Their rusty metal cage was no bigger than 3m by 4m. Its concrete floor was filthy and, but for a makeshift wooden bed shoved into the corner of the enclosure, it was entirely bare.
For the five emaciated lions sharing a squalid pen in a Romanian zoo this was home.
There were three more pens close by, each one as foul as the last and housing the same number of lions.
Rescue: Oradea zoo employees in Romania remove a sedated lion from a cage to prepare him for his journey to Yorkshire
Precious cargo: The 13 lions are unloaded at Doncaster Airport today
The pride was weak and hungry, covered in sores and unable to move within the confines of their tiny cells. The state-run zoo itself was condemned under European Union legislation.
With no money to renovate or feed its animals Oradea Zoo was left with only two options: they would either have to relocate the 18 lions elsewhere or have them shot dead.
But after a massive fund-raising campaign, 13 of the 18 lions were flown to the UK to start a new life in a 10 acre enclosure within Yorkshire's Wildlife Park in Branton, near Doncaster.
Of the remaining five, three have already been returned to the wild in Africa whilst two will stay in Romania.
The lions - including a cub just eight months old - flew from Budapest on a specially chartered jet and touched down at Doncaster Airport shortly before midday in what has been described as the 'biggest ever big cat rescue'.
They are now settling into their new lives where they will be nurtured back to full strength.
Farewell: A zoo employee says goodbye to a lion bound for the airport
John Minon, animal director at the Wildlife Park, first heard of the lions plight after being contacted by an animal charity based in Romania. But nothing could have prepared him for what he saw when he flew to eastern Europe last July.
'I was truly shocked when I saw them and knew we had to help,' he said yesterday. 'The lions were living in awful conditions.
'I saw five in a 3m by 4m pen. It was incredibly distressing. The zoo keepers care for the animals, but they don't have any money or the proper resources, and can't even put tyres up for them to play with.
'Quite a few of the lions have developmental problems and arthritic conditions.'
Mr Minon and his team returned to the UK and in the last six months have raised a total of £150,000 to fund the mercy mission. The lions will now be quarantined for six months while they are nursed back to full health.
Another £25,000 has still to be raised to fully equip the lions' new enclosure but it is hoped that the public will be able to see the lions by Easter.
Park director Cheryl Williams said: 'We have been waiting for this day since last August when we first heard about the lions' plight.I can't believe they are on British soil. It has been a long journey for us and a longer one for them.
'We are looking forward to giving them a good, square meal. They have not eaten since Saturday.
'They have not had a good diet and some are in poor condition. They will need a lot of tender loving care.'
Oradea Zoo was built 37 years ago under the communist regime of Nicolae Ceausescu. It is still home to 800 other animals and has recently launched a modernisation programme to comply with European legislation.
'If we had kept the lions we would have spent all the money on their comfort and this would simply not have been possible,' said the zoo's director Daiana Ghender.
'As it is I am so very happy for the lions. I have worked so hard with my team and with my friends who love animals, to make this happen.
'The problem is the local authority has invested nothing in the zoo so there is no money for the animals to be well fed, even though they are forcing us to break the law for the protection of animals.
'I feel like the zoo is fighting all on its own. All the funds needed to relocate the lions are coming from abroad, not a penny from the authorities here.
'This is the biggest lion rescue operation carried out in Europe to my knowlege. It was a miracle we managed to save these animals.'
- Donations can be made at www.LionRescue.co.uk.
Cramped: One of the small cages in Oradea Zoo, western Romania, where the lions were being kept
Read more: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-1250124/Pride-lions-moved-run-Romanian-zoo-Yorkshire-park-biggest-rescue.html#ixzz0fLC8l7BQ