"Lions hate circuses" has long been a bumper-sticker slogan of the animal-rights movement, and Bolivia has heard the message: the left-leaning government of the Andean country recently passed the world's first legislation prohibiting the use of all animals in circuses. That's a huge victory for the London-based organization Animal Defenders International (ADI), which agitated for the ban. But it has left the group and others like it facing the challenge of finding homes for 22 lions and a few primates, which will be euthanized if none are available.
ADI staff spent two years undercover working inside Bolivia's circuses documenting animal abuse, which included forcing pregnant lions to jump through fire and keeping brown bears in 6-by-9-ft. cages. A handful of countries, including Israel and Costa Rica, prohibit the use of wild animals as performers, but Bolivia is the first to extend the ban to all animals, including domestic species like dogs, horses and llamas. "We are extremely proud," says Bolivian Congresswoman Ximena Flores, the law's main proponent.
World-renowned primatologist Dr. Jane Goodall is impressed by the legislation but sees it as only a first step. "What do you do with all those animals?" she asked TIME on a visit to La Paz earlier this month. "That is the nightmare."
The new law gives circuses until June 2010 to hand over their animals. Llamas, ponies and dogs, the most common performers here, can be easily reintegrated into comfortable habitats. And the country's performing tigers and bears have already been taken to neighboring countries by the owners of larger circuses to avoid confiscation. But small, family-owned circuses are unlikely to flee the country, which will leave two dozen lions and primates needing new homes.
For the ban's supporters, who have worked with the government on developing the legislation, not just any place will do. Zoos, for example, are ruled out by those involved in the discussion, some of whom say they'd rather euthanize the animals than see them back behind bars. After spending a lifetime in small boxes, constantly moving from hot to frigid climates and living at the whim of humans, these animals "shouldn't have to be entertainment for anyone," says ADI CEO Jan Creamer.
Goodall says the ideal habitats are animal sanctuaries nature reserves that take in abandoned, orphaned or freed animals that cannot be reintroduced into the wild. And she's impressed by the love and care they're given at the two sanctuaries operated by Bolivian nonprofit Inti Wara Yassi, where hundreds of monkeys and birds and more than two dozen pumas, jaguars and ocelots live in large cages set in lush jungle. They are played with or taken out for walks every day. "Before [this reserve was created] these animals were as good as dead. Now they have the option for a life with dignity," says Inti Wara Yassi founder and president Juan Carlos Antezana.
But the Bolivian government and many parents across the globe is worried that instead of being looked after by professional caretakers, Inti Wara Yassi's animals are cared for by young backpackers, mainly from the U.S. and Europe, who have no prior experience or training. The reserves have become a hot spot on the South American backpacking circuit, offering any animal lover the prospect of being put in charge of a 200-lb. jaguar (including taking it for daily walks on a leash) within 72 hours of arrival. Goodall says it would have been her dream to work there when she was young, but she has some reservations about the youngsters' preparation and safety. There are no medical professionals on-site (other than a veterinarian), no cell-phone reception, no landline, no radio and no vehicle in case of emergency. Antezana says there have never been any serious injuries, though YouTube abounds with some pretty scary encounters between animals and volunteers.
Antezana acknowledges the risks but says his volunteers know what they are getting into and that by treating the animals well, they avoid problems. "[The volunteers] come down aware of the work and the love that one has to have with the animal," he says. "If one comes passively, with love, the animals are in peace. This is the No. 1 basis for this work. Everything carries a risk, but thanks to the fact that we do it with love, that produces positive energy."
It's unclear how many of Bolivia's circus animals will end up at one of these nature reserves. Officials want to avoid the reserves' being expanded as a result of the circus-animal ban. Even Goodall admits that Antezana shouldn't take on more animals because the reserves are maxed out.
Bolivia's first freed lions five surrendered by a cooperative circus are heading to California. "It's going to be like heaven for these animals," says an excited Pat Derby, founder and president of PAWS (the Performing Animal Welfare Society), which will receive the five lions early next year. PAWS currently offers sanctuary, with minimal human contact, for dozens of former performing bears, tigers, elephants and lions in large, fenced-in natural habitats on 2,000-acre reserves. "We provide a space where animals can run and play and rest as they choose," says Derby. "Our goal is for [life at the sanctuary] to be as close as possible to their life in the wild," she tells TIME.
PAWS may not be able to accommodate all of Bolivia's big cats, but Derby and Creamer have pledged to help find homes for them in some of the many comparable facilities around the world. ADI is covering transport costs for the five heading to PAWS, and its promise of continued financial assistance comes as a relief for the Bolivian government. "We simply don't have the resources to cover relocation," says David Kopp of Bolivia's Vice Ministry for Biodiversity.
Despite the challenges of implementing the law, animal-rights advocates want Bolivia to serve as an example for the rest of the world. "Conditions in Bolivia were certainly horrific," says Creamer, adding that caretakers often punched and kicked disobedient animals. But, she says, this extreme abuse isn't the point. ADI has run campaigns to end circus suffering in the U.S. and Europe too, because even the best circuses in the world can't provide the conditions necessary for an animal's happiness. Says Creamer: "It's like if I asked you to live in your bathroom for the rest of your life."