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December 7 2017. Our mission to Razgrad Zoo marked my seventh rescue throughout the 10 years I have worked with FOUR PAWS. I have been deployed across the globe assisting in rescues in Iraq, the Balkans, Myanmar, and Syria. I have witnessed countless animals in dire conditions, however, the rescue of lions from the Razgrad Zoo was the most heartbreaking rescue I have been a part of.


I was first at the zoo back in October performing an initial assessment of the situation. During this time, we assessed the animals’ health and living conditions, the temperament of the owners, and the possibility of rescuing the lions. I remember standing and looking down into the small room where the animals were kept. The keeper was showing me a lion named Ivan-Asen. He looked so miserable in that dark, damp place that I thought there was no way he was going to make it. Ivan-Asen was kept for maybe more than a year in a space no larger than 10 ft. by 10 ft. in a small night room with no access to light. The situation was alarming back then and was made more serious over the span of the next three months.


When seeing Ivan-Asen again in this small box the following month, I was confident we were making the right move to rescue these lions and take them out of this place of suffering.

© FOUR PAWS/Bogdan Baraghin

When I finally persuaded the keepers to release Ivan-Asen out of his box for a while, they did so after reluctantly moving the rest of the lions to other enclosures. As soon as Ivan-Asen got out of his room, he ran to the fence to the next enclosure where his parents were kept. He laid on the ground against the fence and his mother Raya came to him and started to stroke and lick him through the bars. It was almost as if she was reassuring him that everything would now be okay.


The five big cats we rescued are a result of chronic inbreeding practices and have innumerable health concerns. Due to lack of physical exercise, the older lions suffer from severe spinal issues; it is likely the younger lions will face the same health problems soon. Coupled with neglect over recent years, their shape was shocking. The youngest lions were just born in September while the oldest, the breeding couple, are 12 years old. This represents three generations of inbreeding – a particularly cruel practice. In the past, the bred lions were sold to other zoos, circuses and private persons. The introduction of a stricter legislation in Bulgaria in 2008 however, led to a reduced demand. Hence, the big cats remained in the Razgrad Zoo.



© FOUR PAWS/Bogdan Baraghin

© FOUR PAWS/Bogdan Baraghin

Ivan-Asen was in such poor condition that our veterinary team took him straight to a facility in Sofia where we could have access to a cat scan. His condition is serious but stable for now. The facility in Sofia where the lions are temporarily being held are a considerable upgrade from where they came from. They will be cared for by a team of expert veterinarians and behavioral specialists who will not only asses their condition but work with them to assimilate them to their new surroundings. Any future transport to more appropriate accommodations will depend on their health and ability to adjust.


Just to witness these animals in these conditions was shocking. Even more shocking is that this is happening in MY country.  The Razgrad Zoo is located in north-eastern Bulgaria and opened in 1960 and, while its license expired in 2014, the zoo remained open to visitors.


For now, I feel positive about Ivan-Asen’s condition as he showed signs of improvement almost immediately upon arrival in Sofia. His mental state, in particular, has shown improvement for he now exhibits behaviors like self-cleaning and generally maintaining a calmer demeanor. He is also being stimulated to become motivated by food on the end of a stick or places on boxes and areas to climb. With limited human interaction, his caregivers are slowly gaining his trust and he is being trained to follow them on the other side of barriers both for safety exercises and, later, for moving him between enclosures. This specialized care is exactly what a neglected lion like Ivan-Asen needed. The king of the jungle should never have been in such dire circumstances.


The one thing that brings me peace, besides seeing these lions taken out of a horrible situation, is knowing they are being given great care. Now, they will not only get the medical attention they need, but will have access to veterinary care for the rest of their lives.

- Yavor Gechev, Head of Communications, FOUR PAWS Bulgaria

To read more about our mission in Razgrad, please click here