Animal Defender International's Founder
Tim Phillips Talks New Film ‘Lion Ark’
By Amber Topping
Tim Phillips has worked to expose animal cruelty through pictures and film as well as campaign for animal protection issues for many years. He’s the co-founder and Vice President of Animal Defenders International (ADI), and recently he made a documentary about the dangerous trek he made with his wife Jan Creamer (Co-founder and President of ADI) in Bolivia to rescue 25 lions from circuses (after ADI helped the Bolivian government to put a ban on the use of animals in circuses). A couple weeks ago, I had the pleasure to talk to the warm, courageous and talented Mr. Tim Phillips about his film Lion Ark, Animal Defender’s International and why it’s important in our society to protect the weakest among us.
To start, can you talk a little bit about your background and how you became involved with both animal protection issues and documentary filmmaking?
Yes. Over 30 years ago, I went to see a film at a movie theater called The Animals Film. And this was 1982—it was a sort of a groundbreaking film in its day. It was the first time a big animal rights film had ever been made. And it got together what happened in factory farming, laboratories and all of these things. And I—it really touched me. It changed my life effectively. I was working finance and in banking and I quit my job. I got myself an SLR camera and began photographing and documenting how animals were treated. And that sort of led one thing to another. My wife and I, Jan and I, founded Animal Defenders International in '90.
And so we began campaigning and working for animals and communicating was also a huge part of that. So we've always made lots of short films and short documentaries with 30 minute ones on rescues and things that we've done. And lots of issue ones and so that sort of led to us then making a feature film. And in a way, the decision to make the film was just led by events. We were doing this huge rescue saving all of these lions in Bolivia.
Our first thought was we should document all of this and then…recover it. And then very quickly we realized here was an opportunity to tell a really serious issue but with a happy ending. That you would not need to dwell on the suffering of these animals because the more you see them living life as they should, the more you realize as the film progresses, just how wrong it was to keep them in those tiny cages and things.
For those who aren't familiar can you describe what Lion Ark is all about?
Okay. Well it's a story of how a ban on animals in circuses was secured in Bolivia. And it began with an undercover investigation. We placed people for two years inside the Bolivian circus industry and then after that time, we released the findings. And it just sent a shock wave through the continent. And Bolivia was the first country to ban the use of all animals in circuses because of horrific scenes that we'd uncovered. The circuses actually simply defied the law. Actually this is a big environmental and animal protection issue in that often well meaning laws are brought in, but the countries where they're most needed often have the least resources to enforce them. And so we said to the Bolivian government, if you pass this law, we will help you enforce it. So a year went by, the circuses did nothing. One circus handed over their animals to us and we relocated them. And the film Lion Ark very much begins at that point, a year later, here we are and we're tracking down the circuses…And in the film we track down 8 circuses—it’s quite thematic as we seize the animals. And we go through various trials and tribulations bringing the focus of the story which is 25 lions rescued from 8 different circuses. And we bring them together, bring them back to health. Then ultimately we fly them to the U.S. and we release them into these fantastic enclosures.
Throughout the documentary as a viewer and I just saw the film—I thought it was great, but you really feel like you’re there for the rescue from beginning to end. So was this purposeful on your part? Did you want to document the whole thing for the audience to really be there?
Yes, we did very much. We filmed it ourselves so it was absolutely sort of a no holds bar in the filming. And so, you know, I said to the cameraman, “You just film everything.” If something goes wrong we film it because ultimately we will get through the problems. And we decided on a few things with the narrative very quickly that we wouldn't do many talking heads, we'd just kind of speak as if the camera was a third person—if the viewer was that person in the camera watching these events.
And everything, all the key stuff in the film happens very, very quickly. So we filmed it with a very light, journalistic crew. People have been very surprised at the production speck of it, that it is a very high quality film. It's filmed on Red. Nevertheless, there weren't loads of people with boom mics walking in on circus seizures; so the cameraman, a few radio mics, and an extra backup small DSLR camera. So, you're very much in the thick of the action and I think that's very rare for people to see; that this is just how tense it can be and this is just how dangerous these animals can be in certain circumstances.
So, what were some of the most intense moments with either the angry circus owners or with the lions for you?
It was always quite tense when you were going in. It was very interesting because some just sort of said, “Okay, here are the lions.” And they'd even just leave the night before. There [were] others who were sort of—it was almost like a battle and the wheels of vehicles were...slashed and there was an awful lot of tension. You know, sort of, step them back and calm them down to actually hand them over with no one getting hurt. Some threatened us.
But the actual moments where I felt most at risk was one night we had a 14 hour journey through these mountain passes with these trucks laden with lions; great big cages up on the vehicles. And these were just like rocky roads hacked into these sheer precipice mountain passes. And I really thought we could die tonight because if we hit the bump, one of these trucks is going to start rolling down into the valley below.
The other thing that was sort of genuinely life risking I felt at the time, but was so kind of wrapped up in it…we were dealing with animals in cages where they were starving, so they were very lethargic. But then we'd get them and we'd begin looking after them, and they get much more energetic. [Laughs] So in a way they became more dangerous in the bit immediately after the rescue or the seizures. And there's a moment where we're trying to get a very, very angry lion—and in many rescues I've never encountered a lion just that angry. And we're trying to, Jan and I, are trying to get him out of this cage. And basically it's just fallen apart. It's rusted. He's been stuck in there 12 years, just as a sideshow. We'd no way of getting him in or out. And so we're having to break in and he is absolutely furious. If he can get at us, he would've killed us. But luckily we get him out safely. And that lion, it, finding peace, this lion called Colo Colo, he goes on to be I think the absolute star of the film…
…he finds peace at the end, and it's just great.
Yeah. It was fun actually seeing all the different lions with their different personalities. And it's just something as a kid (you kind of start to notice as you get older), you don't really think about the animals at the circuses. You just think that they're happy and having fun, and then as soon as you get older you go, wait a second, there's something wrong with that picture.
So, it was kind of nice to be able to see the different personalities with the lions.
I think as well when we try and show things rather than saying, “This is really cruel and it's really cruel because of...” And I think it's small things in the film that make people sort of sit back and go, "Wow that's amazing." And one example is they're in actually tiny cages on the backs of trucks and there's nothing in there for them. And when we first get them we just put some hay in there, some bedding. And you can see a sense of joy and pleasure in these animals as they're rolling about and playing and sort of having fun for the first time. I think that speaks volumes more for what they were lacking than you know, explaining in detail all the things that they need in their life.
What was that moment like when you witnessed the lions actually go out under the sun and play in the grass for the first time in Colorado?
Absolutely fantastic! I go there regularly and it just charges me up to see them free and to have traveled that whole journey with them. And it's a kind of strange moment actually, because it's a little bit bittersweet because you become really, really close to these animals. You look after them every day. And then the relationship changes in that you hand them over to the sanctuary and although we work with them and we continue to fund the care of the lions, it's all so very different than cleaning them out each day and feeding them and everything. So there was a little over hanging saying goodbye, but it was just glorious. When the cubs come out and they just ran and sort of energized the whole group. It was one of the best moments in my life really. And I will—when I deal with things as an animal campaigner that are distressing and frustrating and desperate in dealing with governments and things, those are the things that keep me going.
Yeah. Well it was a beautiful moment to even just watch in the film. So to experience it, I can imagine would be just amazing.
I went to see them—I’m going back there again in about a week and a half, so it's always great going and seeing them after you've seen the film. I went in there last year. It was a particularly favorite visit. We drove a vehicle in because these are very big lion enclosures. And the biggest is 25 acres. So you can drive in there in the summer and it's full of all these beautiful flowers and even not find the lions for like ten minutes. And then they come out and find you; kind of emerge out of the long grass. I'm lucky enough to have seen lions in the wild quite a few times and it's as close as we could have given them to that. And that sort of is what's perfect about the project. We really pushed it. We've put them in the family prides so they live in those groups that they should do naturally. They have the kind of space to express themselves. And we were stuck in the vehicle, and they began chasing it and biting the bumper. It was just fantastic to have that kind of role reversal. Those lions, that we take ‘em from such awful conditions.
So how did Bob Barker actually get involved with the Lion Ark operation, which ultimately led up to him financing the rescue?
Right. Well, we were doing all of these campaigns and we'd secured legislation in Bolivia (and ADI has secured many laws all across the world) and kind of our undercover work is sort of what caught Bob Barker's eye. We’re very evidence based, so he saw we were doing this work getting the footage, getting it out, communicating it to the public, building public support, and then getting laws through. And the law was very close to being passed in Bolivia. So he realized we had this tremendous momentum and Peru was on board. And out of the blue, he called us Jan and I were at home and one night we got this call. And Bob Barker said, “I'm gonna give you some money.” And we thought, “Gosh, wouldn't that be great to have a few thousand dollars?” And he gave us a million dollars.
We knew at that point we would be able to do something on this scale…he gave us subsequent money as the project went on as well. But we specifically set aside a million dollars so that we could go and empty this entire country. And he made it possible because we're a good frugal organization where if people read this and they want to give a donation, we will really work that hard. But once you're working on that scale when you're dealing with lions, horses, monkeys, dogs, all of these other animals we dealt with in Bolivia, it's a huge scale. I mean, the building and the enclosures for the lions alone accounted for almost half of that money. So it's fantastic what he's done…The first time Jan and I had ever met him was getting off that aircraft…
Which you see in the film which is quite remarkable! We had spoken many times and we said, “You've made this incredible thing happen. You must come and see these lions thrive.”
Yeah. It was a great moment too when he turned on his whole voice with the "Lion number 1 come on down," like the game show host, which is great. It gave a nice touch for the film.
And…just that amazing speech in congress that [he gave]. He really is a very remarkable articulate advocate for animals.
Something I loved also about the film was what Jan said about how when we protect the weakest, we all gain. So what are your own thoughts on that idea?
I very much support that view. I mean, that's very much Jan's and my philosophy. Jan says in the film, and it's something we both say, ‘cause we often say, “Why go around bothering these animals when there's so much human suffering in the world?” It's almost as if, you know, if you do this thing, you're kind of trivializing human suffering. And that isn't it at all. If we do protect the weakest and most vulnerable we do all gain. If we say that children shouldn't be abused in our society, then it goes without saying that others in society shouldn't be abused and so on. And the more right that we gain for the most vulnerable then we all get those rights if we ever need them. With animals, if we create a culture in a society in which we are saying suffering is wrong, violence is wrong, and in the context with the film animals just suffering in the name of our entertainment. It's clear that those things shouldn't happen to people either. And I think it if we can build a more caring society, then we will all gain from it. And it is a truism Ghandi said about that...you can judge the morals of a country by the way that they treat animals. You can put insert there, you can judge the morals of a country by the way it treats old people. You can judge a country by the way it treats disabled people or children. And animals. If the minute you go to the areas where society's vulnerable and where people can take advantage of, that is where you learn whether our society's there to just take advantage or there to protect and care.
That's a good point! So, what is the message you really want the audience to take with them after watching Lion Ark?
I think that suffering in the name of entertainment must stop. I think that's a very clear message for it and animals should be treated with respect and kindness. But I think the really big theme of it is that we can all make a difference. And I think one of the things meeting people who've seen the film at these festivals and things—I think it's a very empowering film. It shows that you can have success and make a massive difference on the world sometimes where you least expect it. If you've gone back ten years now or 12 years and said, well, what money would you put on securing laws as strong for animals as this in a country like Bolivia and being so effectively enforced and all those animals being saved, you would get incredible odds. And I think it shows that with the right message that there is a lot of good in human nature. You know, that people in Bolivia responded to this and wanted this thing to happen. There may be a lot of educating to do, but we can all make a difference.
How do you reach people when you're trying to get bills passed and everything about animal abuse when it's easier for people to just look the other way?
I think that's the biggest single problem actually. And I would suspect that any human rights organization would say the same too. It's the inertia and wanting to look the other way is probably our greatest obstacle to achieving anything. So I think you've just got to communicate it in different ways. I think ADI's methodology is to investigate and gather the evidence and present the case. And I think that we have success generally because we get the level of evidence to show this is a very, very serious problem. We don't just film someone who hits an animal and put that on television and go, "do something about this now."
Because people go: “Well, what happened? Who is that person?” So I think key evidence and communicating it. And this film Lion Ark is a part of that tapestry. It may be through news broadcasts, it may be through videos sent to schools, it may be through leaflets and petitions; I think all of these ways of communication are—of course the internet where we can show individual incidents, even sort of two minute videos through 30 minute videos showing things, explaining it, educating...I think education and evidence are the absolute key and then just solid hard work to get the actual legislation through.
So what are some of the various ways someone interested can get involved with the Animal Defender's International?
Well if they look at our website, which is ad-international.org, they can support the film Lion Ark…We're appearing all over the US at the moment at different film festivals. We're in Omaha next week. And we need help [with] those events with selling the t-shirts, getting people to sign up. At the ADI website, which is ad-international, there's a whole range of different ways that people can get involved from volunteering at events and actually doing things through to signing up to petitions and writing to members of congress and even meeting their members of congress and their local representatives, their city representatives.
People do not realize just the power that they have. I mean, bills don't tend to get through governments. They don't represent, certainly not for animals, if they don't represent the will of the people or a very big sector of the community. But they're often driven by very small numbers of people. It makes a huge impact to someone to watch our film, read our literature, and then go on, knock on the door of their local council member and say, “I'm one of your constituents, you can see I'm just an ordinary person from this town (or I'm involved in business here or whatever), and I would like you to help stop this.” That doesn't mean that conversation will instantly lead to something; it is those encounters where people actually get directly engaged that bring about the big changes.
Are there any specific bills that you're working on right now to actually get passed?
People will see on the ADI site that there's various local authorities, city municipalities which are working on legislation, ordinances to ban the use of wild animals in circuses. And later this year, in the coming months we hope, ADI will be working on the reintroduction of the traveling exotic animal protection act which is the congressional legislation that would prevent the use of wild animals in traveling shows through the U.S. And to get through a piece of a legislation like that can take many years. The price is very great ending this sort of suffering forever and you can see that in the film Lion Ark. And if these things can happen in Bolivia and Paraguay and Peru and Great Britain and Austria and Costa Rica and Taiwan, then certainly they can happen here in the U.S.
Yeah, definitely! So do you have any other projects in the works right now? Another documentary that you're thinking about making? Or perhaps another rescue mission?
The really huge project we have on our doorstep is the Peruvian government has asked us to do the same thing as we did in Lion Ark. So we've had our field offices out in Peru tracking down the circuses. Clearly it's gonna be different because they know that we'll be coming this time, so there could be different resistance. One of our senior field officers, Alexis, who appeared in the film, was quite badly beaten up photographing a circus and had his leg broken about six-five months ago.
Oh my goodness...
So we're also talking with the government and finalizing the legal paperwork on that and you know how we would seize the animals where they would be held and in fact, all of these Lion Ark screenings are going towards funding that operation. So anyone who goes and sees a Lion Ark screening and gives a donation or buys one of the T-shirts, well it will help get those animals out of cages in Peru.
Awesome! Before we go, is there anything else that you wanted to add?
I think just to say keep an eye on what we're doing. Lion Ark the movie is on Facebook and ADI, Animal Defender's international are on Facebook. The website for ADI is www.ad-international.org and the website for Lion Ark is lionarkthemovie.com and we've got screenings coming up in all the time. Please watch for it and support the film.
Well thank you so much for taking the time to talk to me.
It was an absolute pleasure.
If you watch one movie trailer this year, watch this one!
To learn more about Amber Topping, check out her vintage inspired (yet modern) media blogzine: www.silverpetticoatreview.com