Alongside crates of asparagus, Hoover the tiger will be airlifted Friday from Peru to Florida, where he’ll settle into a new home in Tampa after a lifetime of suffering.
Hoover has spent his entire nearly 12 years performing tricks with a traveling circus in Peru. His harrowing journey to a new life reads like a bestselling thriller. The plot line—Operation Spirit of Freedom—was conceived by Jan Creamer and Tim Philips, co-founders of Animal Defenders International (ADI), a U.K.-based organization dedicated to stopping animal abuse and saving animals in distress.
In 2012 after a two-year investigation and public campaign by ADI exposed animal abuse in Latin America’s circuses, Peru banned wild animal acts.
Enforcement of the ban meant confiscating large, dangerous animals, moving them to a holding facility and caring for them—and finding them new homes. Lacking experience in this kind of work, the Peruvian government enlisted the help of ADI, which launched Operation Spirit of Freedom.
Building on its initial investigation, ADI surveyed Peru’s six traveling circuses, tracking their tour locations and taking an inventory of the animals.
The first raids came in late August 2014, with trucks sent to hide out near the circuses and wait for the right moment to move in. “We knew they’d tip each other off,” Creamer says. “But we figured they’d never expect us to travel miles and be set up to get to them all quickly.”
In Peru, the operation took longer than expected. “Resistance of the circus owners, together with the many places to hide in mountains and forests, has made it tough,” Philips explains.
For months, the circuses eluded authorities until in July 2015 ADI received tips about two in villages in northern Peru, close to the border with Ecuador.
ADI and Peruvian authorities raided them both, saving Hoover, the only surviving tiger (out of 12 or more) with Circo Africano. (ADI changed the tiger’s Peruvian name, Juver, to Hoover.)
An eight-hour standoff with Circo Koreander followed, leading to the rescue of Mufasa the mountain lion, who had been chained to the back of a truck for 20 years.
After being nursed back to health, Mufasa was released last November in Peru’s Taricaya Ecological Reserve, in the Amazon rain forest. One month later he died from kidney failure and other age-related problems.
Hoover’s New Start
When ADI rescued Hoover, Creamer says, he was a frail, not-too-healthy tiger. In ADI’s care, he has improved, building his strength and putting on weight. “However, given his history, we believe he will always need to be monitored,” Philips notes.
“He’s just not had a good life,” Creamer says.
That’s about to change. Tomorrow evening at 6:15, after a seven-hour flight from Lima accompanied by Creamer and Philips, he’ll land in Miami and be trucked across the state to Tampa. At first light on April 23—his 12th birthday—he’ll be released into his new home, a spacious enclosure at Big Cat Rescue filled with shady trees, soft grass, and a spring-fed lake.
"ADI believes Big Cat Rescue will provide a wonderful home for Hoover,” Philips says. “We’ve seen the enclosure he’ll have and also the first class veterinary facilities they have on site. The climate will be similar to what Hoover is used to as well."
“The cats are quite spoiled here,” says Susan Bass, the organization’s public relations director. Already in the works for Hoover is a welcome party complete with a special treat: an all-meat birthday cake.
Laurel Neme is a freelance writer and author of Animal Investigators: How the World’s First Wildlife Forensics Lab Is Solving Crimes and Saving Endangered Species and Orangutan Houdini. Follow her on Twitter and Facebook.