Keeper Karel Geurts watches on as the two lions approach each other. One is a lioness named Masrya, and she was once a caged promotional tool for her cruel former owners. The other is a four-month-old lion cub called Nero, who used to belong to a circus. They are both in need of company, but nobody could have guessed what would happen when they met.
This initial meeting took place in early 2013, but the story of Masrya and Nero was a long time in the making. In fact, it is still being told today. It all started, however, when someone spotted a then-unknown lioness caged “at the side of a busy road.”
Still, it wasn’t until this lioness had arrived at a lion foundation called Stichting Leeuw, which is located in the Netherlands, that somebody named her Masrya. And she had made her way to Stichting Leeuw after a long journey from Egypt.
Yes, it was in Egypt that Masrya had spent the early part of her life as a pet. Then, a street trader purchased her. And this trader subsequently used her as seemingly little more than a promotional tool and photography prop for his services.
Indeed, someone declawed the poor lioness to allow tourists to pose with her for souvenir photographs. And when Masrya grew too large to handle, her owner restricted her to a tiny cage.
In fact, Masrya spent the majority of her time in that cage – until she was around two years old. Worse, her owner kept her on display outside a shop in Cairo.
Masrya’s life changed, however, after a German woman named Saskia Berandt saw her on the busy street. Yes, Berandt took a photo of Masrya in August 2012, but this was not a keepsake. In fact, Berandt shared the photo of the caged lioness online.
Berandt then began a petition to help free Masrya. Moreover, this act drew the attention of U.K.-based organization Spots and Stripes Conservation, and it assisted with the fundraising.
In February 2013 the organization even helped purchase Masrya from her owner. And, with the help of KLM airlines and the Netherlands’ Zoologistics, it aided in transferring her to Stichting Leeuw, which means “lion foundation” in Dutch.
Many of the cats at Stichting Leeuw come from countries that have recently enacted a law banning the use of wild animals in circuses. But getting them there can be tricky. Some circuses, for instance, fight such laws, as was the case with this mountain lion, which was eventually rescued from a Peruvian circus. But more often, there is a sudden influx of big cat rescues needing a home.
Sadly, many of these cats share similar stories of mistreatment to Masrya’s. Indeed, when Masrya arrived at Stichting Leeuw, she could barely walk. Understandably, she was severely weakened from living in a cramped cage and eating a diet lacking in red meat.
Furthermore, Masrya could no longer survive in the wild on her own because of her declawing. In fact, declawing is one of the most common reasons why circus cats need sanctuary and cannot return to the wild. After all, they can no longer hunt successfully, and staff will need to give them food for the rest of their lives.
But luckily for this lioness, the goal of Stichting Leeuw is to provide big cats shelter and care for as long as they need. So, things finally began to look up for Masrya. Yes, in the Netherlands, sanctuary staff treated the lioness with dignity, and she had a spacious enclosure with a garden to enjoy.
Masrya could even go outside and roll in the dirt. Perhaps best of all, though, once she arrived at Stichting Leeuw, Masrya found a lifelong companion in a young lion cub.
It came about because the sanctuary placed Masrya in an adjacent enclosure to Nero. The young cub had arrived two months earlier, having been rescued from a French circus.
Moreover, Nero had been taken from his mother and served as a petting cub for a circus sideshow. And, like Masrya, Nero too had been used as a prop in tourist photographs.
In fact, the cub had been born into a circus life, and that was all he knew. And this was despite the French circus that had used his mom in an act having already stopped its lion show before he was born. Still, the circus soon sold the lioness’ only surviving cub to another circus. And all of this, amazingly, happened before Nero had even turned four months old.
Like Masrya, then, the cub had spent most of his days in a cramped cage – except when someone wanted to take a picture with him. One day, though, a concerned citizen called the Lion Foundation to report Nero’s mistreatment. As a result, Nero was rescued shortly thereafter and brought to Stichting Leeuw, where he met Masrya.
And fortunately for all, it was immediately clear that Masrya and Nero enjoyed each other’s company. In fact, they even started playing and interacting through the fence separating them.
This is why employees at Stichting Leeuw decided to pair the two up in an enclosure together. And, heartwarmingly, the lions bonded quickly – and they haven’t left each other’s sides since.
Indeed, Masrya became something of a mother figure to young Nero, and Nero was a companion to the lioness. For example, the two played together, slept together and learned from each other.
It could, therefore, have been a stumbling block in their relationship when Stichting Leeuw eventually decided that it was time for Masrya to return to her native Africa. But, by then, Masrya and Nero were a package deal, so the two made the move together.
Yes, in May 2015 Masyra and Nero took the journey together to the Emoya Big Cat Sanctuary in South Africa. This haven for lions recently also took in 33 rescued circus lions.
Emoya is located on the Heuser family’s private Bahati Estate. In fact, Savannah Heuser started the sanctuary when she was only 16 years old. The first cat arrived at the sanctuary in June 2013, and many more have followed.
In May 2016, for instance, Emoya Big Cat Sanctuary agreed to take in 33 rescued cats from South America. In fact, Emoya partnered with Animal Defenders International (ADI) to successfully carry out the biggest animal airlift to date to bring the cats to South Africa.
Spanning 5,000 hectares of land, Emoya is now home to more than 42 big cats, including 40 lions and two Siberian tigers. The cats live in “semi-wild” enclosures, giving them ample space to roam in a natural habitat. And within the reserve are mountainous regions, sweeping grassland and river gorges, according to Emoya’s website.
Masrya and Nero had a long journey ahead of them to reach the rippling fields of Emoya, however. First, Stichting Leeuw staff had to coax the two lions into specialized animal carriers. These then carried them to the airport and then all the way to Johannesburg, South Africa.
From Johannesburg, Masrya and Nero traveled to the Vaalwater region of Limpopo province, South Africa. Finally, they arrived at the Emoya Big Cat Sanctuary and tentatively took their first steps out of their carriers onto the soil of their new, vast enclosure.
And Facebook photos show the pair being quite content in their new home. After all, the sanctuary now gives her and Nero a place in which to grow in their natural habitat.
“We followed Masrya’s story from day one and she was the lioness who inspired us to do what we do,” said Minnunette Heuser, co-founder of Emoya Sanctuary, in an interview with The Dodo. “Imagine our surprise and delight when, years later, the very same lioness, with her new partner, [came into] our care.”
With room to roam, then, the two are happy and playful, and they are still inseparable. That said, Nero has grown from the small cub he once was; he is now quite the regal lion, with an elegant, flowing mane. But this would never have been possible without the kindhearted folks working to make the world a better place for animals like these.