A year after their rescue from cruel Guatemalan circuses, a dozen lions and five tigers are thriving at a sanctuary in South Africa.

Animal Defenders International (ADI) rescued the big cats from years of captivity and mistreatment in early 2020. The findings from “Operation Liberty” helped authorities finally enforce a ban on circus animals that went into effect in 2018.

“This has been the toughest operation we have ever had,” ADI President Jan Creamer told Reuters at the time. “We had lots of threats to ourselves, to the animals, and to the operation, and we had to really battle our way through it.”

The mission started after the organization encountered an unexpected, sudden deadline to remove the lions and tigers from Guatemala. Staff rushed to airlift the 17 animals to a sanctuary in South Africa, passing through Mexico, Belgium, and Qatar during the 34-hour journey.

A year later, the once-ailing big cats are much healthier and thriving. They will spend the rest of their lives enjoying the space and freedom of the sanctuary’s vast natural habitats, since they can’t be released to the wild.

And most importantly, they will never suffer the cruel confines of circus captivity again.