He's taken his first steps into his new life at a South African sanctuary after spending his entire 15 years of life in a tiny cage, including five years of desperate isolation at an abandoned private zoo, in silence.
Fifteen-year-old native African lion Ruben finally arrived at the 455-acre (184-hectare) Animal Defenders International Wildlife Sanctuary (ADIWS) in Free State, South Africa, on Aug. 24. The lion and his team had traversed 5,200 miles (approx. 8,400 km) from Armenia via ground transport and plane. Ruben spent his first night at ADIWS vet Dr. Peter Caldwell’s clinic in Pretoria, for import procedures and a checkup.
"This is where he saw his first other lion in six years, a lioness from ADIWS called Easy, who was in hospital for tests in the next hospital unit," Jan Creamer, President of Animal Defenders International (ADI), told The Epoch Times. "He was fascinated and enthralled, and Easy appeared to like Ruben, too, as they calmly watched each other."
Ruben was in a poor state, with matted fur, cataracts, and rotten teeth, barely able to walk after years of confinement and malnutrition leading to spondylitis, an inflammatory disease that can cause bones to fuse. He'd been the only animal left behind at a privately-owned zoo in Armenia after it closed, and all the other animals were relocated.
There was no room for Ruben. He spent five years completely alone in a tiny concrete cell, where he lost his roar.
"Lions are the most sociable of the big cats, living in family prides in the wild," Ms. Creamer, said in a press release, "so it must have been devastating for Ruben to have no contact or communication with other lions."
The big cat has plenty to play with in his new home including boxes, balls, and bones as well as ample space to roam. He has ramps and platforms to explore and has already got his voice back, joining in on "morning calls" as the sanctuary's 32 rescued lions and tigers call around him.
"His whole demeanor has transformed," Ms. Creamer said. "His face is relaxed and no longer fearful. His determination to walk is inspiring. If he stumbles or falls, he just picks himself up and keeps going. He is nothing short of heroic. ... We know this will be a long road and will require ongoing veterinary treatment, but the start of his new life could not have been better."
ADI has been sponsoring Ruben's care in Armenia since December 2022 after learning of his plight. The widow of the late Armenian businessman who owned the private zoo "wanted a better life for the lion" and agreed to the move, ADI told The Epoch Times in late February this year.
ADI had to navigate multiple armed checkpoints to relocate him to a temporary quarantine facility in an Armenian bear sanctuary, run by the Foundation for Preservation for Wildlife and Cultural Assets.
The lonely lion's happy ending was in jeopardy until Qatar Airways Cargo's "WeQare" charity scheme donated a flight to South Africa, handling airport logistics while a dedicated team monitored Ruben's wellbeing throughout the long journey.
The lion's wellbeing remains top priority in his new home. Dr. Caldwell has prescribed supplements for vitamin B deficiency to boost Ruben's nervous system, liver function, vision, and skin health, and sanctuary staff will be encouraging the elderly lion to walk and play to strengthen his mobility, muscles, and spine.
While Ruben will never be released, he has all the resources, love, and time he needs to recuperate on African soil.
"Ruben is too elderly and frail to look after himself, and he has had no family around him to show him how to live in the wild," Ms. Creamer told The Epoch Times. "Being in the fresh air with the sun on his head and back, grass under his feet for a good grip when getting up, hearing the voices of his own kind, and being able to communicate, all of these will contribute to a healthier and happier life for Ruben."