Published: 06:00, 13 February 2021
| Updated: 09:17, 13 February 2021
A Kent wildlife park's plans to rehome three lions rescued from circuses have been halted at the last minute after the cats were diagnosed with feline calicivirus (FCV).
It means it is too risky to bring the trio to Port Lympne as the highly infectious virus causes respiratory symptoms and could be passed on to the animals already living at the reserve, near Hythe.
The virus usually causes a latent infection which means the infected cat continues to carry and shed the virus. The virus is shed in respiratory droplets and can infect other cats over a large area.
The animal park had revealed its plans to rehome the three lions - plus a family of brown bears - at the end of last year and had launched a fundrasier to help build their new enclosure.
Two of the lions, Mojito and Timothy, were saved from Circus Wonderland where bosses at Port Lympne say they were deliberately underfed to keep them weak and small enough to use for photoshoots.
The third lion, Anthares, was confiscated from another French circus where he was forced to perform and lived in a tiny trailer.
It was only thanks to the actions of AAP Animal Advocacy and Protection that the cats escaped short and painful lives.
Speaking about the diagnosis, Port Lympne’s animal director, Simon Jeffery said: "It has been an incredibly hard decision to make, but we cannot risk the infection of all of the other felines at Port Lympne Hotel & Reserve and will be unable to bring Timothy, Anthares and Mojito to the reserve.
"An outbreak of FCV on-site would risk the health of the animals in our care and threaten all of our future rewilding plans for feline species.
"We will, of course, continue to work with our partners at AAP to ensure that Timothy, Anthares and Mojito will continue to receive the very best of care.
"Although we will be unable to bring these cats to Port Lympne, there are more lions in desperate need of our help.”
Despite this setback the Port Lympne team have been able to identify a pair of lions named Zulu and Wilma who are in desperate need of a new home.
Zulu and Wilma are currently housed at Borth Wild Animal Kingdom, who have struggled to find a new home for the pair.
They have been fully health checked and have tested negative for FCV.
They will arrive at the park in the coming days.
The family of brown bears are also still expected at the animal park, which is run by the Aspinall Foundation.
Julio, Enciam and Neu, and their three young cubs, are living at an adventure park in Andorra, which is soon closing its zoo.
Non-profit Bears In Mind alerted the Aspinall Foundation to their plight.
So far, £58,000 of the £250,000 target has been fundraised for the new sanctuaries for the bears and lions.
Despite the challenges posed by the coronavirus and the difficult economic circumstances these enclosures, of which the lion enclosure will be one of the biggest in Europe, are virtually complete.
Port Lympne’s managing director, Tony Kelly said: "We are incredibly grateful for the support and generosity of the public who donated to our original appeal.
"I am sure that our supporters share our disappointment that Timothy, Anthares and Mojito’s FCV diagnosis prevents them from being rehomed at Port Lympne.
"However, we are proud to be able to offer a home to Zulu and Wilma, and in due course the brown bears from Andorra, all of whom will enjoy a comfortable retirement with us here at Port Lympne."
To donate, visit here.
This week, Port Lympne confirmed a one month old lion cub which was born at the park had died in the night.