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Wild Animal Sanctuary crew members transport a lion from Puerto Rico's only zoo, in Mayaguez, Puerto Rico, Friday, April 28, 2023. Puerto Rico is closing the U.S. territory's only zoo following years of suspected neglect, a lack of resources and deaths of animals that were highlighted by activists. Most of the animals are being transferred to The Wild Animal Sanctuary in Colorado. (AP Photo/Alejandro Granadillo)

Malawi the lioness does not walk like her wild kin that stalk the African plains with stealth and menace.

Instead, the 3-year-old resembles a punch-drunk boxer staggering to get to her neutral corner after a 10th round pummeling. She lists slightly to one side while trying to keep her footing before her 300-pound frame sags to the ground at an airy enclosure at Keenesburg’s Wild Animal Sanctuary in Weld County.

Malawi and her 3-year-old female sibling, Chad, have legs that are so badly atrophied they are unable to support their bulk, mostly from malnutrition and lack of physical activity. They and five other lions suffered the same fate, spending all of their lives in 20-by-30-foot individual cages at the defunct Dr. Juan A. Reviro Zoo in Puerto Rico

A big male — 17-year-old Tsavo — has a mouthful of rotten teeth and other ailments, sanctuary officials say. 

Marsha Vermilye, co-director of animal care, interacts with a lion named Tsavo, that came to the Wild Animal Sanctuary after the permanent closure of the Dr. Juan A. Rivero Zoo in Mayagüez, Puerto Rico. (Jeremy Sparig, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Broken physically, the lions also appeared defeated in spirit by the time they arrived at the 1,200-acre Wild Animal Sanctuary in April, Marsha Vermilye, co-director of animal care at the sanctuary, said recently. The effort to get the lions, along with two black bears and a towering camel called Dasani, to the sanctuary is part of a massive modern-day Noah’s Ark-type effort to rescue hundreds of animals from the shuttered zoo and settle them elsewhere. 

Officials say this rescue is three times larger than any other operation it has taken on. Not only is the sanctuary dealing with large mammals like hippos, bears and lions, but also spiders, snakes and birds. 

“There is so much here and some of the animals are still hard to find,” said Pat Craig, executive director of the sanctuary.

The U.S. Department of Justice enlisted the help of the Wildlife Sanctuary to lead the attempt because of its track record of getting tigers, bears, lions and other animals trapped in squalid roadside zoos, residential basements and chained-in backyards back into a habitat more like their wild brethren, said Pat Craig. The sanctuary operates four sites in Colorado and Texas encompassing 33,000 acres.

“We’ve done a lot of this work before and we’ve done it well,” Craig said. “And so many of these animals who have been trapped in that zoo have already died. We didn’t want any more of them to wind up like that.”

“And for a lot of them, we got them out just in time,” Craig said.

Vermilye was among a team of veterinarians and caretakers from the Wild Animal Sanctuary who spent several days at the Puerto Rican facility to help prepare and then fly the lions, bears and other animals to sanctuaries at a cost of well over $1 million, said Jessica McCormick, chief executive officer for the Wild Animal Sanctuary.

“We are bearing all the costs including transportation, airplanes, hotels and everything else it takes to get those animals out,” McCormick said. 

Varmilye said she was jolted to tears when she saw the lions struggle to remain upright on badly weakened legs when they were released into sanctuary enclosures in Keenesburg.

“When I first saw them try to run once they arrived here, I cried. I bawled like a baby,” Vermilye said. “They looked like toddlers … stumbling around trying to get their footing.”

“To see these majestic animals reduced to this …” Vermilye said, her voice quaking. “They were just broken and it breaks my heart.”

Deciding which animals go where

Craig will oversee the movement of the zoo animals to their new homes over the next six months. The Animal Sanctuary now includes a population of more than 600 animals, mostly carnivores, and made a natural home for the meat-eating Puerto Rican refugees, Craig said.

The Denver Zoo took in a crested porcupine, marabou stork and red kangaroo from Puerto Rico. The new additions fit into the Denver Zoo’s mission of exposing people to animals rarely seen anywhere but in the wild, said Brian Aucone, vice president of life sciences for the zoo.

“We want to create more dynamic exhibits and get people more connected to the animals,” Aucone said. “We want to get people more conservation-minded and save these animals while we can.”

The rare marabou stork easily fits into the unique category for the zoo, Aucone said. The storks hail from Africa and are dubbed the “undertaker bird” for their stooped appearance. They also grow to an unnerving 5-feet-tall. “They are a little creepy.”

He admits the whole endeavor has a Biblical quality to it. “I guess it is a bit like Noah,” Aucone said. “We just want to deliver a happy ending to some very sad stories.”

Craig said each sanctuary is consulted over which animals they will receive based on their capacity and how the habitat fits a particular species.  

Mundi, an African elephant, was flown to an elephant sanctuary in Georgia in May,  Craig said. Mara is a female chimpanzee that has lived alone while being locked indoors at the zoo for many years and has been rescued and taken to a sanctuary in Indiana where she can live with other chimps, he said.

A lone sloth and two Andean condors have also been airlifted to safety and will live out their lives in “nurturing” facilities that specialize in caring for their species, he said.

Others remain at the zoo in Puerto Rico awaiting new homes, including Felipe, an African white rhino, as well as two elderly hippos that are slated for a sanctuary in Texas, Craig said.

Efforts by local residents and Wild Animal Sanctuary employees are keeping the animals alive, he said. “But many are hanging on by a thread.”

Marsha Vermilye co-director of animal care, feeds grapes to a bear named Mikey on May 4 at the Wild Animal Sanctuary. The bear was rescued after the Dr. Juan A. Rivero Zoo, in Mayagüez, Puerto Rico. (Jeremy Sparig, Special to The Colorado Sun)

In all, about 200 animals have been rescued from their island cages, McCormick said. But at least 500 are left, including birds, reptiles and some primates. 

Their new homes are picked after consulting with Craig and his team to ensure their new habitats best fit each species, sanctuary officials said. 

“It will be several weeks to get all the animals out,” McCormick said. “We want to make sure they have good homes to recover and get healthy.”

The new residents at the Denver Zoo and the Wild Animal Sanctuary will be kept apart from other animals for a period of time to ensure they don’t spread diseases. They also need to get comfortable with their new environment, officials say.

“It’s a lot like getting used to a new roommate at a college dorm,” Jessica McCormick, chief administrative officer for the sanctuary. “We want to make sure everyone gets along with each other.”

The animals are being given special vitamin-enriched diets so they can regain their strength. Until then, the lions are being kept in separate enclosures that used to house the sanctuary’s tigers. They can roam a bit, get their food and water and enjoy fresh air.

No one can predict when they will be healthy enough to move into a habitat with other lions or bears, Vermilye said. “It might take weeks, months or maybe years,” she said. “We can’t force them to do something they don’t want to do.”

Patrick Craig from The Wild Animal Sanctuary tries to sedate a lion, caged in Puerto Rico’s only zoo, in Mayagüez, Puerto Rico, on April 28. (AP Photo/Alejandro Granadillo)

Craig is splitting time between Keenesburg and Puerto Rico to manage the airlift of animals that remain at the zoo.

Juan A. Rivero Zoo, the only zoo on the island of Puerto Rico, began having financial troubles as far back as 2012. The zoo declined year after year which resulted in animals dying, Craig said.

“It was a situation that got worse and worse,” Craig said.

As USDA violations piled up, the zoo finally closed its doors to visitors in 2017. But the Puerto Rican government kept the animals locked in their cages, Craig said. 

Later that same year, Hurricane Irma devastated the island and left residents and the zoo with no power for four months, he said. 

The zoo was heavily damaged and some animals escaped while others survived in their enclosures. But the lack of care took its toll on the animals, Craig said.

“Year after year nothing was done to address the overall problem of inadequate funding which in-turn greatly impacted the overall care that could be provided to the animals,” Craig said in an email plea to donors to provide funding for the rescue.

In March, the DOJ and the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico on behalf of the Puerto Rico Department of Justice and the Puerto Rico Department of Environment and Natural Resources, reached an agreement to get the trapped animals out of the zoo.  

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service also removed a bald eagle, a golden eagle, two great horned owls, a red-tailed hawk and two snakes, according to the justice department.

The conditions at the zoo were so stark that Puerto Rico officials are considering making it illegal to exhibit captive animals in any government owned park. Riviro Zoo, located on land belonging to the University of Puerto Rico Mayagüez campus, will be converted to an ecological park. 

A camel looks out from a transport cage at Puerto Rico’s only zoo . Puerto Rico is closing the U.S. territory’s only zoo following years of suspected neglect, a lack of resources and deaths of animals that were highlighted by activists. Most of the animals are being transferred to The Wild Animal Sanctuary in Colorado. (AP Photo/Alejandro Granadillo)

The 22-year-old Dasani — a single-hump camel — is blending in well with the sanctuary’s other camels and horses on the northwest edge of the compound. She shows little hesitation in strolling toward a group of visitors to check them out. 

“She’s very curious about people,” Vermilye said as Dasani got closer.  “But don’t get too close. She’s pretty powerful.”

With that Vermilye ushered the visitors into a couple of electric carts to whisk them away from an advancing Dasani.

The camel veered off toward a group of horses to mingle and munch on hay. 

“There she goes,” Vermilye said. “She’s with her group now. She can now live out a happy life.”

A single-hump camel known as Dasani is settling in with other camels and with horses at the Wild Animal Sanctuary. (Jeremy Sparig, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Special to The Colorado Sun Twitter: @monteWhaley