Hero Pets: The Big Hearted Lion

Jupiter the lion may weigh in at 550 pounds, but his demeanor with handler Ana Julia Torres proves that even the king of the jungle can be a gentle giant.

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With paws the size of dinner plates, bright black eyes, and a luxuriant golden mane, Jupiter, a 13-year-old, 550-pound lion, bears no resemblance to the malnourished cub that Ana Julia Torres rescued from a travelling circus in Colombia in 1999.

Torres, 50, brought Jupiter to Villa Lorena, an animal rescue shelter she established in 1984 in Cali, Colombia's third-largest city. "When he came here," she says, "I would enter his cage and hold him like a baby while I gave him his medicine. That is how our relationship started."

Photo by Meridith Kohut/Redux

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Torres and a sanctuary staff of 10 now care for more than 800 animals, including jaguars, camels, chimpanzees, flamingos, ostriches, crocodiles, and bears-most of whom, like Jupiter, were neglected, abandoned, or confiscated by police from the private zoos of Colombian drug lords. Torres, a school principal, oversees the care of all the animals at Villa Lorena, but her friendship with Jupiter is special.

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Reaching her arms through the bars of the big cat's cage, Torres greets Jupiter by grabbing him and planting a kiss on his muzzle. Jupiter responds in kind, rising on his hind legs to six and a half feet and wrapping his huge forelegs around her in a gentle embrace. "Jupiter's hug is the most loving and sincere I've ever received in my life," Torres says. "I can see the shine in his eyes. I think of it as his way of telling me thank you."