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33 lions rescued in largest airlift of its kind

60 Minutes follows the largest airlift of lions in history as 33 are rescued from circuses and flown to freedom in an African sanctuary

It was a happy ending for 33 circus lions that lived lives of beatings and confinement, according to the animal rights advocates who rescued them in South America. 60 Minutes cameras followed the big cats as they were prepared for their flight to a comfortable, peaceful retirement in a sanctuary in South Africa. Bill Whitaker reports on this journey to freedom, believed to be the largest airlift of lions ever undertaken, on the next edition of 60 Minutes Sunday, March 5 at 7 p.m. ET/PT.

The lions gained their freedom through the efforts of Jan Creamer and Tim Phillips, who started Animal Defenders International to rescue animals from circuses. The team recruits circus workers to secretly record beatings and other cruel treatment of the animals. Their work has helped lead to local laws passed in 15 U.S. states and 20 countries prohibiting the use of wild animals in circuses.  The airlift was the result of animal rights laws enacted in Peru and Colombia.  

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Some circuses claim they train animals with food and positive reinforcement, but Creamer and Phillips say circus tricks are unnatural acts animals only do under threat of pain.

“Seeing these animals when you’ve taken them to as close as we can give them to freedom really is what it’s all about.” 

Whitaker spoke to them in Peru before the flight. “Using violence is the way that these animals are made to do things that they don’t want to do,” says Creamer.  The videos they offered show animals being whipped, kicked and punched. Phillips says the images can really capture the public’s attention. “The reaction was instant. I mean it really was just outrage. And then the politicians were starting to hear about it and say, ‘Well we should probably have legislation here,’” he tells Whitaker.

Animal Defenders International often facilitates the re-location of the animals because local authorities do not have the ability to do so. 60 Minutes cameras were there as the group got 24 of the lions into traveling crates for the flight.

Cameras were also there for the happy ending, inside a lush preserve in South Africa.  There the cats could experience simple things they never knew in their caged existence, like the feel of grass, trees and the freedom to roam some 30 acres. “Seeing these animals when you’ve taken them to as close as we can give them to freedom really is what it’s all about,” says Phillips.