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Sonoma veterinarian helps in rescue of lions, tigers from Guatemalan zoos

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BEASTLY BURDENS

Animal Defenders International: All-volunteer organization that performs rescues, investigations, and educates the public on appropriate treatment of exotic animals. (www.ad-international.org)

Documentary film ‘Lion Ark’: A 2013 film voted ‘best documentary’ and ‘audience favorite’ at film festivals all over the U.S., Lion Ark is a behind-the-scenes account of “the most ambitious animal rescue ever taken.” (lionarkthemovie.com)

The U.S. has not yet banned roadside zoos. There are currently 3,000 zoos in 44 states.

At roadside zoos across the globe, patrons can pet lion and tiger cubs for a few dollars. For a bit more, they can feed and wrestle newly born big cats and take home a snapshot for the family album.

To condition the cubs for human contact, they are taken from their mothers shortly after birth, despite the evolutionary imperative that big cats are endowed with to parent their cubs to maturity. The animals are often declawed as well, a practice with serious secondary health repercussions that animal activists call inhumane.

Local veterinarian Howard Rosner, 58, knows all of that, though the four-legged clientele he serves at his Broadway office, Sonoma Veterinary Clinic, does not generally tax the store of exotic animal knowledge he acquired from the College of Veterinary Medicine at the University of Florida.

But that knowledge is why he dropped everything when his phone rang last month, and why he agreed to travel to Guatemala with Animal Defenders International (ADI) on a mission to rescue 17 big cats.

“A former classmate called on a Thursday and said, ‘You’d better sit down. I’m going to tell you about a trip you have to go on next Monday,’” Rosner said. He was needed to supervise the transport of lions and tigers to a 500-acre South African preserve, where the big cats would finally feel grass under their feet. After a lifetime spent locked inside small metal cages the animals would now have miles of African savanna to roam; finally, they’d be able to look up and see sky.

“The animals suffered from horrific problems after years of being fed a diet exclusively of chicken feet,” Rosner said. “Malnutrition, stress, seizures… Many of them had been beaten over the head with clubs, and many had had their fangs cracked, too. It just breaks your heart.”

The cats had been surrendered to ADI personnel following passage of a 2018 law that outlawed the use of exotic animals in Guatemalan circuses and roadside zoos. But the subsequent election of a new president threatened a reversal, and ADI felt that it needed to work fast.

Big cats in the wild feed intermittently, and Rosner and his team knew they needed to capitalize on their rhythms to keep the animals healthy and motivated. After fasting them for a few days, Rosner and his team used fresh meat to lure the lions and tigers into traveling cages. They also doused the containers in lavender oil. “It’s like catnip to them,” Rosner said. “It soothes them.”

ADI had chartered an Airbus 300 for the transport, but the airplane was bigger than most planes that land at the Guatemala City airport, and the team spent several days working through the logistics. For one thing, they needed other cargo to share the airplane, but initially could only find parties interested in transporting horses and cows. “Can you imagine? What could possibly go wrong putting cows with carnivores? It was impossible,” Rosner said.

All told, it took 10 days to figure things out, during which time Rosner got to know the animals well. “I learned them by heart. Each head is like a fingerprint. The lions especially are easy to tell apart,” he said. Temperamentally, Rosner said, the two species are distinct. “Lions are like dogs, tigers are like cats.”

BEASTLY BURDENS

Animal Defenders International: All-volunteer organization that performs rescues, investigations, and educates the public on appropriate treatment of exotic animals. (www.ad-international.org)

Documentary film ‘Lion Ark’: A 2013 film voted ‘best documentary’ and ‘audience favorite’ at film festivals all over the U.S., Lion Ark is a behind-the-scenes account of “the most ambitious animal rescue ever taken.” (lionarkthemovie.com)

The U.S. has not yet banned roadside zoos. There are currently 3,000 zoos in 44 states.

When the rescue operation was at last cleared to fly, they embarked upon an 8,000 mile journey that spanned 36 hours: from Guatemala City to Guadalajara, Mexico, then to Liege, Belgium, and on to Doha, Qatar, where they changed cargo planes for the final leg of the trip. In Johannesburg, South Africa, the animals were de-planed and transported to a preserve four hours away.

“It is literally in the middle of South Africa, dead center in the heart of African country,” Rosner said.

During the trip, the team hand-fed the animals using long tongs, and Rosner recounted passing through Mexican customs after one particularly bloody session.

“The animals had gone three days without eating. They were starving, and we had to feed them,” Rosner explained. “You have to stuff the food through this little two-inch hole and as the animals would eat, they would spray you. I mean, they really make a mess. I was bloody from my hands to my upper arms and had blood all over my shirt when Mexican immigration started calling for me, telling me I had to follow right then. They wouldn’t even let me wash up! They took me to the immigration center, which was packed with people who had just gotten off another flight.”

Added Rosner: “I must have looked like a mass murderer.”

Despite their general lack of table manners, some of the cats seemed surprisingly tame. “There was this one tiger called Lupe who just loved to eat. She would get down on her front paws like a big cat and then jump toward the meat.”

But others retained a bit more of their wild hearts. On one leg of the flight, when the animals were sleeping, Rosner decided to conduct a routine check. “I had on a headlamp, and it was very dark,” Rosner said. “The next thing I know, this massive tiger zooms up from the darkness. It was a rush of fear like I’d never felt.”

That cat, called Itza, remained suspicious of Rosner for the whole journey. “He hated me,” Rosner said. “Lunged at me every time he saw me.” But the others were friendly, on the whole. Or at least as friendly as large carnivores can be. They allowed Rosner and other ADI staffers to pet them through the cage grates, and would purr, or “chuff” when contented.

Since Jan. 21, on 500 acres of “pristine” South African land — cordoned by electrified chain link fence — the big cats have been living a life closer to the one nature intended. They will be supervised and receive ongoing veterinary care for the remainder of their lives to manage the physical maladies developed in captivity.

The big cats join the 8,000 wild tigers left in the world, and the 25,000 wild lions. Perhaps they’ll find a role in the education of South African children, 90 percent of whom have never seen a big cat.

For Rosner, the rescue mission was the beginning of a new chapter. “You know, large, exotic animals shouldn’t be cast in situations just for human entertainment. The work ADI does is just incredible,” Rosner said. “I don’t think I’ll ever forget the sound of those lions roaring on the plane. They roar for the sake of roaring, and it reverberated through the plane. It was thrilling. I’d do it all again in a minute.”

Contact Kate at kate.williams@sonomanews.com.

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