After spending nearly eight years in captivity, Bulgaria’s last two circus lions were successfully released to a wildlife reservation in South Africa on Monday.
The reservation is one of the largest private conservation initiatives in southern Africa. Located in the Eastern Cape near Port Elizabeth, it is situated on 61 acres of land and contains the African bush environment the lions have spent most of their lives removed from.
Born Free Foundation, a wildlife-focused nonprofit, helped rescue the pair from Bulgaria, where they had been kept in a beast wagon since the summer of 2014. After Bulgaria made it illegal to use wild animals in circus acts earlier this year, the owners left the lions in the cramped metal trailer until Born Free was able to re-home them.
“I hope their story will inspire people to treat wild animals with respect and understanding, and never subject them to totally inappropriate existences in captivity,” said Born Free cofounder Virginia McKenna OBE in a statement.
Circuses have long been under scrutiny for mistreating animals, housing them in small cages and forcing them to perform tricks in front of hundreds of onlookers. Earlier this year, the popular circus group Ringling Bros. announced it would discontinue using endangered Asian elephants in its shows, with a plan to end elephant acts completely over the course of a three-year period. The circus will transfer the last of its 13 elephant performers to its Center for Elephant Conservation, a 200-acre ranch located in Polk City, Florida.
This story was originally published on Take Part.