Stretched atop a mattress laid out in the living room of an upper class home, Ariel the lion was fast asleep Wednesday as four people gently cleaned and massaged his body.
The 3-year-old, 310-pound (140-kilogram) lion is the focus of an Internet campaign to raise money needed to treat the paralysis that struck him a year ago, depriving him of the use of his four legs.
Veterinarian Livia Pereira and Ariel's owner, Raquel Borges, said the $11,500 needed every month to pay for Ariel's treatment comes from donations from nearly 35,000 people who have clicked the "like" button on Ariel's Facebook page.
Pereira, who is caring for Ariel at her home, said that for unknown reasons, the lion's white blood cells are attacking his healthy cells due to a degenerative disease affecting his medulla, a portion of the brainstem involved in motor functions.
Ariel's symptoms are similar to those of multiple sclerosis, Parkinson's disease and Guillain-Barre syndrome, an autoimmune disorder that can cause paralysis, Pereira said.
A team of Israeli veterinary neurologists recently gave the lion tests that the women hope will tell what degenerative disease is involved. Results are expected toward the end of this month.
Pereira said the Israeli veterinarians from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem were contacted because of their experience with large animals like lions. She said their trip to Brazil was paid for by Graziela Barrette, a Brazilian model living in New York City.
Borges said Ariel was born in the shelter that she and her husband run in the southern city of Maringa, where they care for sick or abandoned animals.
"He was a perfectly normal and docile lion that slept with me until he was 10 months old," Borges said.
Last year, after spending hours leaping and chasing balloons, Ariel started limping.
"I could tell he was in pain," Borges said.
Days later he was unable to move his two hind legs and after surgery to remove a herniated disc he was unable to move his front legs.
"He was submitted to a battery of tests and medical examinations that failed to show what was wrong with him, so three weeks ago we brought him to Sao Paulo where there are better-equipped veterinary clinics," she said.
Pereira and Borges said they have received an offer from a Brazilian doctor to perform the blood-cleansing treatment called plasmapheresis on Ariel. It was not clear when that treatment might take place, as the equipment used to perform it must be modified for use on a large animal.
"One thing we will never lose is our hope that Ariel will recover and start walking again," Borges said.
Pereira said she has been moved by how quickly people supported Ariel's cause.
"When the Facebook campaign began in May, we had less than five followers, because it was designed to inform people of Ariel's case not to ask for help," she said. "But then we started asking for donations and the number of people following Ariel's case soared."
Ariel's Facebook page: http://tinyurl.com/6ek38vf
Ariel's website: http://www.helpthelion.com