Lion Ark

Lion Ark


Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

We're all used to the format of the classic campaign documentary. The distressing presentation of the problem, the months or years of struggle, the protracted court battles and eventual triumph. But have you every wondered about what happens next?

In 2009, Bolivia became the first country in South America to ban the keeping of animals in circuses. Animal rights activists were delighted. One former trainer testifies at the start of this film that she has never seen trainers use kindness with such animals, only brutality. Her words are hardly necessary given the number of videos of animal cruelty we are then shown. It's really sickening stuff that many adult viewers will find distressing. Younger children, who may get a lot out of the rest of the film, should probably be kept from seeing this part.

Copy picture

This is just the set-up - much like the 2009 law. A year after its passing there are still 25 lions known to be in circuses that have simply ignored it. An animal aid organisation, aided by the police, sets out to do something about it. They are the ones who made this documentary and at times it does have overtones of propaganda, the sentiment laid on a little too thick, but it's still a riveting film, an intriguing look at a side of the campaign story we rarely see. There's plenty of visual evidence for the arguments the team make and the behaviour of the lions themselves supports their case.

Each lion is given a personal introduction and despite the number of them it's impressive how effectively we can get to know them over the course of the film. There's Como Como, the big male who has responded to ill treatment with constant anger which he struggles to control; Campeon, the younger male so weak that he can hardly breathe, his legs deformed by malnutrition; Kiara, the mother whose young cubs are routinely taken from her so tourists can pose with them, then given back covered in bruises; and many more. They're fascinating creatures, clearly intelligent, keenly observing what goes on around them. They're very much in need of affection and kindness, yet they're also capable of tearing a human in half. Rescuing and rehabilitating such dangerous animals is precarious work, and would be even if it weren't for angry circus owners with guns.

At one point, out of nowhere, Zorro appears to congratulate the team on their work. They wonder where he was when they needed his help. It's one of several curious moments that make this much richer than the average rescue tale. As they work, other animals also come to their attention. There are tiny monkeys hidden in cardboard boxes and a friendly coati kept on a piece of string. Some circus owners cry and speak of their love for animals they have clearly mistreated. Yet more than anything, it is the lions who tell the story. Their amazement and joy at the smallest of kindnesses is remarkable to see. Despite the horrors it reveals this is ultimately an uplifting story. It's a revealing documentary with a lot of heart.

Reviewed on: 24 Jul 2013
Share this with others on...
When a law is passed forbidding animals to be kept by circuses in Bolivia, the animal welfare battle is just beginning.

Director: Tim Phillips

Writer: Jan Creamer, Tim Phillips

Starring: Jan Creamer, Bob Barker, Jorja Fox, David Kopp

Year: 2013

Runtime: 100 minutes

Country: US, UK, Bolivia


Raindance 2013

Search database:

Related Articles:

Lion man

If you like this, try:

African Cats
Project Nim