Panamanian lions settle into new home at Wild Animal Sanctuary

Panamanian lions settle into new home at Wild Animal Sanctuary

The new Panama lionesses at the Wild Animal Sanctuary, from top to bottom, Kaitlin, Elena and Alyssa, enjoy their new home outside Denver. Prior to their rescue, the lions were kept in a 5-foot by 8-foot cage with concrete floors. Now they enjoy a large, comfortable space with proper bedding and toys.
NANTENA BELLER / For the Tribune
Kaitlin still spends some time every day pacing in the corner, despite all the space around her.

It all must feel so foreign, even two weeks after she and her two pride sisters arrived on Sept. 28. The extra meat, the soft sod beneath her paws and that space provided by the Wild Animal Sanctuary in Keenesburg represent everything they didn’t have in their lives on some fairgrounds outside of Panama City.

Their world for their 14 years prior was a concrete floor, a 40-square-foot cage and scraps of food.

They’ll adjust. Just look at the 25 lions the sanctuary brought to its 720 acres in its last international rescue in mid-February. They were circus animals from Bolivia, and they lived in the same small cages, off tiny diets and on stone-cold floors.

“Now they have bellies on them,” said Katie Vandegrift, spokeswoman for the sanctuary. “Their coats are better, and they don’t seem to have any worries in the world. Now they just get to enjoy being lions.”

That’s the goal for the three sisters, too, but it will take some work, just as it did for the 25 Bolivians. The girls don’t eat as well as their new caretakers would like, but that’s because back on those fairgrounds outside of Panama City, they had to make their meat last, as they weren’t sure when more was coming. They need some vet and dental work. They need a pride. The sanctuary hopes to put them with Kimba.

Kimba is a bit older and a little cranky, so much so that sanctuary workers call him the grandpa. But it may be a good fit: The females are essentially middle-aged, just a year or two younger than him (lions usually live 23 years or so in captivity), and they were mesmerized with Kimba’s call when he started roaring at them as soon as they walked in their new home. Just in case the match goes REALLY well, the three will be fitted with implants, so they can “date but not mate,” as Vandegrift said.

They named two of them Alyssa and Kaitlin after the FedEx planes that brought them to Denver, and they named the third Elena after Elena Castejon, a woman in Panama who worked to free the lions. She was one of dozens of people and organizations who have helped the sanctuary in recent months bring the 25 circus lions and now the trio to Keenesburg.

After Kimba’s introduction and when they get healthier and heavier, the sanctuary will open the gates to a 20-acre habitat probably little different from Africa, save for the winters here. The sanctuary will also give the public a chance to see all of the lions by the end of the year, when a mile-long walkway will lead visitors to the lion’s habitat cages that facility workers built in two months to prepare for the 25 circus cats.

“We know the three have a long way to go,” Vandegrift said.

New lionesses from Panama, Elena and Kaitlin, react to the roars of other lions in the Bolivian lion house. The lion house was built earlier this year to house the 23 lions rescued from Bolivia.
NANTENA BELLER / For the Tribune

But they look forward to the day when they can open the doors to the wide-open prairie, and the three females will have a place to roam rather than pace.

See the lions
The Wild Animal Sanctuary is located at 1946 CR 53 in Keenesburg. Go to The sanctuary is open to the public from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. seven days a week. The cost is $10 for adults and $5 for children 12 and under. Kids under 3 are admitted free.


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