I’ve been waiting to share this news with you for quite some time.  In the fall of 2022, IFAW (International Fund for Animal Welfare) asked if we could help 4 lion cubs in war-stricken Ukraine. They included Taras, the only male lion, and females Lesya, Stefania, and Prada.

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 Taras and the other three, 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.

Taras and the other 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’re 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 Taras’ forever home by becoming his sponsor parent today! SPONSOR HERE

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.


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

Taras and his two sisters, Lesya and Stefania, 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

Taras 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 he and his siblings stepped out of their crates, the fun began! Their arrival, safe at sanctuary, was covered by media all over the world.

Taras exhibits a very calm confidence and is already in charge of his sisters. He’s been the most social to caretakers. He’s the largest of the three cubs and shows his dominance at mealtime, always eating first.

With his big personality, he’s the first to explore new things and likes to take away toys from his sisters to get them to follow him.

To see them 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.

We’re thrilled we were able to offer these cubs a beautiful, one acre habitat in the Pride Prairie section of our sanctuary, where they can grow up as a pride together for the rest of their days.


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.



August 22, 2023

Taras was visited by Dr. Kushnir who couldn’t believe how big this little lion he rescued in Ukraine had gotten. Taras is now 208 pounds, his mane is starting to grow, yet he still has his baby canine teeth.

Today, it was time for his vasectomy. In order for Taras to keep his mane, he receives a vasectomy rather than a neuter. Testosterone is what drives a male lion’s mane growth. Dr. Kushnir, Dr. Campbell, and Dr. Kamper all assisted with his surgical procedure. He’s a special boy who deserves 3 vets!

Taras did very well during his surgery, recuperated surgical procedure and was reunited with his girls the very next day.

You can watch the preparation for his surgery HERE.


“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.