In the wild, pumas cover a lot of ground. The large American cats, also known as cougars or mountain lions, cover territories ranging from 10 to 370 square miles.
That instinct to roam can make captivity difficult in almost any circumstances. But for one captive puma in Peru, it must have made life especially painful since the mid-1990s. Named Mufasa, he was part of an illegal circus that's accused of keeping him chained up in the bed of a pickup truck for much of the past two decades.
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That's all behind him now, however, thanks to a tip that helped police track down the circus earlier this year. Peru banned the use of wild animals at circuses in 2011, yet Circo Koreander allegedly defied the law by moving among remote villages. That strategy apparently worked until April, when Animal Defenders International (ADI) received a tip that the circus had stopped at a village in northern Peru.
"ADI, police and wildlife officers moved in for a surprise raid but were met by hostile resistance," the nonprofit group says in a press release about the rescue. "An eight-hour standoff saw riot police and a public prosecutor called in before Mufasa — Peru's last wild animal in a circus — was handed over, along with a condor."
Mufasa was likely taken from the wild as a cub, according to ADI, and hauled from village to village in the pickup where he was found. He may have left the truck bed to perform, but it's thought to be where he spent much of the past 20 years.
"It was heartbreaking to see Mufasa chained among the circus equipment, living on the back of a pickup truck," ADI president Jan Creamer says in a statement. "A heavy harness and chains were wrapped around his body and as we cut them away, he stretched, free, for the first time."
After helping him out of the truck, ADI took Mufasa to its Spirit of Freedom rescue center near Lima, where he received specialist veterinary treatment. Both his appetite and coat condition improved, giving his caretakers confidence he was ready for the next step of rehab: returning to the rain forest.
Mufasa is near a puma's maximum life span, and after so much time in captivity, he's ill-equipped to survive on his own in the wild. Instead, ADI found him a home at the Taricaya Ecological Reserve, a 2 square-mile (476-hectare) patch of Amazon rain forest adjacent to the Tambopata National Reserve. There he'll be cared for along with other animals ADI has rescued in Peru, including an endangered spectacled bear, three woolly monkeys, two spider monkeys and a macaw.
It may not give Mufasa back the past 20 years of his life, but by moving to this protected reserve, Creamer hopes he can at least live out his twilight years with dignity and relative freedom. "It is magical to see him moving about in and out of the trees in his own piece of protected forest," she says.
To see Mufasa's rescue and homecoming, check out this new video from ADI: