Two lions born into captivity that were rescued have formed an inseparable bond with each other at their shared sanctuary home in South Africa, warming the hearts of their rescuers in the process.
Six-year-old lion Luke spent the first five years of his life alone and confined to a 5-by-5-foot cage at a circus in Ukraine, reports the Daily Mail. Five-year-old lioness Phuku was born into captivity in a petting zoo.
Despite their individual traumas, the pair found happiness together in early 2020 after being introduced at Love Lions Alive sanctuary (LLA) in Free State. Line Rise and Andi Rive, who care for 24 big rescued cats at the sanctuary that Andi founded, said the pair bonded quickly.
“[W]e have been lucky with them,” said Andi. “Just like a domestic cat, they head-butt and lick one another. And just like a domestic cat, or even a human couple, they have these little spats, but with lions it is very much louder.”
Phuku was suffering owing to a hip problem, common to big cats in captivity. She outgrew the petting zoo and was moved, though in September 2019 poachers raided the site, killing five lions. The lioness, narrowly escaping two further poaching raids, was rescued and taken to LLA in the nick of time.
Luke was rescued from the edge of starvation by Ukrainian animal charity Warriors of Wildlife. The charity’s founders, Lionel de Lange and his partner Anya Masyach, secured Luke a new home at LLA in February 2020. LLA’s mission statement is “to give lions who have been born into one or another captive environment the best chance at having a quality life.”
The sanctuary’s habitats are tailored to provide high ground with views over large vistas. Boulders and trees provide natural shade, low-lying hiding spots provide privacy, and pools allow the lions to drink and play to their hearts’ content.
According to Line and Andi, Phuku’s physical weakness initially impaired her ability to run, jump, and grab food at the sanctuary. “We didn’t think we were ever going to put Phuku with another lion because they would hurt her,” Line explained.
However, when Luke came along, Line and Andi realized that the equally mobility-compromised male could be the perfect match for Phuku. “We saw them starting to hang out by the fence together,” said Andi, “they were communicating through the fence, and so we watched and waited. But if it doesn’t work out with able-bodied lions, it can mean death.”
Andi described the moment as “tense.” Yet, despite Phuku’s nerves and Luke’s inexperience with other lions, the evenly matched pair soon fell head over heels.
“Phuku is spayed so this isn’t about breeding,” Andi clarified, “and it isn’t the end game for us for all the lions to have partners. We just really don’t want them living alone because they are such demonstrative social and gregarious animals.”
Warriors of Wildlife founder Lionel likened the pairing to Simba and Nala from the cartoon “The Lion King.” “I think Luke wanted some companionship,” Lionel said, adding, “It’ll be the two of them now, together, for the rest of their lives.”
“It is amazing,” Anya agreed, “from seeing Luke in a small cage all alone and looking very sad to not only having a second chance at life, but in a beautiful enclosure as well, was great. And now to have Phuku with him makes what we do even more special.”
Line estimated that food and veterinary fees amount to approximately US$195 per month to care for each big cat at the sanctuary. LLA relies upon donations, and their $10 “adopt a lion” program helps generate vital sponsorships for resident cats’ upkeep into the future.
On May 12, Line posted a Luke and Phuku update on Facebook, which read, “Their bonds grow stronger every day. If you see one, you see the other.”
“Luke is getting very muscular and fit, and he just loves life,” she added. “Phuku is also getting stronger and stronger. She really struggled to walk when she came here and was overweight. Now she’s running and walking almost normal.”