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A Well-Told Tale of A Daring Big Cat Rescue Operation

Film Review: Lion Ark

Lion Ark is a film about a daring rescue operation that liberated 25 lions from bondage. But not, to use another Biblical analogy, from “way down in Egypt land” – rather, from circuses in Bolivia. This engrossing documentary combines elements of Steven Spielberg’s Holocaust drama Schindler’s List, the 1966 lion movie Born Free, and the recently released nonfiction film about marine mammals in captivity, Blackfish.

photo of a lion through the bars of a cageImages and video courtesy ADIThe film follows animal rights activists who track down circuses scattered around Bolivia and stage
a series of nationwide roundups of 25 captive lions.

This well-made advocacy doc, that recently won the Audience Choice Award in the documentary category at the San Diego Film Festival, has an “as-it-happens” feel and unfolds like a tension-filled drama. Lion Ark features members of Animal Defenders International, an animal rights organization. who go undercover to expose the poor living conditions and violence allegedly inflicted upon lions and other animals at Bolivian circuses. There is some harrowing footage of animals being abused that appears to be shot clandestinely and that many viewers may find hard to watch. (These behind-the-scenes exposé shots are hallmarks of ADI campaigns against the use of animals in entertainment and laboratory experiments.) The film also has some picturesque cinematography of natural scenery and wildlife.

Thanks to ADI’s “Stop Circus Suffering” initiative in South America, the Bolivian government (under the progressive rule of President Evo Morales, who, for some reason, is never mentioned onscreen) has banned the use of wild animals in circuses. However, when the new law to protect these mammals goes unenforced, the Defenders take direct action. The film follows the activists who, acting in league with government officials, begin tracking down the seven or so circuses scattered around Bolivia and stage a series of nationwide roundups of 25 captive lions.

photo of many lions in a small cage
Many of the lions were found living in deplorable conditions inside filthy, cramped cages.

The intrepid organizers raid the Bolivian big tops, often at great risk to their selves, and seize the imprisoned beasts who appear to have been living in deplorable conditions inside of bare, filthy, cramped cages. The lions, which are among the world’s largest land predators, are filmed tensely pacing about their crowded cages, and/or displaying angry, aggressive, terrified behavior. “Who knows what they’ve been subjected to?” ADI President Jan Creamer laments.

The emancipated felines are then transported to a central holding area with more humane conditions where they begin recovering from the trauma of having been penned up, malnourished, and abused. Meanwhile plans are made to airlift all of the lions to the Wild Animal Sanctuary in Colorado. This is necessary, Creamer says, because they “can’t survive in Africa – they don’t have the knowledge, the ability” to survive in the wilderness after a life spent in captivity. The possibility that the captive lions might have also contracted diseases they could spread in the wild is another reason why they can’t be rewilded.

The film has no pretense of objectivity – it “objects” to the mistreatment of animals in captivity by humans who profiteer off of their misery by training hapless creatures to perform tricks for the amusement of ticket-buying Homo sapiens. ADI Films receives a “produced by” screen credit, while ADI president Creamer, a feisty British woman, shares producer and writing credits with husband and director Tim Phillips, who also appears onscreen. Phillips is a co-founder and vice president of ADI, while Creamer is also chief executive of the National Anti-Vivisection Society and the Lord Dowding Fund for Humane Research.

photo of a young woman and an elder manCelebrity animal rights activists Jorja Fox and Bob Barker featured in the film.

Other humans featured in Lion Ark include Bob Barker, the nearly 90-year-old former host of the popular TV game show The Price is Right. The longtime animal welfare activist is given credit for funding the bold rescue operation. When the lions arrive aboard a cargo plane at Denver International Airport, Barker drolly calls out to them: “Come on down!” On a more somber note, Barker decries the maltreatment of circus beasts that “are torn from their mothers… How do they train them? They beat them… and the day they die is the happiest day of their lives.”

Activist and actress Jorja Fox – who co-starred in the hit television dramas ER, The West Wing, and can currently be seen as Sara Sidle on CSI – also lends her star power to the film. According to her IMDB.com listing Fox “Is a dedicated vegetarian, and an aspiring vegan.” Other notables who appear onscreen include lawmakers Ximena Flores of Bolivia’s Congress and US Rep. Jim Moran. Congressman Moran is seen fighting for the Traveling Exotic Animal Protection Act (TEAPA), which would end the use of exotic and wild animals in traveling circuses (see: breakthechainus.com).

Lion Ark also touts ADI and the crusaders’ ongoing campaigns and legal initiatives on behalf of the rights and wellbeing of our two legged, four-legged and, feathered friends. According to the film, Animal Defenders International’s campaign against the use of animals in circuses has spread to other South American nations, and beyond.

However, as the film’s website puts it: “The real stars of Lion Ark are 25 magnificent lions.” The documentarycleverly uses titles to identify the big cats by name, as it does for the humans, which serves to individualize Colo Colo, Kimba, Hercules, plus the other members of various prides.

Lion Ark’s finale features shots of the unshackled felines romping in their new pastoral Colorado environs in ways that Born Free author Joy Adamson would have presumably applauded.

Lion Ark is being screened at the Starz Denver Film Festival on Nov. 9, 10, and 11 and is being theatrically released on Nov. 17 in New York City at the Quad Cinema and in L.A. at the Laemmle Music Hall. For more info see: www.lionarkthemovie.com.

 The new book co-authored by L.A.-based reviewer Ed Rampell, "The Hawaii Movie and Television Book", published by Honolulu's Mutual Publishing, drops Nov. 25 (see: hawaiimtvbook.weebly.com).


Lion Ark Trailer from Animal Defenders on Vimeo.

Ed Rampell
Ed Rampell is an LA-based film historian and critic and co-author of The Hawai‘i Movie and Television Book.

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