By Mike Dilger
BBC Yorkshire Inside Out Wildlife reporter
In my role as a roving wildlife reporter for Inside Out I'm used to taking on an eclectic range of projects. Over the last year I have been involved in the filming of anything from a disorientated hooded seal in Cornwall to the arrival of zebras in urban Bristol. However when the phone rang for an invitation to be involved in the filming of a mercy mission, concerning the transport of a number of lions from Romania to a new facility in Doncaster, I had little idea of the rollercoaster journey I had let myself in for.
Mike Dilger presents the special Inside Out programme. If you missed it, you can watch it via the BBC iPlayer
Situated on Romania's western border with Hungary, Oradea is a pleasant if bland city bisected by the Crisul Repede River. Famous for its close proximity to Transylvania - home to a certain infamous character with a penchant for liquid refreshment after dark - one of Oradea's lesser claims to fame is its quaint yet dilapidated Zoo situated in the heart of a city.
To someone used to visiting forward thinking and progressive zoos such as Bristol or Chester where captive breeding and enrichment of the animals' lives are now the main priority, the Zoo at Oradea came as a shock to the system. The Zoo had a Victorian feel about it, harking back to an era when animals were considered devoid of personality and feelings and so just simply stuffed in tiny cages to be gawped at.
For such a small site, the zoo contained a surprising number of large exhibits such as wolves, bears and lions, the vast majority of which were confined to cramped and depressing enclosures. Looking into one of four lion cages, I couldn't believe that five lions had spent their entire lives in an area no larger than my living room. Their whole world consisted of nothing more than a concrete floor and bars, with a small holding area at the rear where the lions slept. I couldn't escape the feeling that without any stimulation or diversion, apart from feeding time, these lions were 'lifers' with no chance of parole.
A tight squeeze in their former cages which where in Romania
The whole reason of course for our visit there was because the new Oradea Zoo Director Daiana Ghender had realised that, with such a meagre operating budget, she was barely able to feed all her animals let alone attempt to improve their living conditions. So she had taken the initiative to contact the wider zoo community to see if anybody could offer a better home elsewhere for 13 of the 15 lions - and it was the Yorkshire Wildlife Park who came charging to the rescue!
Having raised £120,000 to build a state-of-the-art enclosure at their new park near Doncaster, Director John Minion and Big Cat Keeper Simon Marsh had let us tag along a couple of weeks before the lions were to be moved. They had made the journey across to Oradea to try and wade through the huge amount of red tape and tackle the logistical nightmare which comes with safely and securely flying thirteen potentially aggressive and very dangerous animals a thousand miles across Europe Transport crates needed to be built, permits had to be organised, vets were to be briefed and plane companies had to be sweet-talked.
Despite the appalling conditions, most of the lions looked in surprisingly reasonable health, although two of the cubs were a particular worry due to their bandy and malformed front legs, doubtless caused by a combination of poor diet and lack of exercise. After innumerable meetings between Daiana, John and Simon as they pored over both the state of the lions and the minutiae of the move in triplicate we eventually bade our farewells as we headed back to Doncaster. Next time John would be out in Oradea, he would be leaving with the lions!
As 'lion liberation day approached', there seemed a growing, collective unease back at Doncaster. The cold weather had delayed building work on the lion house as the concrete simply wouldn't set. As John, Simon and all the team put in 20 hour days, they must have felt that they had bitten off more than they could chew. And with so many agencies, companies and individuals involved in the incredibly complex move, and all working towards the 11th of February, there was absolutely no room for procrastination.
The lions were unloaded at Doncaster's Robin Hood airport
With 24 hours to go until the lions were to arrive at Doncaster airport, John and international vet Nic Masters were back out in Oradea with a crack team, sedating and manoeuvring the lions into their transportation crates. The valuable cargo was then due to be driven across the border into Hungary and onto the capital Budapest for an early morning flight to Doncaster the following day.
Back in Doncaster on the day of arrival the organised chaos had been replaced by close to blind panic as Simon was coordinating the last fencing to be erected and rivets welded. The relief was palpable when news came through from Budapest that the flight had been delayed by a couple of hours - two more valuable hours to actually make the enclosure lion-proof!
The nine acre lion enclosure at the Yorkshire Wildlife Park in Doncaster
The chartered plane, with a cargo of 13 lions, the Vet Nic Masters and a pilot finally touched down at Doncaster airport on a cold but beautifully clear day. The plane taxied up to the waiting throng of press - these lions had become a major story - and as the crates were finally unloaded, we could actually see tufts of Romanian lion hair poking through the breathing holes - they had at last arrived! Even with the lions now safely in the UK and a mere three miles from the Wildlife Park, there were still many more questions than answers.
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