Once upon a time, the British public paid money to see lions and tigers in zoos and circuses. Now they pay to translocate them from captivity in Europe to captivity in Africa. Are wildlife charities lying to donors? Do they exploit the animals they claim to be saving? Ben O’Rourke investigates the world of pricy, high-profile operations, supported by extremist groups and a compliant media
Born Free is a 1966 film about lions in Africa that shows how difficult it is to release them into the wild after years in captivity. Virginia McKenna and Bill Travers play the real-life Adamson couple who adopt three cute cubs but – spoiler alert – two go to a zoo and the third is so hard to ‘rewild’ that they resolve not to adopt any more lion cubs.
The making of the film was a life-changing experience for actors McKenna and her husband Travers, who became animal rights activists. They set up the Born Free Foundation (BFF) in the 1980s. The charity rescues lions and other animals it says suffer abuse in circuses, zoos and private collections, then sends them to Africa.
Social media users gush how wonderful it is that charities such as BFF save exotic animals from appalling conditions for what they imagine is a better life in Africa, their ‘ancestral home’. “You are all simply quite amazing for everything you have done to give these lions a life of freedom after their life of abuse,” replied one follower to a tweet about lions Nelson and Ciam, which were flown to a BFF sanctuary in South Africa. “Just a little bit longer and they will be home,” said another.
Adding celeb power is former comedian Vic Reeves, who had a top 10 hit in 1991 covering the theme song to Born Free. He appeared in photos with McKenna at a rescue centre in Belgium as the lions were about to leave.
“The lyric goes ‘life is worth living when you’re born free’ but for the two lions, Nelson and Ciam, who were not born free and never lived free, life is now, at last, worth living,” McKenna was quoted as saying in a BFF press release, that said she was with the lions throughout their 10,000km trip. “Nelson, after 14 years of imprisonment and about two years at the Natuurhulpcentrum rescue centre in Belgium, and Ciam, bought from a terrible circus by someone who kept him illegally in his back yard, will now have a new life at the Born Free sanctuary at Shamwari… At last they are free to live where lions belong.”
This may all seem great, but is it part of a scam involving a network of animal rights extremists, rescue centres and so-called sanctuaries? Among their goals are self-promotion and millions of pounds donated by people moved by media stories of their love of animals, an image reinforced by high-profile and expensive ‘rescues’.
In reality, many of the animals were never abused nor living in squalor. Sending Nelson and Ciam to Africa is like moving prisoners from one jail to another. They’re still condemned to a life behind bars because, as the film that inspired BFF shows, it is so hard to release captive lions.
Like Nelson and Ciam, Maggie and Sonja are lions the BFF ‘returned’ to Africa despite them never having been there. With tigers Simi and Julia and Gitana the elephant, they were forcibly taken from Circus Las Vegas in Germany in 2013.
PETA was pestering the circus. The animal rights extremists told a prosecutor in Kiel, near Hamburg, that the elephant was ‘being abused’ because it wasn’t living with other elephants. It did not suffer abuse and was in good health until police took it from its paddock using bullhooks.
About 100 officers turned up one day in May 2013 and ordered staff to stay in their caravans while they took the animals away. The operation lasted hours. In a press release written before the confiscation, PETA declared the mission a successful “liberation”.
“There are clear signs of a violation of the Animal Welfare Act,” senior public prosecutor Birgit Hess told Hamburger Abendblatt newspaper. “The animals were confiscated and are now to be examined.”
That didn’t happen because the public prosecutor’s office sped up the transfer, bypassing a legal requirement to allow the circus a hearing.
The circus complained and the animal welfare officer involved, Maya S (surnames are not made public in German court cases), spent the next seven years defending herself from charges of perverting the course of justice. She was behind an “emergency sale” to Natuurhulpcentrum Wildlife Rescue Centre (NWRC) in Belgium, said to be €100 (£87) per animal. The transaction could not be reversed as it was considered legal at the time, despite obvious errors during the process.
PETA’s accusations were thrown out of court. “The conditions for confiscation were not met,” the court in Kiel eventually found in August 2014. “The seizure was not permissible.”
Witnesses – all vets – testified that the cats behaved normally, formed a ‘homogeneous group’ and lived in well-kept, spacious areas. Prosecutors dropped all proceedings against the circus and lawyers told the owners to expect compensation.
By the time Maya S was acquitted in 2021, only €30,000 (£25,700) had been awarded and, since she appeared to be off the hook, it was unlikely the owners would get the rest of the €408,000 in lost revenue.
“It all hurts to this day. I’m still plagued by nightmares,” Liane Köllner-Wisheit, head of the family that owned Circus Las Vegas, told the media after the acquittal. “So far we haven’t seen any money,” she replied, when asked about compensation for the big cats.
“Only in the case of a lioness that suffered from a wound caused by a tail amputation a long time ago, the withdrawal was justified,” the Kiel court said in its 2014 ruling. This was confirmed by German journalist Heike Hiltrop, who has followed the case from the start and was there when the big cats were given to NWRC in May 2013. “There was no big cat with an injured paw,” she told us, “only one with a docked tail and a wound there, which the vet said was treated, but it [took] a long time to heal… There was no talk of animal cruelty. On the contrary, experts were of the opinion that it was not justified to confiscate the animals. I was at the trial myself.”
Circus Las Vegas was not the only German company to fall foul of overzealous public prosecutors. A united front of disgruntled owners of injured animals began a protest movement that spread across the country. The confiscation was a national scandal and headline news. It was covered in the media throughout Europe.
Apparently, none of the news reports caught the attention of NWRC. Nor did some staff at NWRC seem to know where the big cats came from.
“I said everything on the phone what we know and don’t know about this case,” NWRC biologist Frederik Thoelen told Fieldsports News. His excuse was he’d only worked there about three years.
Surely NWRC has records of animal acquisitions? We advised him to ask the centre’s director Sil Janssen. He was interviewed for an article published days after the raid and knew all about the transfer. “Lionesses, tigresses and an elephant were confiscated, Sil told local Dutch-language newspaper Het Belang van Limburg. “The owners could not produce any papers showing that the animals were being monitored by a doctor.”
By mid 2015, the German public prosecutors’ office was asking for legal assistance from Belgian authorities to try to clean up the mess its own animal welfare officer caused. This led to searches and interviews in Belgium in 2017. The recipient of many of the animals, NWRC, is likely to have been involved. Frederik stands by his ignorance.
In his email to Fieldsports News, he insists: “I also said that I could not answer the other questions since we don’t know anything about your comments.”
One of the comments was whether it was true NWRC asked the circus to send the animals with their trailers. Sil said there was no room for the animals in German zoos, so NWRC took them on the condition their trailers were provided because it “had no suitable cage to put them”, according to Het Belang van Limburg. “The animals are going to stay here for about two weeks,” Sil insisted, but some were there nearly three years.
It’s not surprising NWRC had no big cat facilities. Its social media posts focus on the ducks, squirrels, deer, foxes and owls it treats. One follower claims the centre “helped more than 95,000 sick or injured native birds of prey, badgers, small cattle [and] hedgehogs” in 2020. No mention of large and dangerous predators.
“One lioness has lost a tail and one tiger is limping,” Sil noted in his interview. “The claws of the front paws are also pulled out. But otherwise they are doing well… Our vet will check them.”
New question: how did Frederik’s team of vets have time to see them in between the squirrels, hedgehogs and 258 other animals they treat every day to meet the 95,000 patients claim?
Regardless of the facility’s capabilities, the cats were no doubt a welcome addition for the owners, as visitors/donations would increase dramatically. Running the centre costs more than €1 million (£860,000) a year and it charges €4.50 for people to enter. It has a gift shop, which it lists as a main source of income. It is also sponsored by several corporations, the most famous being Ikea.
Other questions we wanted answered but weren’t were why NWRC perpetuated PETA’s lies after German courts dismissed them as nonsense and cleared the circus of any wrongdoing? Plus, why didn’t it wait for the outcome of Circus Las Vegas’s appeal before giving its animals away?
In April 2014, after being at NWRC nearly a year, one of the confiscated tigers, called ‘Julia’, was sent to Woodside Wildlife Park in Lincolnshire. The female went with ‘Tango’, a male taken from a French circus in 2009 with another tiger called ‘Ginger’. The circus gave them up “for safety reasons”, not because they were abused.
NWRC told their stories on its website when they finally became the centre’s property. There’s a photo of Sil Janssen shaking hands with a port official or the owner of the animals – it’s not clear which. The tigers’ back story changed dramatically after they arrived at Woodside.
“Rescued from a European circus by concerned authorities, Woodside stepped in at the 11th hour and successfully managed to give these magnificent animals a safe, secure and long term home,” claimed the zoo’s website, not mentioning it was only Tango that was threatened with death by NWRC to make room for younger, sexier tigers.
“The pair of male and female tigers were both very badly treated in captivity by their previous owners.” Another lie and then the punchline: “The cost of rescuing these tigers from the European authorities, transporting them over to the UK and constructing the purpose built enclosure has been significant; as will be the costs of providing continuous care in future… We would really appreciate any donation you are able to give, no matter how small, to help us to care for these beautiful tigers and give them some quality of life at last…”
In the list of required donations is £250,000 “to recoup the initial rescue costs, so we can save even more animals in future”, although nothing in the company’s accounts for that year suggest it spent that much money. Woodside tapped into Tango’s fame from petrol adverts, adding a graphic to the home page inviting people to “meet Tango the Esso tiger”, not worrying it might be exploiting a tiger it claimed had a history of being exploited.
Pictures on Woodside’s website showed Julia and Tango idling at NWRC, although the captions twist the truth. “The female tigress behind bars at the Circus,” claims one. “Lying listless without hope,” insists another. Below them more blurb begging readers to pay the park’s bills.
The Daily Mail picked up story. It expanded the big cats’ backgrounds, disputing the court-verified history of Julia. “Tango the tiger who starred in iconic Esso adverts is saved from death by British wildlife park after being abused at German circus,” reads the headline.
Tango may or may not have been to Germany but it was not part of Circus Las Vegas with Julia. Woodside’s director Neil Mumby sticks to the lie the tigers were at the same circus, but waters down the story – sort of – admitting Tango “is sadly believed to have been mistreated”.
In the comments section, an eagle-eyed reader picks at the nits: “BELIEVED to have been? No actual proof or details? Seems to me to be a great marketing ploy by this zoo.”
Since then, Tango died and the updated version of the page says Julia’s move to Woodside was “part of a rescue project to remove her from the circus industry”. The original background story and appeals for cash have been deleted but can still be seen on the internet’s Wayback Machine.
“We try to find a new home for our guests,” insists Sil to Het Belang van Limburg. “After they have been released by the judge. NWRC is never the final destination. That is why there are always places available here, in contrast to shelters where animals can stay permanently. Those cages are usually full.”
A tweet by a talk show in 2018 on which Sil was a guest claims he’s Belgium’s ‘biggest animal lover’ and describes NWRC as somewhere “exotic animals sometimes spend a night”. Two lions called ‘Maggie’ and ‘Sonja’ stayed at NWRC more than a year. They were the focus of one of Born Free Foundation’s high-profile publicity stunts.
When they arrived in the UK – a needless stop since they were on their way to Africa – the media fell in line with NWRC and BFF’s narrative. “Safe at last: lionesses touch down in Britain after rescue from horrific German circus,” says the Daily Mirror headline under a photo of pop singer Peter Andre posing with Maggie.
“Tragic Maggie and Sonja… had been caged in a tiny cramped trailer while being tormented and forced to perform painful and degrading tricks in return for food,” says the article about the same trailer NWRC found acceptable.
“Maggie and Sonja… were finally saved when desperate animal charity workers swooped on the cruel Zirkus Las Vegas show in Hamburg…” it goes on, referring to PETA as the ‘desperate charity workers’.
“Squalor: Their living conditions were so bad Maggie faced almost certain death and had to have part of her tail amputated,” under a photo of Maggie in the same travel cage in the Peter Andre picture.
Andre, a BFF patron along with Vic Reeves, told the newspaper about how “absolutely incredible” it was. “They’re returning home. They’re finally going to be free… I’ll remember this forever,” he says, perhaps not knowing they’ve never been there and will spend the rest of their days surrounded by thick lion-proof fences. Who paid for all this? “Lots of generous and kind-hearted Brits have helped to make this happen by donating money.”
Will the “kind-hearted Brits” be so kind when they realise they were duped into paying for a PR stunt? We asked NWRC why it didn’t correct organisations such as Woodside or BFF when they lied to the press, claiming the animals were saved from cruelty when they weren’t? No answer.
Another source selling the same fairy tale was clickbait site the Dodo. The piece credits BFF with contributing a photo captioned: “A lioness sits on her hind legs on top of a red stool. Behind her, a man holds up a rod with a piece of meat attached to the end. The lioness reaches for the meat, swinging her paw as she tries to stay balanced.”
The image came from an article in Neue Westfälische about Circus Las Vegas giving tickets to children of jobless people who’d joined a government re-employment plan. It’s not an example of how cruel the owners of the circus supposedly are, but their generosity. The original description isn’t so heart-wrenching and credits the image to the writer of the article, Ulf Hanke: “Lioness Maggie doesn’t want to wait any longer. How could she, when Giuliano Köllner holds the delicious meat right in front of her nose?”
In between libellous claims against the circus and someone else’s copyrighted images, the Dodo writer admits: “Besides what can be seen in two old photographs, not much is known about the two sisters’ lives in the circus.”
Wait, weren’t we told these animals suffered years of abuse?
“Tricia Holford, rescue program coordinator for the Born Free Foundation, has reason to believe the lionesses had lived in appalling conditions. ‘Along with regular performances, they spent the rest of their time confined to a circus trailer,’ Holford told The Dodo.”
Firstly, does she mean the same circus trailer NWRC borrowed to house the big cats? Secondly, “reason to believe” against “not much is known” about your own claims is not conclusive.
Andrea Donaldson, BFF’s acting head of rescue and care, insists the organisation has evidence of the mistreatment of the cats following an “investigation by PETA, where they filmed and documented several areas of concern”. That can only be the evidence dismissed by the German court.
A vet testifying made it clear that it was baseless PETA propaganda designed to provoke the illegal confiscation. Fieldsports News quizzed BFF about why it was still smearing Circus Las Vegas and peddling PETA propaganda dismissed by a German court. Andrea hasn’t replied.
We also contacted the European Alliance of Rescue Centres and Sanctuaries (EARS) to ask whether NWRC violated its rules by lying to the public. “Having heard their side of the story, I’m satisfied that this is not an issue of concern for EARS,” executive director Dave Eastham told us. NWRC is a founder member of the organisation.
“While Sonja and Maggie received excellent care at Natuurhulpcentrum, everyone involved in their rescue thought they’d be happier somewhere else – Africa,” Sil told the Dodo. “About a year later, Natuurhulpcentrum and Born Free joined forces to move the sisters to Shamwari, a big cat sanctuary run by Born Free in South Africa.” Holford adds: “Though they can never been (sic) released into the wild, they live in a large, natural enclosure in their ancestral home of Africa, a lifetime away from the cramped and squalid conditions they endured at the circus.”
The Dodo article ends with a link to BFF’s website and encourages people to donate.
In 2017, BFF declared: “This year, Born Free has gone ‘back to its roots’ with a focus on challenging the exploitation of wild animals in captivity and the multi-billion-pound global zoo industry through its Beyond the Bars campaign.”
What it wants, with the help of organisations such as PETA, is to close all the zoos so people need to visit the animals it saves at the Shamwari ‘sanctuary’.
And what is the Shamwari sanctuary? The UAE government’s Dubai World Africa investment arm bought a major shareholding in Shamwari Private Game Reserve in South Africa in 2008 for 600 million rand (US$74 million at the time). It includes a zoo housing lions from Europe.
Dubai World Chairman Sultan Ahmed bin Sulayem said at the time: “The acquisition of these top-end resorts represents a sound opportunity to co-invest in the growing South African hospitality sector… The deal presents a highly prospective growth opportunity for South African economy.”
The cheapest accommodation is about £500 a night. Compared with the free performances Circus Las Vegas put on for underprivileged children, it couldn’t be more different.