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They spent years locked in a train car. Now four tigers can feel the grass beneath their feet.

A family of four tigers was released to an animal sanctuary in South Africa on March 12 after years of living in an abandoned train carriage in Argentina. (Video: Alexa Juliana Ard/Four Paws and The Washington Post)
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How the tigers ended up living in a train car on a farm in central Argentina is a matter of some dispute.

One story told locally is that the two Bengal tigers were left by a circus as collateral for unpaid taxes. The circus was supposed to return to Justo Daract, pay its debt and retrieve the big cats.

That was more than 20 years ago. The circus never returned. The tigers had cubs. The cubs had cubs.

Now there are four tigers. This week, after spending their entire lives in captivity, they’re starting a new life on a reserve in South Africa.

“Seeing an animal feel the grass for the first time is one of the most powerful moments I’ve had,” veterinarian Amir Khalil said. “Without knowing, these tigers have become ambassadors of what is possible when countries collaborate.”

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Khalil heads Four Paws International, the Vienna-based animal welfare organization that transported the animals from Justo Daract to the Lionsrock Big Cat Sanctuary in Bethlehem, South Africa. He began working on their rescue in November.

By then, the animals had become the stuff of urban legend around Argentina’s San Luis province.

“The only thing I know is that a couple of tigers were abandoned by a circus,” said Raúl Barroso, a radio host in Justo Daract. “All I’ve heard are rumors.”

Local businessman Emilio Magnaghi says he received a call in 2001: Two circus tigers needed a home. Could he keep them on his farm for a couple of weeks?

“The mayor was a friend of the person I had in charge of the farm,” Magnaghi told The Washington Post. “They asked me to leave them in a safe space because everyone in town was scared of them and sick of hearing them roar.”

Magnaghi built a cage from the old train car; it would become their permanent home.

“Once the roof was ripped off during a storm, so we had to rebuild it,” he said. “The bars of the cage had to be fixed many times because of the strength they had.”

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The meat eaters, which are found in the South Asian nations of India, Bangladesh, Nepal, Bhutan and Tibet, can grow to more than 500 pounds. Workers on Magnaghi’s farm fed the tigers and cleaned their cage. He made a deal with a local slaughterhouse to feed them.

“I have no idea of how much I spent, because they became my children, my own,” he said. He was searching for a more suitable home, but plans never worked out.

Then Four Paws learned of the tigers. Khalil worked on logistics and secured permits to allow for their international transport. A team of five people in Argentina worked for more than 45 days to prepare the animals, introducing a new diet to prepare for the journey and acclimating them to the crates in which they’d travel. It’s the organization’s first rescue in South America.

“It’s like my children are saying goodbye to me,” Magnaghi said. “But I am happy they are returning to the place where they belong.”

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Some Argentines have objected to the tigers’ removal by a foreign organization. María Alejandra Juárez, founder of Proyecto Carayá, a primate rescue and rehabilitation center in La Cumbre, said Four Paws “is one of the most serious organizations we’ve seen,” but the problem should have been solved in Argentina.

“In Argentina is where we have to provide solutions for our animals,” Juárez said. “We have sanctuaries, places where wonderful things can be done. Authorities never thought about solving the problem from within.”

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The coronavirus pandemic and the Russian invasion of Ukraine led Four Paws to rush the rescue: “We had to move fast,” Khalil said. The four — named Mafalda (for an Argentine cartoon character), Messi (the international soccer star Lionel Messi), Gustavo (the late singer-songwriter Gustavo Cerati) and Sandro (the stage name of singer-actor Roberto Sánchez-Ocampo) — landed in Johannesburg on Saturday.

Now they’re getting used to their new home at Lionsrock, which is managed by Khalil’s organization. They’ve taken their first shy steps outside of their cage to explore an 80-square-meter enclosure — their first experience with grass — before they’re released to a reserve of several acres.

“They are home, and I couldn’t be happier for them,” Magnaghi said.

And the cage? “I will keep it as a memory, as a part of one of my most important memories.”

correction

An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that veterinarian Amir Khalil began working on the tigers’ rescue more than a year ago. Khalil began the work in November. The article has been corrected.

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