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I’ve been waiting to share this news with you for quite some time.  A few months ago, IFAW (International Fund for Animal Welfare) asked if we could help Stefania and 3 other lion cubs in war-stricken Ukraine. We knew it would be difficult, but with so many amazing animal warriors on the ground trying to save as many animals as possible, we wanted to do our part.

IFAW reached out to us about Stefania and the cubs because our team is experienced in international big cat translocations, though none during such conflict.  We know with every step forward, there may be three steps back.  But seeing the committed individuals on the ground providing rescue and animal care during shelling, sometimes with no electricity or running water, we were determined to help.

Stefania and the cubs, all younger than four months, arrived safely at the Poznan Zoo in Poland after traveling for 36 hours out of war-torn Ukraine, where they will be cared for until onward transport permits are issued.

They have had a harrowing first few months of life, surviving the recent drone attacks and sporadic bombings in Kyiv. Remembering the first moments caring for Dash, I can imagine how scared the caretakers were for the cubs’ survival.

According to their permits, all of the cubs were surrendered to animal rescue organizations, VetCrew in Odesa and Wild Animal Rescue in Kyiv, after local officials started to enforce laws on the exotic pet trade in Ukraine.

“An estimated 200 lions live in private homes and as the war rages on, they face increasingly grim outcomes,” says Meredith Whitney, Wildlife Rescue Program Manager at the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW).

We know there are more bumps in the road to come, but we committed to the long journey.  Both for the animals, but also for the humans who are dedicating themselves to helping each other and the animals during this very difficult time of war. Our hearts are with them all.

We were thrilled to be able to offer these cubs a beautiful, one acre habitat together and hope to welcome them home in the coming months.

TWS is proud to offer a forever home for these soon-to-be big cats and with your help today, we can rescue and care for more big cats in need!

You can help us fund their forever home by sponsoring Stefania or any of the cubs today!


Photo Credit: ©Holly-Marie Cato and Poznan Zoo

Frequently Asked Questions:

Why were the 3 cubs kept separate from the 4th cub in Poland?

Prada, who is 2 months older, was rescued in Kyiv. The 3 cubs were rescued in Odesa. Once they all traveled to the Poznan Zoo in Poland, they were able to slowly get to know each other. They were merged once they arrived to our sanctuary to be able to grow up as a pride.

Why can’t these lions be set free in Africa?

Of course, that would be our preference, too. But these cubs had all been separated from their mother at birth to be raised by humans and sold on the black market. They had already imprinted on humans and saw them as a source of food and comfort. Sadly, they would have little success on their own in the wild. Here at the sanctuary, they will be able to live wild at heart.

Why didn’t the cubs stay in Poland or in Europe?

The Poznan Zoo was merely a waystation. They’ve been taking in as many animals from Ukraine as they could. By placing the animals at sanctuaries, they’re able to rescue more in need. At the time of the cubs’ rescue, zoos and rescue centers across Europe had accepted many lions from Ukraine already and reported their facilities were at capacity.

Where are their mothers?

The 3 cubs had been dropped off at a train station, in a zipped up duffle bag. They, and Prada, were part of the black market trade, selling wild animals as “pets” for profit. Unfortunately, we have no information on where they were bred or where their mothers are.


Stefania, a female lion cub, was only 4 months old when she arrived at the sanctuary in the winter of 2022. After a 7,000-mile journey from war torn Ukraine, she finally found her forever home.

Stefania, her sister Lesya and brother Taras had been abandoned at a train station in Odesa, Ukraine during the war. They were found zipped up in a duffle bag. They’d been part of the exotic pet trade, destined to be sold for a profit after being separated from their mother at such a young age.

Dr. Andrew Kushnir, a U.S. vet volunteering there on the ground in Ukraine, contacted IFAW for assistance. IFAW then reached out to us to see if we could provide a lifelong home for them.

With the help of IFAW and many animal rescuers in Ukraine, the cubs were transported to Kyiv where they met up with another cub named Prada, also abandoned during the war.

With Russia’s increased bombing and drone attacks on Kyiv, it was important to get the cubs to safety fast. They made a 36-hour journey across the border to the Poznan Zoo in Poland. There, Dr. Kushnir and zoo staff cared for the cubs until transportation and permits came through for their trip to the U.S.

Thanksgiving Day 2022, founder Tammy Thies flew to Poland to help expedite travel arrangements. Finally, on the last day of November, the cubs cleared customs in Chicago for the last leg of their journey to Minnesota. 

Life at the Sanctuary

Stefania and the other cubs had no idea how many people worked so hard to make this international rescue a reality. All they knew was love at each step along the way.

From the moment she and her siblings stepped out of their crates, the fun began! Their arrival, safe at sanctuary, was covered by media all over the world.

Stefania is the second largest female and is darker in color. Her eyes are set closer together than the others, so that’s one way to identify her.

She loves to jump a lot and is always eager to explore new toys or perches. She’s a bit of a showoff to her siblings.

It’s funny watching how much she wants to be in charge, but brother Taras won’t let her be.

To see Stefania, Taras, Lesya and their new pride member Prada frolicking for the first time in the snow, playing together with such gusto, is one of the most heartwarming moments. And we know it’s just one of so many to come for these Ukraine lions.


It’s estimated that there were 200,000 lions roaming Africa 100 years ago. Today, with only 23,000-39,000 mature lions in the wild and ¾ of the population in decline, the African lion is classified as Vulnerable.

The main threats to African lions are human-wildlife conflict and natural prey decline, as well as habitat loss, climate change and wildlife trade.

Lions are trafficked illegally worldwide. Rising living standards in Asia have continued to drive demand for illegal wildlife products, with criminal groups increasingly using social media platforms to sell them.

U.S. Government agencies—including the Departments of State, Interior, Justice, and Commerce, among others—work together to reduce opportunities and incentives for wildlife poachers, traffickers, and sellers to engage in wildlife crime. 

Humans are the key cause of the devastating decline of lion populations and with the current rate of poaching and habitat loss, lions could be completely extinct by 2050. We hope, through education, to reverse this trend.




In early February of 2023, it was time for Stefania’s intake exam and spay surgical procedure. Dr. Kushnir, who played such a key role in their rescue in Ukraine, flew in to assist our Dr. Campbell. What a feeling it was for him to see this tiny cub he cared for there now weighing 60 lbs!

We assembled a large team to perform her full exam. Since we’re also a teaching sanctuary, it’s important others learn whenever there was an opportunity like this. Just like her sister Lesya, Stefania appears to be a very healthy cat and she did great during her surgical procedure with no complications.

We did both Lesya and Stefania’s spays on the same day so they could keep each other company during recovery. The cubs have never been separated before, so we wanted them to be with each other in one room while Taras and Prada are in the adjoining room. They’ll have a shared wall so they can still feel like they’re all together.

As Dr. Campbell remarked, “Our animal care staff is simply brilliant!!!  Crate training, transporting to and from the hospital was so super smooth, perfect sedations, we have a true professional team.  Speaking for the vet team, we cannot do our jobs without our caretakers so, a big THANKS for all the amazing things they do making our job so much easier.

Vet Techs – Anesthesia, IV catheters, intubation, diagnostics, treatment, vaccines, and recovery went off without a hitch, the best compliment I can give, is that when you’re caring for the patient, I absolutely know they are in the BEST hands and I can focus on my tasks, THANKS.  A special thanks to our hospital manager Joy for running this amazing hospital and helping me get it all in place.

Our fantastic facility and equipment make a HUGE difference, having the right tools is truly appreciated. The whole team did a wonderful job of looking out for all our cats.”


“The cubs were surrounded by loud shelling”

When lion cubs Prada, Taras, Stefania and Lesya explored The Wildcat Sanctuary (TWS) in Minnesota for the first time, everyone breathed a deep sigh of relief. After multiple days of traveling from their original home in Ukraine to the U.S., the group of vulnerable cubs was finally safe.

The cubs, who are all under a year old, were originally rescued from pet trafficking in Ukraine. They were receiving the care they needed at a rehabilitation center in the Eastern European country when war broke out, creating unsafe conditions for the baby lions.

“The cubs were surrounded by loud shelling,” Tammy Thies, executive director of TWS, told The Dodo. “The rescue groups often had no power or electricity, yet they were all dedicated to getting these cubs to safety.”

The rescue groups in charge of the cubs reached out to the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW) for help, and that’s when TWS stepped in.

“Our team is experienced in international big cat translocations,” Thies said, “though none during such conflict.”

Nonetheless, Thies agreed to give the four young cubs a new home. But getting them from Ukraine to Minnesota wouldn’t be easy.

First, Taras, Stefania and Lesya were transported from Odesa to a rescue in Kyiv. There, they met up with Prada, who joined the pack of rescue cubs in their travels. After a few days of rest in Kyiv, IFAW transported the lions to Ponzan Zoo in Poland, from which they could be exported to sanctuaries in the United States and Europe.

“This trip was a 14-hour drive plus over 8 hours waiting at the border-crossing checkpoint,” Thies said.

Nevertheless, the cubs made it from Ukraine to Poland and spent a month in quarantine before completing their journey to Minnesota.

While the cubs completed their quarantine, IFAW and TWS worked together to secure U.S. Fish and Wildlife permits to import the cubs.

“So many details had to line up perfectly to still make this happen,” Thies said.

As soon as Thies had the U.S. permits, she made her way to Poland to accompany the cubs on their journey to their new forever home. She spent a few additional days at the Ponzan Zoo building crates for the cubs and getting permits from Poland to export them.

Four days later, Thies and the pack of cubs drove to an airport in Warsaw — four hours away from the Ponzan Zoo — in hopes of catching a flight to Chicago. After undergoing thorough inspections from customs and additional wildlife veterinarians, the group of lions and their dedicated rescuers were finally given the green light to leave Europe.

“The 10-hour flight from Poland to Chicago was the first time we could all breathe a sigh of relief,” Thies said. “We didn’t know the rescue would happen until we were finally on the plane in Warsaw heading to the U.S.”

As for the cubs, they were less affected by the travel than Thies had anticipated.

“Much like us, they used the flight to get some much-needed sleep,” Thies said.

After 10 hours, the cubs and their rescuers landed safely in Chicago. They were inspected by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, as well as customs, before embarking on the last leg of their trip — a seven-hour drive to The Wildcat Sanctuary.

“It was rainy, windy and snowy,” Thies said. “But of course, why would it not be? The journey was never going to be easy.”

The cubs arrived at TWS around midnight, approximately 36 hours after they’d initially embarked on their journey out of Ukraine. As soon as they got there, they immediately began taking in their new surroundings.

“They explored their indoor areas and outdoor habitat right away,” Thies said.

Although the cubs were placed in a completely new environment, they seemed to acclimate right away.

“The cubs have been fearless and are so well adjusted,” Thies said. “They have each other for support and I think that has built their confidence.”

Since arriving at TWS, the cubs’ personalities have blossomed. According to Thies, Taras is a curious cat and an avid climber. Prada is the biggest lion of the four, but she’s more nervous than her rescue siblings. Lesya is the smallest of the group, but far more vocal than the rest. And Stefania has become the peacekeeper in the group.

“It’s so cute to see her checking in with her big ‘sister,’” TWS wrote in a Facebook post.

Although they have warm indoor bedrooms now, the group of cubs loves running around their large habitat in the Pride Prairie section of the sanctuary, especially when there’s snow.

The cubs will live at The Wildcat Sanctuary in Minnesota for the rest of their lives, where they’ll receive all the care and love they need for the next 20-plus years.

“It costs us $10,000 a year to pay for one big cat, so it is an expensive commitment,” Thies said, ”but one worthwhile to watch them live wild at heart in a safe environment.”

To follow along with the lions’ journey, you can keep up with them on TWS’s Facebook and Youtube. To support one of the cubs or other cats at the sanctuary, you can become a sponsor.

Lion Cubs Rescued From Ukraine Celebrate One Year Anniversary

Four young lion cubs captured the nation’s attention just one year ago as they embarked on a remarkable journey from the tumultuous wildlife trade in Ukraine to their forever home at The Wildcat Sanctuary. Born into the chaos of a war-torn country, male lion Taras and his female companions Stefania, Lesya, and Prada faced an early life of hardship. Orphaned and left on a train at just a few weeks old, these cubs, weighing a mere 25 pounds each, were rescued from the clutches of the wildlife trade.

The Wildcat Sanctuary, a haven for big cats, took on the responsibility of providing a safe and loving environment for these young survivors. Executive Director Tammy Thies expressed, “We made a commitment to these cubs early on that we’d provide them a safe place to live out the rest of their days together. And we’ve done just that.”

A year later, the transformation is nothing short of astonishing. Each cub has grown to an impressive 250 pounds, a testament to the care and dedication bestowed upon them by the sanctuary’s team. Even though they now resemble adult lions, the cubs continue to exhibit their playful nature, engaging in bouts of roughhousing and chasing one another.