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Lion Siblings Cling Together During Rescue From War-Torn Gaza

<p> Four Paws </p>

Two lion cubs have finally been rescued after spending the first months of their lives in a refugee camp in the war-torn Gaza Strip.

Mona and Max became minor celebrities earlier this year when a Gaza resident purchased the 2-month-old cubs from Gaza's Rafah Zoo, which had been damaged by airstrikes and was financially struggling. The father of six brought the lions into his home, where photos soon emerged of the tiny brother and sister posing with balls and being roughhoused by children and adults.

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Animal welfare group Four Paws quickly noticed the situation was untenable. Raising lion cubs is expensive, and they require specialized knowledge their new owner didn't have. Plus, keeping lions in a house full of children is a recipe for disaster.

"Both cubs have already grown quite a bit bigger and stronger since their arrival in the refugee camp, and they now represent a significant danger for the inhabitants of the camp," veterinarian Amir Khalil said in a statement last month.

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The group spent weeks negotiating for the release of the little lions, and this weekend their plans finally came to fruition - though it quickly became apparent that rescuers had arrived just in time.

Unfortunately, the exotic cats' time in the refugee camp had taken its toll. At only a few months old, both lions had a skin disease, and the female was "weakened and apathetic," according to rescuers. She also had significant swelling on the back of her head, likely from a stroke.

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The cubs received a sad goodbye from their owner, who had raised them since they were babies. "It was very hard for the father of the family, who bought the lion cubs from Rafah Zoo in March, to say goodbye," Khalil said. "But we are very happy that he finally sees reason."

And then they set off, though the journey wasn't an easy one. Rescuers originally planned to leave on Friday, but the border to Israel was unexpectedly closed and they had to negotiate with Hamas to be able to return to Gaza. On Sunday, they were finally permitted to leave, and traveled through Israel to Jordan.

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Surprisingly, the young cubs weren't alone in Gaza. While the territory is small, the keeping of exotic cats is a surprisingly big problem, according to Four Paws. Around 40 large cats currently call Gaza home, and many of them - like Mona and Max's parents - were illegally smuggled in via underground tunnels from Egypt. Like these cubs, many of those lions are kept by damaged zoos or unprepared owners and often suffer for it.

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But despite their rough start in life, and the drama of their rescue, the little lions - whom Four Paws renamed Shalom and Salaam to encourage peace in Gaza - seemed undeterred by the changes around them. A photo shows the young lions asleep in their traveling cage, arms wrapped around each other and their faces pressed together as they cling to the only family they've ever known.

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The little cubs are currently living in a quarantine center in Jordan, and they have a bright future ahead of them. This fall, the loving siblings will be released into a large enclosure at Jordan's Al Ma'wa Wildlife Sanctuary, where they'll be able to live life like nature intended.

You can see more photos of the lions in their new home below.

Four Paws
Four Paws
Four Paws
Four Paws
Four Paws
Four Paws
Four Paws
Four Paws
Four Paws
Four Paws
Four Paws