Keeper Karel Geurts watches on as the two lions approach each other. One is a lioness named Masrya, and she was once a caged promotional tool for her cruel former owners. The other is a four-month-old lion cub called Nero, who used to belong to a circus. They are both in need of company, but nobody could have guessed what would happen when they met.
This initial meeting took place in early 2013, but the story of Masrya and Nero was a long time in the making. In fact, it is still being told today. It all started, however, when someone spotted a then-unknown lioness caged “at the side of a busy road.”
Still, it wasn’t until this lioness had arrived at a lion foundation called Stichting Leeuw, which is located in the Netherlands, that somebody named her Masrya. And she had made her way to Stichting Leeuw after a long journey from Egypt.
Yes, it was in Egypt that Masrya had spent the early part of her life as a pet. Then, a street trader purchased her. And this trader subsequently used her as seemingly little more than a promotional tool and photography prop for his services.
Indeed, someone declawed the poor lioness to allow tourists to pose with her for souvenir photographs. And when Masrya grew too large to handle, her owner restricted her to a tiny cage.
In fact, Masrya spent the majority of her time in that cage – until she was around two years old. Worse, her owner kept her on display outside a shop in Cairo.
Masrya’s life changed, however, after a German woman named Saskia Berandt saw her on the busy street. Yes, Berandt took a photo of Masrya in August 2012, but this was not a keepsake. In fact, Berandt shared the photo of the caged lioness online.
Berandt then began a petition to help free Masrya. Moreover, this act drew the attention of U.K.-based organization Spots and Stripes Conservation, and it assisted with the fundraising.
In February 2013 the organization even helped purchase Masrya from her owner. And, with the help of KLM airlines and the Netherlands’ Zoologistics, it aided in transferring her to Stichting Leeuw, which means “lion foundation” in Dutch.
Many of the cats at Stichting Leeuw come from countries that have recently enacted a law banning the use of wild animals in circuses. But getting them there can be tricky. Some circuses, for instance, fight such laws, as was the case with this mountain lion, which was eventually rescued from a Peruvian circus. But more often, there is a sudden influx of big cat rescues needing a home.
Sadly, many of these cats share similar stories of mistreatment to Masrya’s. Indeed, when Masrya arrived at Stichting Leeuw, she could barely walk. Understandably, she was severely weakened from living in a cramped cage and eating a diet lacking in red meat.
Furthermore, Masrya could no longer survive in the wild on her own because of her declawing. In fact, declawing is one of the most common reasons why circus cats need sanctuary and cannot return to the wild. After all, they can no longer hunt successfully, and staff will need to give them food for the rest of their lives.
But luckily for this lioness, the goal of Stichting Leeuw is to provide big cats shelter and care for as long as they need. So, things finally began to look up for Masrya. Yes, in the Netherlands, sanctuary staff treated the lioness with dignity, and she had a spacious enclosure with a garden to enjoy.
Masrya could even go outside and roll in the dirt. Perhaps best of all, though, once she arrived at Stichting Leeuw, Masrya found a lifelong companion in a young lion cub.
It came about because the sanctuary placed Masrya in an adjacent enclosure to Nero. The young cub had arrived two months earlier, having been rescued from a French circus.
Moreover, Nero had been taken from his mother and served as a petting cub for a circus sideshow. And, like Masrya, Nero too had been used as a prop in tourist photographs.
In fact, the cub had been born into a circus life, and that was all he knew. And this was despite the French circus that had used his mom in an act having already stopped its lion show before he was born. Still, the circus soon sold the lioness’ only surviving cub to another circus. And all of this, amazingly, happened before Nero had even turned four months old.
Like Masrya, then, the cub had spent most of his days in a cramped cage – except when someone wanted to take a picture with him. One day, though, a concerned citizen called the Lion Foundation to report Nero’s mistreatment. As a result, Nero was rescued shortly thereafter and brought to Stichting Leeuw, where he met Masrya.
And fortunately for all, it was immediately clear that Masrya and Nero enjoyed each other’s company. In fact, they even started playing and interacting through the fence separating them.
This is why employees at Stichting Leeuw decided to pair the two up in an enclosure together. And, heartwarmingly, the lions bonded quickly – and they haven’t left each other’s sides since.
Indeed, Masrya became something of a mother figure to young Nero, and Nero was a companion to the lioness. For example, the two played together, slept together and learned from each other.
It could, therefore, have been a stumbling block in their relationship when Stichting Leeuw eventually decided that it was time for Masrya to return to her native Africa. But, by then, Masrya and Nero were a package deal, so the two made the move together.
Yes, in May 2015 Masyra and Nero took the journey together to the Emoya Big Cat Sanctuary in South Africa. This haven for lions recently also took in 33 rescued circus lions.
Emoya is located on the Heuser family’s private Bahati Estate. In fact, Savannah Heuser started the sanctuary when she was only 16 years old. The first cat arrived at the sanctuary in June 2013, and many more have followed.
In May 2016, for instance, Emoya Big Cat Sanctuary agreed to take in 33 rescued cats from South America. In fact, Emoya partnered with Animal Defenders International (ADI) to successfully carry out the biggest animal airlift to date to bring the cats to South Africa.
Spanning 5,000 hectares of land, Emoya is now home to more than 42 big cats, including 40 lions and two Siberian tigers. The cats live in “semi-wild” enclosures, giving them ample space to roam in a natural habitat. And within the reserve are mountainous regions, sweeping grassland and river gorges, according to Emoya’s website.
Masrya and Nero had a long journey ahead of them to reach the rippling fields of Emoya, however. First, Stichting Leeuw staff had to coax the two lions into specialized animal carriers. These then carried them to the airport and then all the way to Johannesburg, South Africa.
From Johannesburg, Masrya and Nero traveled to the Vaalwater region of Limpopo province, South Africa. Finally, they arrived at the Emoya Big Cat Sanctuary and tentatively took their first steps out of their carriers onto the soil of their new, vast enclosure.
And Facebook photos show the pair being quite content in their new home. After all, the sanctuary now gives her and Nero a place in which to grow in their natural habitat.
“We followed Masrya’s story from day one and she was the lioness who inspired us to do what we do,” said Minnunette Heuser, co-founder of Emoya Sanctuary, in an interview with The Dodo. “Imagine our surprise and delight when, years later, the very same lioness, with her new partner, [came into] our care.”
With room to roam, then, the two are happy and playful, and they are still inseparable. That said, Nero has grown from the small cub he once was; he is now quite the regal lion, with an elegant, flowing mane. But this would never have been possible without the kindhearted folks working to make the world a better place for animals like these.
When animals of the same species are paired together like Masrya and Nero, it’s arguably expected that they’ll at least try to get on. But what happens when experts encourage totally different creatures to mix? The inseparable friendship that this bear, lion and tiger formed, for instance, was beyond everyone’s wildest dreams. And even when fate stepped in to take one of them away for good, their heartbreaking goodbye proved that their shared bond would never be broken.
The touching story of these eclectic friends began back in 2001 when police carried out a drug raid on a house in Atlanta. The officers’ search took them to the basement of the house, where they found something that must have made their jaws hit the floor. There, three caged exotic animal cubs had been kept in terrible conditions.
The babies – a bear, a lion and a tiger – were underweight, underfed and infested with parasites both inside and out. And, in addition to their malnourishment and neglect, the animals had suffered horrible abuse in their cages, which were clearly not fit for animals of their size.
The lion was further found with a sore-looking injury on his nose; he had been kept in a crate so small that the bars were digging into his snout. Even worse, the bear cub had outgrown his restraints completely, so the harness had to be surgically removed from his flesh.
After they were rescued, then, the Georgia Department of Natural Resources took the trio to the Noah’s Ark Animal Sanctuary (NAAS), where they received emergency medical treatment. Moreover, all three of the cubs thankfully made a full recovery and found a new home at the sanctuary – and a new family with each other.
Two of the cubs – Baloo, the American black bear, and Shere Khan, the Bengal tiger – were named after characters from The Jungle Book. Meanwhile, the African lion cub, maneless owing to an early neutering operation, was named Leo. Thereafter, the three buddies became widely known as the BLT: bear, lion and tiger.
Surprisingly, even after they were rescued, the BLT preferred staying together, and the sanctuary allowed them to share the same living space. There, they acted every bit like a family, giving one another comfort and love and playing with each other as if they were born to it. Indeed, the sanctuary reported that BLT’s traumatic past brought them together as brothers.
“Baloo, Leo and Shere Khan eat, sleep, and play together and even seek out grooming and affection from one another, head rubbing and licking each another,” NAAS said on its website. “Their terrifying early months in life bonded the three together and they are truly inseparable despite their obvious differences.”
The family’s sweet-toothed Baloo is just like his relaxed fictional counterpart, whereas Shere Khan is much more mischievous and enjoys pouncing on his brothers when they least expect it. Shere Khan is also the most affectionate of the BLT. Meanwhile, languid Leo normally seemed lethargic, and yet he sprang to life whenever it was playtime.
The brothers lived together happily for 15 years at NAAS, well into their golden years in terms of their lifespan. However, in August 2016 the sanctuary posted the sad news that the BLT was going to be missing one of its beloved family members.
“On August 11th we said goodbye to our beloved Leo, the 15-year-old lion in our ‘BLT’ trio,” the organization’s statement read on Facebook. “Leo hadn’t been himself the past few weeks and because numerous diagnostics tests couldn’t explain his symptoms of inappetence and lethargy, he was scheduled for exploratory abdominal surgery.”
Tragically, the findings of the operation revealed worse news. “During the procedure, our veterinarians discovered that over 80 percent of Leo’s liver was full of inoperable masses and because of this, the heart wrenching decision was made to let him go,” NAAS sadly announced.
Before Leo passed, though, his brothers were allowed to say a final farewell to him. Interestingly, the sanctuary staff reported that it’s likely Leo’s passing came as no surprise to Shere Khan and Baloo. According to the Facebook spokesperson for NAAS, the BLT brothers probably noticed Leo’s health problems before his carers did.
“Animals are so perceptive,” NAAS wrote. “With the incredible bond the BLT had since being rescued together from a drug dealer’s basement in 2001, it is highly likely that Baloo and Shere Khan knew their lion brother was terminally ill long before Leo began displaying outward symptoms.”
Because of the tight bond the BLT shared, then, the sanctuary staff are also taking extra precautions to monitor Leo’s brothers for behavioral changes. So far, Baloo and Shere Khan are coping “remarkably well” with Leo’s absence.
Of course, Leo will be missed by many humans as well – but instead of having a solemn ceremony, NAAS held a “celebration of life” event for staff and guests. “A wonderful time was had by all as we came together on August 27th to remember Leo, ‘the Lion of Noah’s Ark,’” NAAS reported.
For those who couldn’t make the event, the celebration was broadcast live on social media. On the occasion, volunteers baked cakes, a photo wall became covered with flowers, and admirers of all ages filled Leo’s memorial book with touching sentiments.
To further commemorate his memory, a lion statue was placed on his grave next to the clubhouse where the brothers would spend their time together. And it seems that the surviving brothers paid a heart-wrenching tribute to their passed family member when they saw the statue for the first time.
“Guests at Leo’s Celebration of Life event this past Saturday were able to see Baloo and Shere Khan investigate the new statue,” NAAS reported. “And of course silly old Baloo put on quite the show rubbing against and ‘loving’ on Leo’s memorial.” The support from Leo’s fans was also deeply appreciated.
“We are beyond grateful for the overwhelming support of the public during such a difficult time, and we continue to be amazed by how many lives the BLT has impacted,” the sanctuary wrote on Facebook. “Leo… was truly one of a kind, and will never be forgotten!”