Thursday, March 4, 2010
Paul Hart will never forget the first time he met Ares. It was at an airport in South Africa, and Ares—a 2-and-a-half-year-old lion—had just been flown in from France. Hart peered inside the animal's travelling crate and was shocked by what he saw.
"He was only about a third the size a lion his age should be," says Hart, 36, founder of Drakenstein Lion Park, a sanctuary for captive born predators in the Cape Winelands region of South Africa. "He had extensive old facial lacerations and a number of old wounds on his legs. And his eyes were so swollen that he couldn't see out of one and only had about 10 percent vision in the other."
Ares had been rescued from a French circus, where he'd been severely malnourished and kept in a cage with barely any room to move. He'd developed an eye infection that went untreated, causing glands in his eyes to swell and block his sight. Most likely, he had been beaten as well. "To be honest, my first reaction when I saw him was how a lion in his condition could have survived at all," says Hart. But Hart also knew that lions are fierce and proud creatures, and that Ares had not yet lost his will to live. And so Hart loaded up the travelling crate and went to work.
Hart, who grew up surrounded by pets and later worked at a zoo, founded Drakenstein in 1998; since then he has provided care and sanctuary for dozens of abused lions, letting them live out their years on the park's lush 50-acre grounds. Ares, though, was a special case. He had been brutally declawed, which affected his gait, and he was so weak he could not even get up to eat. "For the first week I had to take his food to him every day," says Hart. "I'd go into his enclosure and place the food very close to him. But even though he was small for his age, he is still a lion. And as soon as I became unsure that I could outrun him, the room-service meals stopped."
Hart had hoped to let Ares gain strength before operating on his eyes, but his condition was so bad that a veterinarian was brought in right away. In a one-hour procedure, the vet removed the lion's prolapsed eye glands and treated his facial wounds. "Taking out the glands immediately restored his vision," says Hart. "And now we’re hopeful that Ares won't even need any more surgery."
Suddenly Ares was bombarded by stimuli—light, movement, color—and it took him a while to adjust. After all, "he'd lived most of his life in the dark," says Hart. But then Ares started to come around. He gained strength, ate more, got up and roamed about. "This was the first time he had ever walked on grass or sand," says Hart. "The first time he had ever seen a tree. The first time he had ever had so much space."
Hart and other staffers could see that Ares was, in essence, being born again. And that earned him a special place in their hearts. "I go out of my way to bond with new rescues, but sometimes that takes years," says Hart. "With Ares, it was almost instantaneous."
Hart lives at the park with his wife, a radiologist, and their son Shane, 7, who, like his dad, loves lions and sometimes sleeps with a cub in his bed. Hart keeps the park running largely through donations—the cost of lifetime care for Ares alone will add up to around $60,000—but generally falls short of raising all the money he needs, and depends greatly on donors who "adopt" his lions.
Right now, he has 15 lions living at the park, which is all he can handle. "Sadly, we have to turn away 90 percent of the rescued lions that are offered to us," he says. "The message of Ares' story is very simple: do not support circuses with performing animals."
Long Road Ahead
Three weeks into his stay at Drakenstein, Ares is doing well. "Hopefully one day he can be introduced to a young, non-threatening lioness, but he still has a long road ahead of him before this can happen," says Hart. "It's not just the physical aspects involved in his rehabilitation, but also the psychological aspects." While he is non-aggressive in comparison to other rescues, "Ares exhibits a whole range of behavioral problems common to rescues," says Hart, "and those might take months or even years to rectify."
The good news is that Ares now has a safe—and roomy—place to get better. He has, for the first time, a real home. He is far more active than when he first arrived, and far more confident in his new habitat. The other day he wandered toward his enclosure's fence, and began to engage one of his lion neighbors. It was a small gesture—and one that, with a healthy lion, wouldn't even be noticed—but for Ares it was a step toward normalcy. "Ares being in this sanctuary is my wish for him come true," says Hart. "Now he can live out his life here, free from abuse. And he can grow stronger every day."