DULUTH – A 27-year-old lioness died last week in Sandstone, where she spent the last 16 months after being rescued from a traveling circus in Argentina.
Salteña was one of the oldest known lionesses in captivity, according to the Wildcat Sanctuary, a nonprofit about 65 miles southwest of Duluth that provides homes to felines in need.
For most of her life, Salteña was locked in a cramped crate on wheels and carted around for entertainment. When she was in her teens, she was transferred to a zoo, where she lived in a concrete cage.
An Argentine rescue group started trying to find Salteña a new home when she was 25 years old, elderly by lion standards.
Salteña's teeth were broken and rotted from chewing on the bars of her cage, and she was malnourished. The rescue group asked the Sandstone sanctuary whether it would take seven lions living in zoos that were abandoned or underfunded.
When Tammy Thies, executive director of the Wildcat Sanctuary, saw a photo of Salteña in her bare pen, she knew she had to do whatever it took to move the geriatric lion from Argentina to Minnesota. In 2018, Salteña arrived at the sanctuary, roaring as she came off the truck.
The lioness lived out her days roaming her spacious habitat, playing in the grass and sleeping in straw beds. She died of natural causes, surrounded by the staff that cared for her during those last 16 months.
"She was special because she kind of embodied what our work is," Thies said. "Her story is symbolic of so many other big cats out there."