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Animals Seized From Colombian Narcos Find A Home

Ana Julia Torres cares for hundreds of abused animals at a refuge in Cali, Colombia, including this lion named Jupiter. Many of the animals were previously owned by drug traffickers who have been arrested. (NPR)

Villa Lorena, in southwestern Colombia, is an animal refuge like no other.

There are four lions, nine Bengal tigers, jaguars, cougars, a crocodile, a speckled bear and an ostrich. There's a chimpanzee named Jocko, spider monkeys and hundreds of brightly colored birds.

One thing they all have in common — they've been abused, says Ana Julia Torres. Monkeys have been beaten. Birds have had their beaks cut off.

"They're lame, or have lost limbs; they're blind, or can't focus, or have lost an eye," Torres says.

For 18 years now, Torres, 52, has been collecting animals whose treatment underscores the darker side of Colombian society.

Drug kingpins and death-squad commanders used to have jaguars and tigers as mascots. With so many of those men extradited to the United States, the animals have wound up in Villa Lorena in the city of Cali.

The environmental police also provide a steady supply of animals confiscated from smugglers and fly-by-night circuses.

"I have two human children, and the rest of my children are 800 animals — some clawed and some very hairy, but all of them wonderful," Torres says.

Some of the animals are housed in tight cages, others in large enclosures similar to those of a modern zoo.

Donations and revenues from three private schools she runs help fund Villa Lorena and its 10 employees.

"They say I'm crazy because I've dedicated my life to this," she says. "Because I've forgotten about material things."

Few people, though, ever get to see the collection. It's open to the children in her schools and the journalists who come knocking.

"This is not a zoo," she says. "It's a refuge, an old-age home; a hospital. [It's] a place where we love, protect, defend and respect animals."

Still, even Torres has her favorites, like the big cats. None is closer to her than Jupiter, a 12-year-old lion, whom she treats like a bouncing baby.

Jupiter is big, powerful and ferocious, but he's a pussy cat with Torres, who hugs and kisses him through the red bars of his cage.

Though Villa Lorena has a permit, and the support of state wildlife officials, some have questioned whether some of these animals shouldn't be put to sleep.

Torres firmly believes, however, that animals should be treated like people.

"Why do we believe that an old animal should be put to death? That because they don't have a leg they can't live?" she says. "What we've shown here is that they can live happily."

On a tour of the six acres that make up the refuge, Torres stops to talk to her favorite tigers and Winnie the Pooh, a bear. She even has a way with the storks that seem to answer her by clicking their beaks.

Then there's Lorenzo, a water buffalo — brutish and not particularly attractive. While hugging Lorenzo, Torres says she detects a teardrop on his heavy, hairy face.

She tells him not to cry, and that she loves him like all of her children.

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Transcript

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

We go now to Colombia, for something of a love story. The setting is the outskirts of the country's third-largest city. On one side is a school administrator and a mother of two. The object of her affection - or rather, the objects of her affection are hundreds of abused exotic animals. NPR's Juan Forero has their story.

(SOUNDBITE OF BIRD NOISES)

JUAN FORERO, BYLINE: Villa Lorena, here in southwestern Colombia, is an animal refuge like no other. There are four lions, and nine Bengal tigers...

(SOUNDBITE OF ANIMAL NOISES)

FORERO: ...there are jaguars and cougars, a crocodile, a speckled bear and an ostrich. There's a chimpanzee named Jocko, spider monkeys, and hundreds of brightly colored birds.

(SOUNDBITE OF BIRD NOISES)

FORERO: What they all have in common is they've been abused, says Anna Julia Torres.

ANNA JULIA TORRES: (Speaking foreign language)

FORERO: They're lame or have lost limbs; they're blind or can't focus, or have lost an eye, says Torres. Monkeys have been beaten. Birds have had their beaks cut off. For 18 years now, Torres has quietly been collecting animals whose treatment underscores the darker side of Colombian society. Drug kingpins and death-squad commanders used to have jaguars and tigers as mascots. With so many of those men extradited to the United States, the animals have wound up here, in Villa Lorena. The environmental police also provide a steady supply of animals confiscated from smugglers and fly-by-night circuses.

TORRES: (Speaking foreign language)

FORERO: I have two human children, and the rest of my children are 800 animals - some clawed, and some very hairy; but all of them wonderful, she says.

Here, some are housed in tight cages; others, in large ones similar to those of a modern zoo. Torres is 52, with a helmet of brown hair and an easy smile. Donations and revenues from three private schools she runs, help fund Villa Lorena with its 10 employees.

TORRES: (Speaking foreign language)

FORERO: They say I'm crazy because I've dedicated my life to this, she says. But I've forgotten about material things.

Few people, though, ever get to see the collection. It's open to the children in her schools, and the journalists who come knocking.

TORRES: (Speaking foreign language)

FORERO: This is not a zoo, she says. It's a refuge, an old-age home, a hospital; a place where we love, protect, defend and respect animals.

Still, even Torres has her favorites - the big cats.

(SOUNDBITE OF ANIMAL NOISES)

FORERO: And none is closer to her than Jupiter, whom she treats like a bouncing baby.

TORRES: (Speaking foreign language to Jupiter)

FORERO: He's a 12-year-old, African lion: big, powerful, ferocious. But he's a pussycat with Torres, who hugs and kisses him through the red bars of his cage.

TORRES: (Speaking foreign language to Jupiter)

FORERO: Though Villa Lorena has a permit and the support of state wildlife officials, some have questioned whether some of these animals shouldn't be put to sleep. But Torres firmly believes that animals should be treated like people.

TORRES: (Speaking foreign language)

FORERO: Why do we believe that an old animal should be put to death; that because they don't have a leg, they can't live? What we've shown here is that they can live happily.

On a tour of the six acres that make up the refuge, Torres stops to talk to her favorite tigers and Winnie the Pooh, a bear. She even has a way with the great storks - that seem to answer her by clicking their beaks.

TORRES: (Speaking foreign language)

(SOUNDBITE OF CLICKING BEAKS)

FORERO: And then there's Lorenzo. He's a water buffalo - brutish, and not very attractive.

TORRES: (Speaking foreign language to Lorenzo)

FORERO: While hugging Lorenzo, Torres says she detects a teardrop on his heavy, hairy face. She tells him not to cry; and that she loves him - like all of her children.

(SOUNDBITE OF BIRDS CHIRPING)

FORERO: Juan Forero, NPR News.

CORNISH: You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED, from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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