For most, a circus brings to mind a glitzy ringleader, acrobats, clowns, maybe some sword swallowers, and of course, exotic animals doing amazing tricks. The circus industry puts a lot of effort maintaining the illusion of caring and safety, into the idea that their animals are part of their big circus family and that they perform because they like to. Unfortunately, it just doesn’t work that way. With organizations like Animal Defenders International (ADI) and their undercover work exposing what really goes on behind-the-scenes (from using violence and fear as a training tool to snapping off teeth and cutting off the tips of paws) animals are often treated as unfeeling objects in prisons meant to entertain the public.
Founded in 1990 by President and CEO Jan Creamer and Vice President Tim Phillips, ADI is a huge international campaigning organization working for animal protection in various fields, including the entertainment industry (like in Hollywood films), experiments, trafficking, factory farming, pollution, and conservation. Their biggest movement of late is the Stop Circus Suffering campaign, which the married duo started back in 1998 by recording the very first behind-the-scenes circus footage of the violent treatment of elephants and baby chimpanzees.
Jan and Tim with lions
ADI’s philosophy and follow-through sets them apart from other animal welfare organizations that have more singular focuses. “We will take something from start to finish, to getting legislation and enforcing the law,” says Tim. Their work in South America started in 2005 by recruiting a team of undercover field officers to infiltrate circuses and gather evidence. For nearly two years the team worked as laborers while taking photos, filming, and making notes on things like how long animals were kept on transports. In 2007, ADI released their intel and campaigned for legislation in countries worldwide. Once things started to finally move forward, ADI helped governments draft legislation. After laws were passed (the first was in Bolivia), ADI then helped enforce the laws by tracking down the illegal circuses, seizing the animals, and relocating them to sanctuaries. There are many reasons why rescued animals are moved to sanctuaries and not released into the wild, including the continued need for medical care due to injury, being too habituated to people, and simply not knowing how to care for themselves.
“There’s really no one else around the world doing all of those things joined up,” says Tim proudly. “Other people do investigative work, […] others do law enforcement and have relationships with the law, but we’re pretty unusual in that we will take an issue that people are perhaps barely talking about […], and we will sort of break that out in front of the public, create the awareness, and just keep going until the law is passed and the animals are saved.”
Lion in rescue center
Jan and Tim don’t just sit in an office while their team does the dirty work; they go undercover themselves to gain information and evidence. “I think the undercover work has taught us a lot, and you train yourself because the risks are very high,” explains Jan. “One of the worst things we ever saw was when we did some slaughterhouses […] in the Philippines and the men were beating the pigs to death and stamping on them, and you just know you can’t let them know that that’s affecting you.”
“That gives you a lot of training in how to control your emotions,” continues Jan. “You know that your emotions are really you relieving yourself of the pressure of your feelings, but that doesn’t really help the animal. What helps the animal is to nail those people and get the evidence and show the truth.”
But of course, there are times when the emotions overwhelm them and thankfully, those are what they call their golden moments. They shared the story of Toto, a chimpanzee who was stolen from the wild as a baby and sold to America before ending up in a touring circus in Chile. Having been alone for over 20 years, Toto’s teeth had been snapped off, his body covered in cigarette burns, and his hair was falling out. “He was a wonderful chimpanzee—as so many of them are—he was gentle and so intelligent,” recalls Jan, remarking on how despite the abuse he had suffered, Toto was incredibly kind and loving. “[When] we arrived at the sanctuary [in Zambia] and he heard a chimpanzee for the first time in 20 years, [...] I can’t describe his face,” recalls Jan. “The emotion, his expression was just amazement that someone was speaking his language.”
Toto was first put in a quarantine unit with bars separating him from a smaller female chimpanzee named Madonna. Leaving them alone for the night to get acquainted through the bars, it was obvious by morning that Toto wasn’t a danger so the sanctuary felt comfortable lifting the divider. “He rushed through and [Madonna] threw her arms around him and she buried her head in his chest. He gripped as hard as he could and put his head in her neck and he never looked at us again,” says Jan. “That was one of our proudest achievements, that he didn’t want to know us [anymore]. He was back with his own kind; he was communicating with someone who understood how he felt to be Toto. We imagine that animals are truly happy to see us and we imagine that we are enough for them, but when you see that, you know that the relationship with us could never be enough. It’ll never be the same as having their own kind, someone who speaks their language.”
Junior; rescued from a circus
With so many animals in need of relocation, it’s important to note that ADI never relocates to zoos—they actually rescue from zoos. ADI takes a very firm stance on zoos and believe they need to take a good hard look at what they’re doing and for what reasons. “Our view is that zoos have to change. They have to start specializing in certain species, they have to stop being self-perpetuating, they have to receive rescued animals instead of buying them from dealers from the wild or just breeding them and keeping them in cages,” says Tim. He uses the Chimfunshi sanctuary in Zambia as a great example of how sanctuaries are really raising the bar and setting the standard, with chimpanzee enclosures of up to 250 acres.
Many sanctuaries are open to the public, like The Wild Animal Sanctuary in Colorado where guests can walk along 40-foot-high walkways and see the animals without interfering with their way of life. With huge enclosures of 25 acres, the big cats are able to play and relax out of sight should they choose, giving them privacy and an environment that closely resembles how they would live in the wild. Sure, zoos may ensure you’ll always be able to see an animal, but that’s not what’s best for the animal.
Lioness in sanctuary
“One of the stressors for animals is to be stared at all the time. We all know that that’s intimidating. That’s what predators do,” explains Jan. “And so the animals get stressed and you can see from their abnormal behavior [...] that they’re not coping with their environment. They’re feeling intimidated, frightened and frustrated by the situation they find themselves in [...]. They literally go out of their minds, because they can’t relieve themselves of the pressure of that environment.”
Jan and Tim believe that the number one problem with zoos, above all else, is that they are designed with entertainment in mind—proof of which is their use of the word “exhibit” as a way to describe an animal enclosure. “[The word] takes away the fact that that is an intelligent creature, it has a lifestyle, it has a form of communication, it has behavioral needs and it has environmental needs. It makes [animals] something like an inanimate object that you would put on a shelf. Animals are not exhibits. They’re feeling creatures,” explains Jan.
Tim transporting a lion
If it sounds like ADI has a massive team at their disposal to get all this work done, think again. Though they have offices in Los Angeles and London, their staff is actually less than 30 across both locations. Their Peru project has a core team of around eight people, and then others who come and go bring the numbers up to 15-20. “At the moment in Peru we’re quite stretched because we’re working now in two locations: we’re building enclosures at a sanctuary near Iquitos and we’re also running the rescue center near Lima,” explains Jan.
Jan and Tim can’t emphasize enough just how important hard work and dedication is to successfully projecting an image of a much larger organization. Naturally, the success has stretched ADI very thin, but they have a large dedicated group of supporters ready to jump on projects as needed, whether it’s scientific research or building enclosures. Basically, if you want to help, ADI will find a place for you. “We bolster our numbers with volunteers and local activists wherever we work,” says Tim. “People have come from the US, France, and Britain, all helping on [the Peru] project, paying their own way.”
Raising funds for their rescue missions can be tough and they’re always making a big push for their most recent emergency (of which there are plenty). Naturally, celebrities always play a pretty big role by bringing attention to the cause. Years ago Morrissey famously used undercover footage from ADI for his Meat is Murder video montages for live shows (which he still includes in performances today) and Ricky Gervais has been their champion since 1998 when he had his own radio show. CSI star Jorja Fox is incredibly active and not only goes on rescues with ADI, but also put her own money into their Lion Ark documentary, which tracks their rescue mission for 25 lions in Bolivia. And of course, there’s Bob Barker, who not only keeps them funded when they really need it, he also speaks on behalf of ADI to the US Congress.
ADI approaches donations in the same straight-forward way as they do everything else. If you find yourself moved by a particular story, you can donate to that specific cause. Using their resources in the best way possible, Tim believes passionately that when someone writes them a check for any amount—whether it’s $10 or $10,000—ADI is going to “make that work as hard as possible for animals; whether that’s in the office work or whether that’s out in the field looking after animals we’re rescuing.”
Though ADI gives donation options (like “adopting” specific animals), the best way to help is by giving to their general fund. Emergency rescues come up last minute and having enough money means they won’t have to hesitate before acting. Sometimes they will be in the middle of a rescue when another opportunity comes up, like the current fundraising for elderly Andean bear Cholita. ADI was in the middle of Operation Spirit of Freedom (an epic rescue mission costing over $1,183,800 that has lasted months and involves the rescue of 70 animals in Peru) when they heard about Cholita, who is barely recognizable as an endangered Spectacled bear. She has severe hair-loss, her teeth had been broken off, and her fingers were cut to small nubs. The Spirit of Freedom rescue flight was postponed until April 20 so necessary paperwork could be approved, which upped weekly rescue costs for the animal’s care while waiting. Thankfully, ADI has confirmed that Cholita will be on board the flight along with 33 rescued lions, all to be rehomed at the aforementioned Wild Animal Sanctuary—though the rescue mission is still seeking donations. Until they can take off, Cholita will be taken to ADI's rescue center near Lima and is expected to arrive by April 1.
ADI expects the use of animals in circuses to be banned worldwide in the next two decades—three at the most. “I think that when you see a country like Mexico pass legislation at the end of last year, you realize that this is a huge shift coming,” says Tim. ADI has helped at least 30 diverse countries enact legislation—from Austria and Portugal to Paraguay and Panama—and in the process has removed countless animals from cruel environments, giving them a chance to live out the rest of their lives in peace, even if it’s only for a couple more years.
Cubs Mahla and Sarc
In spite of all the pain and suffering they see, Jan and Tim are fueled by the golden moments. From lions finally running free (which you can see in their Lion Ark documentary) to spider monkeys finding love to Toto becoming a protector of the young, ADI gives mistreated animals their dignity back. “I always say to our team that these moments, you grab onto with both hands. They remind you what it’s all about and powers you along,” explains Tim. “There are bits which are shatteringly upsetting and I think we’re lucky in that we’re at a time in history where change is happening. Perhaps the people who come after that change will be even luckier.”
To get involved, visit Animal Defenders International where you can explore their campaigns and keep up with their progress. Aside from donating to their campaigns and general funds, you can also adopt one of their rescued animals (lions, primates, or horses) for as little as $3 a month, which comes with a certificate, their adoption newsletter, and a rescue DVD or a framed photo of your animal.
Toto with his family after rescueADI giving water to lion Simba and Rey Kiara reunited with her cubs Jan and Pepe Babies Fausto and Panchita Tim, Jan, and team move lion