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Bolivia circus ban puts countless animals in limbo

COCHABAMBA, Bolivia (AP) — She could have lived till 40 in the wild, where the average life span of a lion is double that in captivity. But Maiza is frail and nearly blind after 18 years in the circus, jumping through flaming hoops and performing at the point of trainer's whip.

Two of her cubs had their fangs cut for trainers who wow crowds by sticking their heads inside lions' mouths. Another, not Maiza's, had her claws ripped out at birth — without anesthetic.

Such stories of abuse, along with clandestine circus videos made by animal-rights activists, prompted Bolivia to enact the world's most comprehensive circus-animal ban.

Maiza, four cubs and a baboon named Tillin are early beneficiaries of the law that takes effect in July. The five cats are headed next month to a California refuge for former animal performers, while the baboon is expected to be housed in a special sanctuary in Britain.

Nobody, however, seems to know what to do with dozens of other animals in small circuses roaming the country. Zoos already are too crowded and, apart from La Paz's, substandard.

Even the group caring for the first five animals, British-based Animal Defenders International, acknowledged it initially didn't have a place to put them, and it had to import a specialist in large felines because there were no experts in the country to evaluate and monitor the lions' care.

The Inti Wara Yassi wild animal preserve in central Bolivia, with 1,000 animals, mostly monkeys and macaws, said it could take rescued circus animals, but it would need government support.

ADI, which fought for the ban, said it would like congress to pass legislation regulating sanctuaries and the handling of wild animals before turning the creatures over to preserves like Inti Wara Yassi.

Even the cost of caring for just the five lions and baboon so far is double the estimated budget.

"I don't dare give an amount," said ADI's Enrique Mendizabal.

Though circus operators were given a year to comply, owner Salvador Abuhadba gave up the cats and baboon last August, saying he didn't want trouble from the new law.

"They were part of my family ... they deserve a dignified retirement," said Abuhadba, who denies they were abused and has renamed his animal-free operation Abuhadba's Ecological Circus. "I don't make the money I used to. People are fascinated with circus animals. But I think I did the right thing."

The animals' new caretakers say they were fed Coca-Cola, chicken scraps and leftovers. They suspect the baboon has diabetes and are working with a primate expert in Britain to find out.

Behind the fantasy, illusion and entertainment, the circus hides a life of animal cruelty, said Susana Carpio of Bolivian-based Animals SOS.

A hippopotamus died in his sleep when his circus pool froze over in the Andean city of Potosi, 13,123 feet (4,000 meters) above sea level. A dwarf elephant was killed by La Paz's harsh climate in 2007.

"The death of the elephant Rossi moved us to press for the law," Carpio said.

That same year, ADI infiltrated circus workers in Bolivia, Peru, Ecuador and Colombia and filmed videos of the animals chained and crowded in cages barely bigger than they were, living in their own feces, Mendizabal said.

If they resisted their trainers, they would be beaten. Elephants were made to do their tricks with hooks stuck in their skin, according to ADI video viewed by The Associated Press.

The same images were given to Bolivian legislators.

"It took two years to pass the law. Some senators feared the next step would be to ban bullfighting that's very popular in the eastern villages," said former legislator Ximena Flores, who sponsored the bill.

While some European countries already prohibit the exhibition of wild animals in circuses, Bolivia's ban goes further, covering circus use of domestic animals and pets as well.

Carpio said it was possible to pass the law because Bolivia has no strong circus lobby, only medium- and small-tent operations that keep their animals in poor conditions. ADI is pushing similar initiatives in other countries and says it has made the most headway so far in Peru.

Shortly after the Bolivia law passed last July, Abuhadba called Animals SOS to come pick up his brood.

"They opened the cage and gave them to me," Carpio said. "I didn't know what to do with them. I didn't have a leash to take them as if they were pets."

The animals were confined to their circus cages until ADI constructed a secure refuge for them in a Cochabamba park, where neighbors at first complained about the roaring and feared the lions could escape.

Subjugated their whole lives, the lions don't have the grandeur or courage of their counterparts that dominate the African savanna. But a good diet, nutritional supplements and painstaking care have allowed them to recover some weight and animal instincts.

They each devour a total of 80-100 pounds (36-45 kilograms) of red meat during three feedings a week.

"Now their fur has regained its sheen and they groom each other, a good sign of recovery," said Richard Talavera, the chief caregiver.

One Cuban family circus, which has already been fined, still performs with six boxer dogs that play ball in local team jerseys, an AP reporter found. Ekatarina Carranza, who does acrobatics in the circus, says the dogs are pets.

But circuses from surrounding countries no longer travel to Bolivia for fear their animals will be seized.

Major circus operators deny they abuse animals and have tried to distance themselves from the sort of abuse shown in the ADI video. A U.S. court last year dismissed a lawsuit seeking to bar Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey circuses from using elephants in performances.

"We take great pride in our animal welfare and our animal care," said Stephen Payne, spokesman for parent company Feld Entertainment, which says circus life can even be beneficial for animals.

"In the wild, elephants are threatened by predators, hunters and starvation due to a dwindling natural habitat," the company says on its Web site. "The elephants at Ringling Bros. are assured a lifetime of veterinary care, nutritious meals and a clean, safe home."

Meanwhile, Maiza's caretakers say she doesn't have long to live. She and the other lions will travel in May to a 2,300-acre (931-hectare) preserve owned by PAWS, the Performing Animal Welfare Society, in Northern California where bears, tigers, elephants and lions that previously lived in captivity and under human abuse now roam.

ADI has committed to paying their keep for the rest of their lives — $75 per day, plus salary and benefits of the keeper. The organization has not decided if it can take on more circus animals from Bolivia.

"I would love it to be the rule and not the exception," said Pat Derby, PAWS president and founder. "Circus animals never have a nice day. The worst zoo in the world is not as bad as the best circus."

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Associated Press Writer Frank Bajak in Bogota contributed to this report.