Chico screening of the documentary Lion Ark is a tribute to Paradise wild-animal vet
In 2010, Dr. Mel Richardson left his Paradise home and boarded a plane to Bolivia. For the next few weeks, as the wildlife veterinarian for the nonprofit Animal Defenders International (ADI), Richardson crisscrossed the country with a small team of activists to rescue 25 traveling-circus lions, many of which were sick, malnourished and had been the victims of mistreatment. He assisted in moving them across mountain roads to a safe, central location, and then he and his team flew with them to an animal sanctuary in Colorado.
The mission to save the lions was filmed by ADI, and turned into an award-winning documentary, Lion Ark, which is making a detour from the film-festival circuit to stop at the Pageant Theatre this Saturday (May 31). Two screenings—the first for friends and family, the second for the public—are in honor of “Dr. Mel,” as he was affectionately known, who died of heart failure in January at the age of 63.
“He really was unique in what he did,” said Dawn Garcia, Richardson’s ex-wife, who remained his best friend until his death. “There are a lot of veterinarians out there who don’t want to go against the industry,” she said, referring to zoos and circuses that use captive wild animals. “He had 40 years’ experience as a keeper and a veterinarian. He wasn’t supposed to be done yet—the animals really needed him.”
Jan Creamer, ADI’s president and the producer of Lion Ark, agrees. “I first met Mel when he was recommended as an expert witness to provide evidence of the suffering caused to animals in traveling circuses,” Creamer wrote in an email from Peru, where she is arranging the next circus-animal rescue mission. “Our whole team misses him so much.”
After Bolivia banned circus animals in 2009 with ADI’s encouragement, Creamer and Tim Phillips, ADI’s vice president and the director of Lion Ark, chose Richardson to join them in helping Bolivia find new homes for the remaining 25 lions. The film follows Creamer and Phillips as they personally tackle just about every angle of the rescue: negotiating with the circus owners, fixing the lions’ ramshackle cages, loading the cages onto trucks to transport them to safety, building temporary enclosures, feeding the lions hunks of meat, and holding cubs for Richardson to administer a deworming medication.
The film depicts the mission’s ups and downs, from inclement weather and terrifying cliff-hugging dirt roads that threatened to halt the rescue, to lighter moments of the lions playing with toys and rolling in straw, perhaps having stimulation in their cages for the first time in their lives. Unlike most wildlife rescue documentaries, Lion Ark moves through all the steps of the rescue. The result is “more action-adventure style than the usual documentary,” according to Creamer, who said the movie “certainly has a serious underlying message, but it is, overall, good fun.”
Richardson appears several times in the film, mostly to comment on the ill health of the lions, but his final appearance is personal: “What motivates me now, is all the 42 years I didn’t do anything, and all the suffering that I’ve seen with captive wild animals,” says Richardson, who worked for years as a zoo veterinarian. “At least thanks to ADI and others, I have an opportunity to make amends.”
Richardson was scheduled to assist Creamer and Phillips again, on their current mission in Peru, one of many countries to recently ban circus animals.
Meanwhile, Creamer says the stars of Lion Ark are now “strong, their coats have really grown, [and] they are relaxed and happy” at the Wild Animal Sanctuary, which specializes in large carnivores.
ADI works on a number of animal-rights fronts, but is possibly best known for its work to save circus animals. Closer to home, its members worked with Congressman Jim Moran (D-VA), who last month introduced a congressional bill called the Traveling Exotic Animal Protection Act to end the use of wild animals in circuses in this country. Should the bill pass, the United States would join a multitude of countries that have recently banned exotic circus animals, including Greece, Slovenia, the Netherlands, Colombia and Paraguay.
“Cruelty and suffering in traveling circuses is universal—over the last 20 years, we have worked undercover in circuses all over the world and the problem is that circuses work the animals for a show, not for the benefit of the animals,” Creamer said. “People should not go to the animal circuses—go to the circus with human performers, not animals.”
The Pageant Theatre screening is not just a memorial to Richardson, but also a fundraiser for ADI. Garcia, Creamer and Phillips all will be in attendance, ready to share their memories of Richardson.
“Mel had a vision that zoos eventually be turned into retirement homes for captive exotic animals—no more breeding,” Garcia said, adding that both she and Richardson had experiences with zoos and other businesses that permitted captured-animal breeding. By the early ’90s, they had mutually concluded that it “exacerbates the cycle” of cruelty, leading to inbreeding, and setting the animals up to be forms of entertainment, rather than rescue animals with an educational story to share. She believes Richardson’s message would be, “Don’t support zoos that are continuing to breed.”