SANDSTONE, Minn. -- Four lion cubs rescued from Ukraine are now living in Minnesota at The Wildcat Sanctuary.
The cubs arrived in Sandstone Tuesday. Their names are Taras (4-month old male), Stefania (4-month-old female), Lesya (4-month-old female) and Prada (5-month-old female).
For the last three weeks, the cubs have been in Poland where they were cared for after surviving sporadic bombings and drone attacks in Ukraine.
"This has been a whirlwind," said Wildcat Sanctuary Founder Tammy Thies. "To see these cubs finally here at sanctuary is the best feeling I could have ever hoped for."
Thies says the rescue started in September, but wouldn't have been possible without the help and coordination of the International Fund For Animal Welfare. It was the group, known as IFAW, that was alerted the animals had been surrendered as part of a crackdown on illegal animal trading. From there, wheels were set in motion to get them to a full-time care facility, but Europe was quickly filling.
"(The cubs are) a symbol, they're a symbol of what can be done when we all work together," Thies said. "We didn't know until we stepped foot on that plane that we were actually going to be able to bring them to the US, so I think once we had them loaded in the plane, we were able to finally breathe like, they're going to finally be coming home. "
"For this rescue, there were so many different pieces and different players that all had to be perfectly aligned to have a success," said IFAW Rescue Manager Meredith Whitney. "We did have moments, more than I'd like to admit, where we thought 'this is never going to work'."
Whitney says one key factor in getting the animals to the United States is an international rule for flying animals – temperatures must be above 45 degrees.
"Typically, when a temperature drops below 45 degrees, they will not move animals. That's the safe move, it makes sense, but we were pushing that timeline," Whitney said.
This meant the rescue had to happen before winter temperatures fully set in, or else it would have to wait until the spring.
"This has been on and off so many times," Thies said. "There's been so many times where we thought this couldn't happen, or this couldn't happen for months. Up until the moment we were on the plane and had all the permits signed."
Thies says now, the sanctuary will work to blend the three lions, who had only met once prior, into one pride.
From there, she says they will spend the next 20 years of their lives living on site on a one acre habitat.
The 40-acre sanctuary based just more than 90 minutes north of the Twin Cities is home to more than 100 rescued lions, tigers and more.
The campus isn't open to the public. Rather, the organization operates as a nonprofit strictly aimed to give the animals a home. Donations to the nonprofit can be made here.
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