SUNDAY MIRROR June 22nd 1997
You Save Kimba...
OUR report last week on the tragic plight of Kimba the lioness, trapped in a tiny cage in an Italian village for
14 years, touched the hearts of the nation. We asked
you to help us bring Kimba back to a better home in
Britain, and your donations poured in. So this week the rescue mission swung into action.
SHARON FEINSTEIN (right) went to Italy with big cat experts from the Born Free Foundation. This is her moving and emotional diary of how YOU saved Kimba from a life of hell...
... and she's FREE!
A full moon lights up the church in the small piazza and a group of 40 people gather in hushed excitement.
A cat runs across the cobblestones and disappears into the night, a cat who has always known freedom - unlike the much bigger cat trapped in squalor on the hill above the Italian town of Taggia.
But this will be a very different dawn for Kimba the lioness. The dawn of freedom, the beginning of her new life.
The cars begin to wind up the road. Ribbons of pink cross the sky and in the distance the cocks crow.
And then there she was. The beautiful face, her emaciated body in that tiny squalid cage which has been her world for the past 14 years, the only world she has ever known.
As the church bells rang out her final minutes of hell, Kimba gazed wearily and yawned at all the people who had come to free her, as if to say: "Why should this day be any different from the past 5,110 days I have endured in captivity?"
And then she lay down on that revolting bed of excrement for the last time.
BRITISH vet John Knight creeps slowly to Kimba's cage. He lifts his blow pipe and shoots a dart into the muscle of her hind leg.
Kimba gives one weak snarl, then becomes heavy on her haunches. Her tongue lolls out, nearly white from anaemia . The vet taps her gently with the pipe, to see if she responds, then he nods. Her moment has come. The rusty lock that has kept her prisoner for so long is wrenched off.
Ropes are tied to the gate and three men heave it aside. The vet goes into the cage and checks that Kimba is fully sedated. Tony Wiles, manager of the big cat sanctuary in Kent, strokes Kimba. If all goes well he will get to know her intimately in her new home.
They heave Kimba on a stretcher, out of her hellish pit. She weighs just 140 kilos when a cat of her frame should weigh 190.
Triumphantly she is borne away from the metal bars and barbed wire she has always stared through. For the first time since she was a cub she is in fresh air with space around her.
KIMBA is laid out on a concrete slab, and very carefully her legs are tied together.
The vets inject her with every vitamin you can think of, as well as calcium, antibiotics and anabolic steroids. They put up three drips to counteract severe dehydration and take blood samples for the lab.
John, a vet for 20 years, says: "Kimba has deteriorated dramatically since a video was taken of her last week. She is uncoordinated and her bone structure is weak because of a poor diet. There is a 10 per cent chance that she won't make it at all. There is a 20 per cent chance she will come out of it weaker.
"But if she gets to her new home in Kent, the probability is that she will make a superb recovery."
The Born Free people have buckets, sponges and shampoos to wash off the faeces that cling to Kimba's fur. Angela from Born Free dries her with a bathroom towel. She is so close to the lioness, and so used to her now, that she says: "Hold her tail while I dry it."
Tony Wiles crouches beside Kimba, and very gently he wipes the streaks coming down from her eyes. The tears that marked her years of pain.
It is incredible to be so near such a magnificent beast, near enough to count her whiskers and her golden eyelashes.
THE sun is strong now, beating down on Kimba.
Her putrid cage is empty, the flies and ants left there on their own. The lorry backs on to the concrete and the 6ft steel-lined crate is lifted off. All around neighbours appear on the slopes, saying they are thrilled Kimba is going away to a better life.
She is lifted into the crate and secured for the 10-hour drive to Venice - through the mountains and lush valleys, a lioness on her journey to freedom.
THE vet stops to check that the crate is strapped down securely on the back of the lorry. He puts a tarpaulin over the back to keep Kimba cool.
The police escort arrives to help us through the traffic jams. The vet can see Kimba from his front seat, watching how she is breathing all the time. Soon she starts to lift up her paw and feel the inside of the cage. She raises her head, aware that things around her have changed, but because she is sedated this doesn't bother her.
Half-way to Venice we park in the shade of a service station. Kimba has made the odd attempt to stand and is licking the inside of her crate looking for water and exploring her new environment. Excited people rush up to peer into the crate, but the vet tells them to stand back and remain quiet. Nothing must damage Kimba's progress now, when things are looking so much better. Her anaesthetic is wearing off and she's through the critical stage.
WE arrive at Venice airport and Kimba is lifted off the lorry into the hangar.
She roars, the fierce sounds vibrating around her crate, and her lips curl back to reveal the lethal two-inch canines. Yet to look at her, with her furry teddybear-like paws sticking out through the bars, it's easy to forget that this is a terrifying beast whose massive teeth are designed to throttle or suffocate her prey.
A lioness need only pat you and she'd fracture your skull.
Kimba's pupils are shining as she stares at us. Her tongue is already a better colour with the vitamins the vet gave her. John says: "We got her out just in time. If she'd been left there she would have withered away in a matter of months."
The crate is fixed to an aluminium pallet with netting over it and Kimba is driven to the aircraft.
A HISTORIC moment - Kimba is lifted off Italian soil for ever, never to be a prisoner here again.
Mr Pavan, provincial head of the Italian Forestry Commission, says: "Kimba is lucky to be away from her owner. In his way he loved her but he has a primitive mentality. He wanted to show people he could dominate a wild beast. She's going to a far better home."
THE plane takes off with Kimba secure in the hold.
The captain announces that a lioness is on board, rescued from a life of hell by Born Free and Sunday Mirror readers. Passengers clap with excitement.
I go into the hold with John and Tony to check on Kimba. We squeeze down a narrow shaft and drop into a black hole. It is eerie. John Knight shines his torch, we see the crate, and through the breathing holes we can see Kimba's watchful eyes. But she's oblivious to the fact that she is 30,000ft in the air.
KIMBA arrives in England to a welcoming party from the Sunday Mirror and Born Free.
Actress Virginia McKenna, founder of Born Free, beams with joy. She says: "It's her spirit that's got her through these years and this tremendous journey. She's got such guts."
THE sanctuary in Kent is silent. The same full moon that shone on that Italian piazza now lights up Kimba's new home.
She has a large enclosure next to other lions, a tiger and a leopard, with surfaces and textures she has never known - grass, rocks, a pool, trees and, most crucially, space.
For a while she crouches in the corner of her box, bewildered. Then, with a last spurt of that fantastic spirit that's kept her going through so much suffering, Kimba bolts out with a roar that tears into the chill night air.
And then came the moment I wished Sunday Mirrors readers were there to see, to bring home how much your generosity has given to this beautiful creature.
Kimba lay down, and for the first time in 14 years she started to play. She lifted the straw with her paws, tossed it and revelled in it.
Something so simple - but it made every moment we've all battled to save Kimba so worthwhile.
ACTRESS Virginia McKenna, founder of Born Free, writes:
Last week we asked Sunday Mirror readers to help us raise pounds 30,000 to rescue Kimba from her lifetime of confinement. Thanks to your generosity, the total has reached an amazing pounds 132,821.
If animals are aware of our moods and feelings - which I believe they are - then I am sure Kimba will know of the strength
of the selflessness and love that has poured out towards her from you all. I can never thank you enough, but I am sure you know already what we feel. We have never, ever had such a response to an appeal. Sunday Mirror readers have certainly broken all the records. It is wonderful.