While everyone wishes for life to be fair, countless people are born into poverty and miserable circumstances. Charles Dickens’ timeless classics often feature pitiable waifs. In each instance, however, the hapless hero had a good heart, showed strength of character and endurance, and was rewarded in the end. Sometimes we find such a story with our four-legged friends.
You may have heard of “The One and Only Ivan,” a popular children’s story by Newbery Award winner Katherine Applegate. While this heartwarming tale follows the trials of a Gorilla who lived in isolated captivity most of his life until he was rescued into good care, there is yet another animal Ivan who went through very similar circumstances. This Ivan is a Lion.
Ivan-Asen started out life on the wrong paw, so to speak. He was born in captivity at Razgrad Zoo in Bulgaria, a facility known for illegal inbreeding for profit.
The zoo sold Ivan to another facility, which, when the lion’s health declined, quickly rejected him rather than giving him the care that he needed. Ivan was returned to Razgrad Zoo, but by this time his space had been filled. So the zoo placed him in a tiny cage, a ten square foot prison-like cell with no ventilation, no stimulation, and no natural light.
Things looked very bleak indeed for the ailing lion until November 2017, when the international animal welfare group, Four Paws, urgently intervened to rescue Ivan from his miserable circumstances. Upon removing him from his cage, the group found him to be in critical condition. They had to sedate him in order to treat his injuries during a temporary stay at Sofia Zoo.
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Speaking of Ivan’s condition, a Four Paws staff member said, “when we found him, he was closer to dead than alive.”
During their visit to the Razgrad Zoo, the team requested that the sickly lion be allowed some time out in the daylight, as he looked so pathetic. The moment he was released from his dark, damp cage, he ran to the fence that separated him from his parents. His mother started licking him through the bars. It was a touching moment that would make anyone’s heart ache.
Although Ivan responded well to the initial treatment, some of his chronic issues are not likely to ever heal. Still, he grew stronger day by day from continuous therapy and treatments.
According to a statement by Four Paws, the Razgrad Zoo, located in north-eastern Bulgaria, opened in 1960, but its breeding license expired in 2014. The zoo remained open for free, and made money by (in)breeding and selling lions underground. Ivan was one of these unlucky victims.
Due to inbreeding and the horrific conditions of his cubhood, Ivan-Asen suffered from a number of health problems, including severe joint and digestive issues, malnutrition, weak kidneys, and a compromised immune system. He has a deformed neck, so it is difficult for him to groom himself, and he often developed skin problems.
After undergoing critical care at Sofia Zoo, Ivan was relocated to his new home. FourPaws had the foresight to crate-train him, so anesthesia was unnecessary during the long journey in his transport box. 30 hours and 2000 kilometers later, Ivan arrived at FELIDA Big Cat Sanctuary in the Netherlands, a small rehabilitation center owned by Four Paws that is especially made to accommodate large felines that have been rescued from critical conditions.
Ivan was not the only lion to be rescued from the zoo. In March 2018, shortly before Ivan, Four Paws had transferred two other lions, siblings named Masoud and Terez, to FELIDA. As Ivan would technically be their uncle, his arrival was a sort of reunion. Not only does he now have company at the sanctuary, he is finally able to bond with his family.
A skin biopsy performed in March 2020 showed that Ivan was free of all bacterial, viral and allergy related issues. He had recovered well under the intensive care of Four Paws, and after over two years of TLC, his health was largely restored.
Living at FELIDA Big Cat Sanctuary, Ivan can roam his large enclosure and play with his nephews Masoud and Terez every day. His mane shines under the natural light that he can now enjoy, and he roars loud and proud.
On March 27, 2021, the nonprofit organization posted a three-year anniversary update of Ivan on Facebook.
“Today three years ago, lion Ivan-Asen arrived after a long journey crossing several borders,” they wrote. “Every kilometer he was leaving his horrible past further behind. And now, three full years later, he looks like a true king!”
“Although Ivan will always need specialized (medical) care, we are proud to provide him with a comfortable life, in which he enjoys the sun on his fur, the sand under his paws, and the peace around him,” Four Paws said.
The statement also mentioned that Razgrad Zoo, which is officially owned by the city of Razgrad, remains open to the public free of charge. After what Four Paws witnessed of Ivan and his circumstances, however, the organization convinced the city mayor to cooperate in the removal of additional lions from the zoo, and also in the sterilization of two adult male lions living there; thus officially terminating their breeding program.
While Ivan’s story is, in large part, deplorable, it is by no means unusual. Many dogs and cats are rescued from neglect and abuse every day by kind-hearted people. Were humanity more compassionate as a whole, there would be fewer instances where such rescue is necessary. We should always keep in mind that, although we use animals for various purposes in our human lives, it is our responsibility to treat them with kindness and dignity, as they are also lives with thoughts and feelings. In fact, rescued pets are often found to be the most loving and loyal to their new owners.
As Ivan was more dead than alive when Four Paws found him, he must have had a strong will to live in order to beat the odds. This story demonstrates how terrible situations can turn around after the worst is endured. The important thing is to not lose hope. So when times are tough and it looks like nothing is ever going to go right, we must be resilient and persevere. As a popular quote from Christian Reverend J. K. Gressett reads, “God prepares great men for great tasks by great trials.”