3 former circus tigers from Guatemala arrive at Big Cat Rescue ahead of Thanksgiving

Hillsborough County

TAMPA, Fla. (WFLA) – Three former circus tigers are getting a second chance at life now that they have arrived to Big Cat Rescue on Monday.

Max and Simba, both 9, and 3-year-old Kimba arrived at Miami International Airport on Monday and traveled by road to their forever home in Tampa.

According to Big Cat Rescue, the government of Guatemala banned the use of animals in circuses in 2017. The government invited Los Angeles-based Animal Defenders International (ADI) to help enforce the law.

ADI established a temporary rescue center in the country in May 2018 to care for the tigers until they could be relocated to forever homes.

Big Cat Rescue said Max, Simba and Kimba were among a group of lions and tigers rescued from a circus called Circo Hermanos Ponce.

The circus voluntarily surrendered the animals but after a daylong operation, ADI stepped in to stop circus workers from severely beating 3-year-old Kimba.

Howard Baskin, the Big Cat Rescue Advisory Board Chair, spoke with 8 On Your Side about how difficult the process was to get these cats to the United States.

“The process is painful,” he said. “We heard about this because of a news report, because one of the circuses was hiding the tigers at a roadside zoo, as I understand it. And they weren’t getting properly fed, so they were extremely hungry and they were being cared for by an untrained person.”  

The sanctuary agreed to take the animals in August of 2018. That’s when they filed for a permit with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

That process took almost a year. It was approved in July of this year.

Baskin said an export permit from Guatemala under an international treaty took an additional few months.

He also explained the tigers had an extremely rough life before getting to Tampa.

“Well Simba in particular was beaten. And they all, every tiger in the circus is beaten. When you hear people say they’re training tigers with positive reinforcement, that is a lie,” he explained.

Now in their forever homes at the sanctuary, the tigers will enjoy their own 4,000-square feet natural enclosure with a freshwater pool, trees, dens and platforms.

“We do a lot of things here called enrichment to try and make the cats’ lives more interesting. These are very intelligent animals and there are many places where they’re just shoved into a cage, food is thrown in and that’s it,” Baskin explained. “That would be like me locking you in your bathroom for your entire life.” 

The tigers will also enjoy their own turkey for Thanksgiving and Christmas trees next month.

A total of 15 tigers and six lions were rescued during this operation, known as Operation Liberty. The other big cats will be relocated to ADI’s new wildlife sanctuary in South Africa.

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