Instead of children running away to join the circus, in Bolivia, circuses were running away from the law. The authorities weren’t concerned with the welfare of the children, but rather the humane treatment of animals. “Lion Ark” is the pursuit of outlaw circuses who refuse to give up their animals, the odyssey to find and save lions, many of whom have suffered irreparable physical damage.

Far from being the king of the beasts, these lions are caged  and crazed, crippled and pathetically antisocial. Traveling often in cramped quarters, instead of cooperating to survive, they fight one another to have enough food and even then it is not enough.

If you think PETA has concerns in the United States, imagine a country where the standard of living is much lower and the circuses barely make enough to feed and support the humans involved. In Bolivia, animal circuses are banned after a shocking exposé reveals abuse. Yet what happens to the people who depended on the circus and its wild animals? Only one circus complies and turned over their animals, but the rest defied the law…but it’s not easy to hide lions. Of course, the animals aren’t just lions, there are monkeys and a few smaller cute animals such as a South American coati who are just as ill-maintained.

Yet the big story is the lions–25 in all. Meat is expensive and an adult lion requires much more than the average human. Without proper nutrition and exercise, their legs develop bowed and sometimes too bent to really walk. Although raised by humans, they neither like nor fear them.

Such is the case with Campeon who was in a decrepit cage that held a total of eight lions–dubbed Bam Bam’s Pride–in a space that would fit only two double beds. He was sick and dying, his front legs bent and too weak to support him, even to get to the wagon that would transport him to a rescue.

Director Tim Phillips takes us on a journey where there are no real bad guys, just people trying to survive. The circus people don’t easily surrender the animals, and pull knives and slash tires. Some of the circuses are barely hanging on and there’s an air of desperation. The cages holding these dangerous carnivores may be rusting and slowly falling apart. Written by Phillips and Jan Creamer, this is one of those animal rescue stories that wears its heart on its sleeve and, luckily, has a happy ending of sorts.

If this documentary is to be faulted, it would be for not fully exploring the lives and journeys of the circus people and what happened to them without their star attractions.

Some of these lions ended up in California (as well as Colorado and South Africa). You can check out the Animal Defenders International website and even “adopt” a lion, including several from Bolivia.

Animal Defenders International is currently raising money to rescue circus animals in Peru. The Peruvian government has invited Animal Defenders International to help enforce the circus ban and remove the animals.