Baby Lions Escape From War In Ukraine And Find A Home In Minnesota

“The cubs were surrounded by loud shelling" 💔

When lion cubs Prada, Taras, Stefania and Lesya explored The Wildcat Sanctuary (TWS) in Minnesota for the first time, everyone breathed a deep sigh of relief. After multiple days of traveling from their original home in Ukraine to the U.S., the group of vulnerable cubs was finally safe.

The Wildcat Sanctuary

The cubs, who are all under a year old, were originally rescued from pet trafficking in Ukraine. They were receiving the care they needed at a rehabilitation center in the Eastern European country when war broke out, creating unsafe conditions for the baby lions.

“The cubs were surrounded by loud shelling,” Tammy Thies, executive director of TWS, told The Dodo. “The rescue groups often had no power or electricity, yet they were all dedicated to getting these cubs to safety.”

The Wildcat Sanctuary

The rescue groups in charge of the cubs reached out to the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW) for help, and that’s when TWS stepped in.

“Our team is experienced in international big cat translocations,” Thies said, “though none during such conflict.”

Nonetheless, Thies agreed to give the four young cubs a new home. But getting them from Ukraine to Minnesota wouldn’t be easy.

The Wildcat Sanctuary

First, Taras, Stefania and Lesya were transported from Odesa to a rescue in Kyiv. There, they met up with Prada, who joined the pack of rescue cubs in their travels. After a few days of rest in Kyiv, IFAW transported the lions to Ponzan Zoo in Poland, from which they could be exported to sanctuaries in the United States and Europe.

“This trip was a 14-hour drive plus over 8 hours waiting at the border-crossing checkpoint,” Thies said.

Nevertheless, the cubs made it from Ukraine to Poland and spent a month in quarantine before completing their journey to Minnesota.

While the cubs completed their quarantine, IFAW and TWS worked together to secure U.S. Fish and Wildlife permits to import the cubs.

The Wildcat Sanctuary

“So many details had to line up perfectly to still make this happen,” Thies said.

As soon as Thies had the U.S. permits, she made her way to Poland to accompany the cubs on their journey to their new forever home. She spent a few additional days at the Ponzan Zoo building crates for the cubs and getting permits from Poland to export them.

Four days later, Thies and the pack of cubs drove to an airport in Warsaw — four hours away from the Ponzan Zoo — in hopes of catching a flight to Chicago. After undergoing thorough inspections from customs and additional wildlife veterinarians, the group of lions and their dedicated rescuers were finally given the green light to leave Europe.

“The 10-hour flight from Poland to Chicago was the first time we could all breathe a sigh of relief,” Thies said. “We didn’t know the rescue would happen until we were finally on the plane in Warsaw heading to the U.S.”

The Wildcat Sanctuary

As for the cubs, they were less affected by the travel than Thies had anticipated.

“Much like us, they used the flight to get some much-needed sleep,” Thies said.

After 10 hours, the cubs and their rescuers landed safely in Chicago. They were inspected by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, as well as customs, before embarking on the last leg of their trip — a seven-hour drive to The Wildcat Sanctuary.

“It was rainy, windy and snowy,” Thies said. “But of course, why would it not be? The journey was never going to be easy.”

The Wildcat Sanctuary

The cubs arrived at TWS around midnight, approximately 36 hours after they’d initially embarked on their journey out of Ukraine. As soon as they got there, they immediately began taking in their new surroundings.

“They explored their indoor areas and outdoor habitat right away,” Thies said.

Although the cubs were placed in a completely new environment, they seemed to acclimate right away.

“The cubs have been fearless and are so well adjusted,” Thies said. “They have each other for support and I think that has built their confidence.”

The Wildcat Sanctuary

Since arriving at TWS, the cubs’ personalities have blossomed. According to Thies, Taras is a curious cat and an avid climber. Prada is the biggest lion of the four, but she’s more nervous than her rescue siblings. Lesya is the smallest of the group, but far more vocal than the rest. And Stefania has become the peacekeeper in the group.

“It’s so cute to see her checking in with her big ‘sister,’” TWS wrote in a Facebook post.

Although they have warm indoor bedrooms now, the group of cubs loves running around their large habitat in the Pride Prairie section of the sanctuary, especially when there’s snow.

The cubs will live at The Wildcat Sanctuary in Minnesota for the rest of their lives, where they’ll receive all the care and love they need for the next 20-plus years.

“It costs us $10,000 a year to pay for one big cat, so it is an expensive commitment,” Thies said, ”but one worthwhile to watch them live wild at heart in a safe environment.”

To follow along with the lions’ journey, you can keep up with them on TWS’s Facebook and Youtube. To support one of the cubs or other cats at the sanctuary, you can become a sponsor.