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Bolivian lions getting a new life at California refuge

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LA PAZ, Bolivia — Four lion cubs freed under Bolivia's circus-animal ban took off for California on Thursday, heading to a new life in a refuge built with the help of television personality Bob Barker.

The cubs were rescued under a Bolivian law set to take effect in July that prohibits circuses from having any animals — including pets — making it the world's most comprehensive ban.

A fifth lion, mother of three of the cubs, was also rescued after a lifetime of circus work. But she proved too elderly to make the trip and had to be euthanized, said Enrique Mendizabal, a volunteer with Animal Defenders International.

His group helped house the lions in Bolivia before they were moved out of the country.

The group's president and a big-cat veterinarian accompanied the lions, which were housed in special cages for the 12-hour cargo flight to San Francisco.

They will be released today at a Performing Animal Welfare Society refuge in northeastern California in a habitat built with support from Barker, the former host of the TV game show "The Price is Right" who is a longtime animal rights advocate.

In their circus lives, two of the cubs had their fangs cut to protect trainers, who wowed crowds by sticking their heads inside lions' mouths. Another had her claws ripped out at birth — without anesthetic.

Lions can live 40 years in the wild. But the euthanized lion was blind and frail by age 18 after a life of jumping through flaming hoops and performing at the point of trainers' whips.

Such stories of abuse, along with clandestine circus videos made by animal-rights activists, prompted Bolivia to enact its ban last year. The lions' owner gave them to a local animal rescue group shortly after the vote.