Lion cubs from Ukraine are 'fearless' in face of their first Minnesota winter

Two lion cubs play with each other
Lion cubs who were rescued from the war in Ukraine by the International Fund for Animal Welfare adjust to their new home at The Wildcat Sanctuary in Sandstone, Minn. on Friday.
Kerem Yucel | MPR News

Like many new Minnesotans, Taras, Stefania, Lesya and Prada are preparing for their first Minnesota winter — but things are a bit different when you have a built-in fur coat.

The four lion cubs from Ukraine arrived at the Wildcat Sanctuary in Sandstone, Minn. on Nov. 30. Over the last week they have been “fearless,” according to founder and executive director Tammy Thies.

The unique aspect of the cubs’ story is their relationship with each other. They were bred in captivity, destined for the illegal pet market at just a few weeks old. They were surrendered in Ukraine in a zipped duffle bag.

Bringing the cubs to Minnesota offered the best chance to keep them safe and provide the support they needed. According to the Wildcat Sanctuary, they had already imprinted on humans and would have little success in the wild.

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“They have each other for support and that has built their confidence,” Thies said. “Knowing all they have been through in their short little lives is heartbreaking. But, they were protected from the war and they remain healthy and happy cubs.”

The journey to Minnesota, while long, has been worthwhile for the cubs. Neighboring sanctuaries in Europe were overflowing with animals from Ukraine, so it was in Sandstone they found their lifetime home.

It costs about $10,000 a year to pay for one big cat but Thies says it’s worth it. All of animals are provided 24/7 access to heated rooms and straw in their outdoor caves and dens. As expected, the cubs have adapted to the Minnesota climate, especially the snow. They grow thicker coats to acclimate to the new environment.

According to the Denver Zoo, lions actually love snow. They usually spend most of their day finding ways to be cool, and playing in the snow helps them not overheat.

Minnesotans can be a part of the cubs’ journey and watch them grow on the Wildcat Sanctuary Facebook and YouTube or support their care by becoming a sponsor of the cubs.