In the last of three dreadful concrete cages at the far end of the zoo in Buhusi, across from a small cage crowded with twelve dingoes, were two disabled lions – a male and a female, Romany and Gypsy. Their coats were matted, eyes glossed over, and their misshapen legs and bent spines were disturbing to see. They barely moved. The concrete was hardly cleaned. There was inadequate dirty water, often rotten food, and little care. “They were used as cute cubs for tourist photographs in Constanza,” the zookeeper told me. I asked how had lions arrived in Northern Romania? He said, “During the time of the dictator their parents were gifts from heads of nations.” Until Lions Roar raised funds for a heater in the attached -even filthier indoor space, – Romany and Gypsy survived the Romanian winters with increasing damage to their already suffering bodies. The Zookeeper, a retired biologist trained in a communist college in his youth, said they were about five years old.
What kept these two lions alive? I THINK IT WAS LOVE.
Any hour of the day, when I was at the zoo, my eyes were drawn to them. They often lay close to one another, and when the sun was shining it was incredibly moving to see them clean each other’s faces or rub their necks against one another for comfort. They were not dangerous. The untrained assistants to the zookeeper often climbed into the cage pushing them aside as they swept or placed food on the ground. Sometimes, drunk, he kicked the male calling him “cripple.” He once yelled at me when I was trying to give them a bath on a hot day with the newly purchased hose, “I should shoot them and put them out of their misery.” They might roar, but it was the roar of a child feigning strength. Regardless of these terrible heart-breaking conditions, Romany and Gypsy had a dignity and kindness that was palpable.
In the second summer of visiting and attempting to help the zoo, a vet from Missouri named John Wright helped me clean their cage indoors and out. We built a platform for them to lie on and changed their diet. We even managed the daunting task of finding a heavy metal bowl for fresh water to replace the concrete container in the indoor area. During the third summer, Jane S and Sue B arrived bringing sacks of hay and lavender to play with. Later, when the three lions in the other two cages (a mother and her two sons full grown) were moved to Africa, Born Free pulled down the bars between cages and Romany and Gypsy could move for the first time. BF vets brought medicine and x-rays and anchored tree trunks in the cage, and installed four higher wood platforms so they might stretch their spines.
Every day, our on the ground Romanian assistant Alina, visited Roman and Gypsy. She encouraging them to run. When they heard her voice, they stood up, came to the bars and rubbed themselves against each other and the bars to welcome her presence. Then they raced back and forth. Or at least, mostly the male, more able, romped while Gypsy watched attentively from her new clean platform.
We were all inspired by their love for each other. However, no one wanted to rescue two lions who were not “whole.” The conversation focused mainly on how to euthanize them painlessly. I could not stop dreaming about them. In my dreams they were together looking at me, the way they sometimes did when I visited. If I slowed down and stood quietly, offering a stick overstuffed with leaves and grass and hay, they dragged it into their cages and sniffed it or lay down on it appearing to have a sense of contentment. I fought to keep them healthy and find someone or some way to let them have the rest of their lives with care and peace and love. The zookeepers had to be bribed and that kept them alive for a while. But no one was able to justify raising money to save disabled lions when there were so many others in need of immediate rescue.
Jane and Sue found a sanctuary in Holland (easier and less risky then the long series of flights to Africa where there was a long list of lions in need of homes and funding for rescue)! Arno, owner of Pantera Sanctuary, became our savior. He said he would drive he two lions to Holland. Although there was no way to inform the lions that they might be moved to a place where they could walk on grass, bask in the sun in the spring and summer, have medical attention and proper lion food, with a larger clean indoor area, they seemed to perk up nonetheless!
The day arrived and Arno was honest with us. Moving them might actually kill them or worse — damage their spines further. He argued however that it was completely possible to drive them without that happening. Born Free vets argued against it. Again, I dreamed of them. This time they were standing together on a mountainside looking at me. So, Jane organized Reiki masters throughout the world to assist them from afar on their journey. I think we all didn’t rest until they reached Holland and the note arrived that they were adjusting to their new temporary habitat. Like any creature or person long limited, knowing nothing other than concrete and harsh conditions, it must have been shocking. However, within a few days, we were told
They two are enjoying the grass and sunlight!
Lions Roar had spent four years raising funds to improve the zoo, and finally another three to rehome the animals that survived. We looked forward to some relief from that strenuous endeavor. However, moving the “love lions” (we named them) required us o pay Arno for their food, and medical care for at least two years until the sanctuary had a new better home.
Our donors supported Romany and Gypsy easily for the first year, but the second year it was harder. With tsunamis and earthquakes, increased conflicts worldwide, animal activists were being asked to constantly provide money for emergencies and other rescues. Jane took to raising funds at Christmas fairs; I tried to encourage our funders to keep going; and Sue miraculously found donors in Dubai where she has taught and helped to protect the zoo there.
Throughout, what has inspired us is the beauty and love of the two lions. They are not suffering the way they were physically in Buhusi. But, the temporary arrangement has extended – for another year – at least. There are complexities in building and funding the new Sanctuary. We cannot give up on Romany and Gypsy. Their coats are very shiny and healthy. Their eyes are clear and they move with less difficulty. The winters are harsh in Holland and we long for the new habitat that will have a larger heated interior and no mud in their habitat. But, they continue to enjoy their new lives. But our options for supporting them are more difficult.
I am writing in celebration of love. But also in hopes that we can arouse funding for them. Small donations from a lot of people go a long way. Classes can take them on as a small project. An organization can fund them. I plan to visit them in Holland for the first time this spring and to begin creating a book to raise funds and celebrate them in order to share their story with children who have been maimed by wars and earthquakes. It is my hope that their story will encourage people to remember how many children, disabled adults, and animals are simply forgotten. They are often kept out of sight, the way that Romany and Gypsy were kept in a small cage beyond the more obvious part of the zoo. Unkempt and often uncared for, those that are different can be forgotten. In Sierra Leone, where my son was born, and my friend Sheku lost both arms during the civil war, the disabled and maimed are in refugee camps for years post war that provide no comfort or dignity. They are considered useless.
Is any life useless? Love can flower in any circumstance? If you would like to know more about Romany and Gypsy and help raise funds for them, please go to www.thelionsroar.eu. There you can read about our project and see videos about R and G and the other lions, bears and dingos (and others) who been moved. Introduce them to your children or your classroom.
I was inspired to “keep going” as I got to know the strength of their love for each other. There are no words to describe the moment when Romany extended his paw beyond the rusted bars and drew long grasses into the cage and dragged them toward Gypsy so she could smell something fresh and green, for the first time. And how he looked back for a moment and caught my eye. There was no greater thank you.
Again, to donate to Romany and Gypsy go to www.thelionsroar.eu and don’t’ forget to read the blogs about all of the rescued animals living in the UK; an amazing bear sanctuary in Brasov, Romania; grazing horses in Holland and Germany; and our other lions in South Africa and Malawi.