Harrowing images seen more than 25 million times online show two skinny zoo lions bought from a circus supplier.
The skin-and-bone male and female lions at the Liaoyang Zoo in China have led to members of the public becoming concerned about potential mistreatment at the hands of the animals' keepers.
Pictures show the frail looking lions lying on the grass of their outdoor enclosure, while additional images show the male looking extremely thin with its ribcage clearly visible.
A zoo spokesman denied they had been mistreating the big cats, explaining the pair had recently been bought from a company which supplies circus and entertainment animals.
The Sanya Guqianqing Tourism and Performance Company, based in China's southernmost province of Hainan, shipped the lions on September 7 after the sale was approved.
The cats arrived after a long journey on 11th September, the Liaoyang Zoo spokesman said.
The elderly animals, which are both around 15 or 16 years-old, had been kept in indoor enclosures for the past six months, and were found by zoo vets to be badly malnourished.
The zoo said it was in the process of nursing them back to full health.
Responding to public concern, Liaoyang's branch of the State Forestry and Grassland Administration said on September 17 it sent officials to inspect the lions.
Its vets found the animals to be moving and eating "normally", despite their bony frames.
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The lions were not diseased, and the office found no evidence of mistreatment or abuse.
Lions, as well as tigers, bears and horses, are still frequently used in circuses in China.
Last year, shocking footage showed a circus pony being mauled by an out-of-control tiger and lion.
In 2017, a tiger grabbed a circus trainer and dragged him across the floor in from of a shocked audience, only relenting when other performers beat the animal with a stick
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