'Lion Ark' Documentary Turns Animal Rescue Activists Into Filmmakers

Courtesy of Animal Defenders International
"Lion Ark"

"It’s a key piece of history in animal protection legislation," Tim Phillips, vice president and co-founder of welfare group Animal Defenders International, tells THR. "We decided at that point we would record everything."

With abused and neglected lions loaded in damaged cages, the Lion Ark Operation progressed through treacherous mountains where the revolutionary Che Guevara once hid. The rescue operation continued along the vertiginous passes, one part of a dramatic mission to remove mistreated lions recently outlawed from circuses in Bolivia. Sometimes the roads hacked out of rock were not much wider than the top-heavy trucks the rescuers drove. That particular journey alone -- captured in the documentary Lion Ark and spearheaded by the welfare group Animal Defenders International (ADI) -- lasted a grueling 14 hours.

Tim Phillips, vice president and co-founder of ADI, documented the entire operation that involved seizing lions from eight different circuses spread across Bolivia and relocating them in a huge airlift to the United States, but didn't know that it would prove dramatic enough to form a documentary film and turn him into an award-winning feature-length director. Since it hit the festival circuit, the movie has won best documentary and audience favorite awards at film festivals in San Diego, Palm Beach, Anchorage, Omaha, Mississippi and Sedona.

“We actually pieced it together from live action,” Phillips tells The Hollywood Reporter. “I think that’s what gives you a real visceral sense of what it’s like to save animals and what’s actually happening to these animals.”

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Phillips and his wife, Jan Creamer, ADI's CEO and president, founded the group (whose celebrity supporters have included Bob Barker, Ricky Gervais, Jorja Fox and Paul and Stella McCartney) in 1990. They have previously filmed shorts on their work. The mission in Bolivia, however, combined a major country-wide legislative victory with multiple lion rescues.

To lay the groundwork for this, ADI had undertaken a major undercover investigation, lasting almost two years, inside South America's circus industry. The findings shocked many across South America and Bolivia was the first to act, with far-reaching legislation banning all animals -- wild and domesticated -- in circuses in 2009. The problem was that only one circus complied, and over a year after the law was passed it was business as usual for the rest. The ADI team returned to track down the circuses with the authorities, this time with a view to seizing the animals.

“It’s a key piece of history in animal protection legislation,” Phillips says. “We decided at that point we would record everything.”

Phillips helped raise $450,000 for the film through the crowdfunding site Indiegogo, supporters of ADI and ADI itself. Supporters who donated a minimum of $500 to the project were granted the title of "Contributor Producer."

Lion Ark documents feuds with screaming circus workers, who brandished knives and threatened the lives of Phillips’ crew. The lions, he notes, were so severely abused that some hurled themselves, angrily and futilely, at the bars of their cages. Some were severely malnourished. One family of big cats was packed eight to a cage.

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“I’d never seen so many lions in a cage,” Phillips said. “It was an absolute disgrace.” Many of the lions come to life as characters on the screen; you see their transformation from being subdued and half-starved to regal (and even playful) creatures once more."

Once the Bolivian government gave the rescue mission a green light, ADI found itself suddenly responsible for the lions. There weren’t sufficient facilities or sanctuaries for the jungle cats in their own country.

ADI was able to find a permanent home for the animals, 25 lions in all, at a sanctuary -- The Wild Animal Sanctuary run by Pat Craig -- in Keenesburg, Colo. The relocation would prove to be the biggest component of the rescue. Seizing, rehabilitating and transporting the lions to their new home took almost three months, which Philips says is an incredible turnaround for that kind of project. The total rescue project took ADI nine months.

Phillips says ADI continues to fund their care at the sanctuary and visits the lions regularly. The once-ferocious animals are now completely at peace, a process that Phillips says the documentary aimed to capture.

“It tells a story that first and foremost enables people to understand what these animals go through in an exciting and interesting way,” Phillips says. “We see the full transformation of these animals from misery to a very, very happy ending.”

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Part of the success of the Lion Ark Operation, Phillips says, is that the organization was able to show governments that protective laws could be introduced and also effectively enforced; four more bans very rapidly followed in South America -- in Peru, Ecuador, Paraguay, Colombia.

Despite the shocking abuse Lion Ark documents, Phillips maintains it is a feel-good film.

“Although we showcase how these animals are treated, we do not linger on it and people do leave the theater with a smile on their face and feeling empowered,” he says. One of the angriest lions, Colo Colo, is shown rolling happily in the grass in Colorado post-relocation.

Today, three countries have banned the use of animals in circuses -- Bolivia, which was the pioneer country, followed by Greece and Bosnia Herzegovina -- whilst 25 others have banned all wild animals or specific wild species.

On a more local front, Phillips addresses a slower, but concerted step toward protecting wild animals from mistreatment, pointing to a small but growing number of U.S. cities that have banned the use of wild animals in circuses, including West Hollywood, Calif. As the lions are released into their new homes in Lion Ark, the film cuts to the ADI team and Representative Jim Moran introducing legislation to the U.S. Congress that would end the use of wild animals in circuses. That legislation fell, but was reintroduced in late April this year -- so Lion Ark may have inspired the first steps on the road to a piece of U.S. animal protection history, too.