By Jamie Leary
KEENESBURG, Colo. (CBS4)– It was an unlikely pair of passengers who landed via cargo plane Wednesday night at Denver International Airport. It was an international effort to make sure they made it safely.
A lion and a tiger made the trip all the way from the Philippines to DIA in a DC-8 belonging to Samaritan’s Purse.
The non-profit was working to help families on the islands of Saipan and Tinian, devastated by a super typhoon. Among the devastation was a zoo in Saipan, the lion and tiger were the only two large animals left and were barely hanging on.
“Due to our work in Saipan, Samaritan’s Purse was in a unique position to help fulfill a request from the Federal Emergency Management Agency and U.S. officials. We were asked to transport a tiger and a lion back to a sanctuary in the U.S. because the badly damaged zoo in Saipan is no longer able to care for the animals,” Samaritan’s Purse said in a statement on its website.
It was word of mouth that connected them to the Wild Animal Sanctuary in Keenesburg.
“There’s a lot of depressing stuff that we see going out on rescues and pulling these animals out of horrific situations but then on the other side of the coin is we get to bring them back here,” said Casey Craig, Chief Operating Officer of the Wild Animals Sanctuary.
Casey’s father founded the sanctuary and he has grown up rescuing animals. With the latest rescue, Casey flew to Saipan to help.
“This one was pretty horrific as far as not only the animals conditions but just the whole condition of the island,” he said.
The tiger, Tasha and the Lion, Lambert, were malnourished and living alone.
“You can see that on her elbows from basically laying in your own feces and urine…” Casey point to Tasha.
It took some coaxing to get Tasha to Keenesburg.
“She was kind of almost in a sedated, tunnel vision state. Just kind of down in the dumps, she didn’t feel good.”
Now in Keenesburg, getting the nutrition she needs, Tasha is visibly healthier and opening up to Casey.
Lambert was in similar conditions but made friends with Casey almost immediately.
“Their mental state is a huge thing so luckily he’s a very happy and social guy right now which puts him three steps ahead of some of the animals that we do rescue that are aggressive because they have been beaten and abused before.”
Both cats had been only interacting with humans for the last 15 years.
“To a lion that normally would live in a pride, that’s extremely devastating to their mental state just because they have a need to be in a social structure and have other lions around.”
After Tasha and Lambert are acclimated and on a stable healthy diet, they will finally have the chance to meet other lions and tigers. An experience for Casey he says is indescribable.
“Especially for Lambert who’s been alone for so long… when they hear that lion for the first time they’re like, ‘I’m not the only one?!’ and you can just see the life kind of come back into their eyes.”
Over the next three days, the Tasha and Lambert will slowly get to know the other cats at the sanctuary. Within the next week, the public can come check out their progress up close and personal.
Jamie Leary joined the CBS4 team in 2015 and currently works as a reporter for CBS4 News at 5 p.m. and 6 p.m. She couldn’t imagine a better place to live and work and will stop at nothing to find the next great story. Jamie loves learning about and hearing from her fellow community members, so connect with her on Facebook or Twitter @JamieALeary.