-hour drive to Minnesota from the airport, unloaded into a warm indoor enclosure.
TWS is a true sanctuary that does not breed, buy, sell or trade animals and does not allow public visitation, allowing the sanctuary animals to live out the rest of their lives in a tranquil setting. They are accredited by the Global Federation of Animal Sanctuaries (GFAS) and are members of the Big Cat Sanctuary Alliance.
Kiara, the black leopard cub, arrived at Tonga Terre d’Accueil, a wildlife rescue center in France, on 23 December 2022. She will remain there until she’s ready to be placed at a long-term facility that will serve as her forever home.
why Minnesota? isn’t it too cold?
The two main factors in our selection of TWS for placement of the cubs were welfare and speed. We always vet sanctuaries for high welfare standards before we’ll place an animal, and we knew that the cubs needed placement quickly because they would soon outgrow the temporary quarantine facilities that were available to them at the Poznan Zoo and we wanted to move them before winter temperature restrictions would force us to wait until next spring to fly them to a sanctuary.
Since a speedy relocation was essential, we knew from the start that South Africa was off the table, because they have a 3-month health quarantine period before the lions could move. Likewise, a move somewhere else in Europe wasn’t possible because we understood all legitimate sanctuaries to be out of space for lions after already taking in more than 200 wild animals from Ukraine.
That left us with the US as our fastest option. We knew that only 1 sanctuary had recent cub rearing experience, an in-house hospital, space available immediately that was specifically designed with a lion pride in mind, and a recently approved US Fish and Wildlife import permit.
Because of their large body size, activity patterns, and warm coats, once given the chance to acclimatize and provided with adequate shelter and access to warm areas, lions are quite content to live in cold climates and we’ve seen no evidence that the cold temperatures compromise their health or welfare.
As for the snow, it turns out lions love it! When the cubs choose to go inside, the floors of their indoor dens are heated, and they are provided with straw-filled den boxes to keep them toasty warm all winter.
Just to be sure their animals are protected in Minnesota’s cold winters, TWS has done what we advise all sanctuaries to do and put an emergency preparedness plan into place. They provide regular maintenance to all boilers and heaters, keep an extra supply of food on hand, and stay fully stocked with propane in case the power goes out. They also have staff at the sanctuary 24/7/365 in case storms or other disasters prevent outside access to the sanctuary.
why did the four lion cubs go to the United States?
At the time we were contacted to rescue the lion cubs, EU zoos and rescue centers had already accepted many lions from Ukraine and reported they were at capacity. The decision was made to move these lions to a forever home in the US at TWS. IFAW selected TWS as our partner for this, because their team is experienced in international big cat translocations and securing the required permits for bringing big cats to the US The sanctuary has a beautiful habitat designed for a pride of lions, so the cubs will stay together. Approximately one acre in size, the habitat has three separate heated indoor rooms that can be opened or closed as needed and the lions can be secured when necessary.
We also asked TWS to partner with us on this as they are a legitimate, GFAS-accredited sanctuary that will provide lifelong care for rescued big cats. These cats will stay at TWS for the remainder of their lives.
Recently, IFAW worked together with TWS on another big cat rescue—four lions from Tiger King Park (Jeff and Lauren Lowe’s now-closed facility).
how did we move the lion cubs to the US?
Once we applied for the permits, IFAW reached out to our network for assistance in transporting the cubs. The Andrew Sabin Family Foundation immediately offered $50,000 to help cover transport costs and connected us with a private jet company.
The company regularly flies between the US and Europe and they had a return flight that was offered to IFAW for the transport. The plane was measured and it was determined the crates would fit in the aircraft. Strict regulations are in place for moving animals, especially in winter.
how did we move the leopard cub to France?
After being transported to Poznań Zoo in Poland in October, where she received care for several weeks, Kiara began the 15-hour journey to France. A transportation team of two drove a light vehicle suitable for transporting animals for over 1,500 kilometers, making several stops along the way and constantly monitoring her well-being. After a rather smooth trip, Kiara arrived at Tonga Terre d’Accueil.
why can't any of the cubs be released to the wild?
Big cats bred in captivity have limited options for lifetime care. These cats cannot be released back to the wild because they are still dependent on humans for their daily care and they have been bonded to humans from only a few weeks old. Big cats learn survival skills from their mother and they start to learn those skills very early. It is nearly impossible to teach large carnivores the skills they need to thrive in the wild.
Additionally, many big cats in captivity have been cross-bred between species and subspecies or inbred to the point where cubs are physically deformed.
what about other animals in zoos in Ukraine?
IFAW is working with partners on the ground to assess and provide for the needs of zoo animals when assistance is requested by zoo officials. Zoos may choose not to seek evacuation or surrender of animals for a variety of reasons that are beyond the control of IFAW and our partners.