The future of 16 Lions and Tigers has become unclear with an ethical battle erupting between an American Wildlife Sanctuary and a Paraguayan NGO. The exotic big cats are part of a traveling circus based out of Argentina, and have been stranded in Paraguay for nearly five months with Argentinian authorities refusing their re-entry.
The nine Bengal Tigers and seven African Lions belong to the Argentine circus that normally performs in the Paraguayan capital each August. Their owner, Oswal Wasconi, brought them back for a 2012 performance only to learn that a new law in Paraguay bans live animal acts at circuses.
With Argentina stating they were not going to allow the animals back into the country without obtaining more detailed information about their protected status as endangered species, the animals' future became unclear. Paraguay's wildlife agency made the decision to move the 16 Lions and Tigers to the Asuncion Zoo in hopes they would be more comfortable and better cared for while a solution was found.
Immediately, calls and emails for help began pouring into the U.S. offices of The Wild Animal Sanctuary, a non-profit carnivore sanctuary located outside of Denver, Colorado. The 720 acre (291 hectare) facility is the largest and oldest large carnivore sanctuary in the western hemisphere, and has successfully rescued more than 30 circus animals from Mexico and Central & South American countries in recent years.
After talking with Paraguayan wildlife officials, The Wild Animal Sanctuary began negotiations to save the animals and secure a permanent home for them at the Sanctuary. A relatively small NGO known as OIPIC located in Paraguay became the intermediary between the circus owner and the Sanctuary, and helped with initial negotiations.
In the beginning, the circus owner offered to sell his animals, but the Sanctuary made it clear they were only interested in saving the animals and giving them a permanent home where they could be free and live in large natural habitats - and not cages. Circus owner, Oswal Wasconi, stated he had spent thousands of dollars in fines and caring for the animals, since they had become stranded in Paraguay, and requested compensation for his losses in order to relinquish the animals.
The Wild Animal Sanctuary agreed to pay for the feed and care of the animals while waiting to win their freedom, and also to cover the circus's costs associated with government fines and other welfare expenses. Communications between the parties involved established those expenses at $20,000.00.
OIPIC president, Brigitte Fuzellier, reported success in the negotiations through her communication to the Sanctuary stating "Aqui estoy ahora con la duenha de los tigres que vino desde brasil para resolver el tema de los tigres ella est de acuerdo con migo. Si le pagamos la proxima semana la sena de 20 mil ella firma la carta de compromiso con nosotros."
However, within days, it became apparent the circus owners were still attempting to sell the animals for $70,000.00 U.S. dollars to OIPIC, and actually had no concern for their animals' future. Instead of holding the circus to their agreement, OIPIC suddenly changed their stance and agreed to pay the circus owner an additional $50,000.00 dollars to buy the animals.
Subsequent communications from Sanctuary made it very clear to OIPIC that the owner's demands for money beyond expenses associated with their being stranded in Paraguay were extremely inappropriate… and in no way would the Sanctuary be willing to be part of a deal to meet the owner's unscrupulous demands. OIPIC responded stating they were afraid of damaging their friendship and close association with the circus owner, and said they would continue to try to raise another $50,000.00 in U.S. currency to buy the animals.
Sanctuary Executive Director, Pat Craig stated "It is highly unethical and illegal to purchase endangered species, and any reputable organization – including ours – would never agree to do so. We have repeatedly made this clear to Brigitte, yet she is continuing to pursue donations from the public to meet the owner's sale price. This unethical behavior and outright refusal to follow well-established international law leaves us no choice but to discontinue our relationship with OIPIC."
The Wild Animal Sanctuary sent an official letter to OIPIC President Brigitte Fuzellier on the 20th of November stating it was breaking ties with her organization, and they would be forced to pursue other avenues to secure the circus animals' freedom. Sanctuary Public Relations Director, Katie Vandegrift, stated their internationally well-known animal welfare organization was saddened by OIPIC's clouded judgment, and hoped the South American NGO would soon realize the serious nature of their potentially illegal actions before they got in trouble with law enforcement.
Currently, negotiations between the two entities have ceased, and the future of the Lions and Tigers is not clear. OIPIC has recently stated they want to keep the animals in Paraguay, and raise money to build them a home there.
Whether the animals return to Argentina... go to a Sanctuary in the United States... or remain in Paraguay... one thing is clear. Whoever secures the animals freedom from the circus, will have to do so without asking people to donate money to purchase them, as it is now clear this would break important CITES treaties and international law.
About The Wild Animal Sanctuary:
Rocky Mountain Wildlife Conservation Center, Inc., DBA The Wild Animal Sanctuary is a 720 acre refuge for large carnivores that have been confiscated from illegal or abusive situations. The Sanctuary is located 30 miles northeast of Denver, Colorado near the town of Keenesburg. The non-profit organization currently cares for more than 290 Lions, Tigers, Bears, Wolves and other large carnivores and provides lifelong care for its rescued animals. The Sanctuary is the oldest and largest carnivore sanctuary in existence, having been in operation since 1980. The facility is distinctive among others in that it provides large acreage natural habitats for its rescued animals to live in and roam freely. The Sanctuary is open daily to the public for educational purposes and features an elevated "Mile Into The Wild" Walkway that visitors utilize to see the animals in natural habitats.