Imagine if you lived in a dark, dank basement for the entirety of your two-month life in a cage many sizes too small. You were starving, malnourished and infected with internal and external parasites. You were terrified and confused. All you had in the world was a neglectful drug dealer caretaker (who owned you as a status symbol), and two other victims that quickly became your very best friends. Such is the story of an American black bear, a Bengal tiger and an African lion, victims of animal cruelty whose resulting story has touched hearts all around the world.

These animals were rescued from the drug dealer in 2001 during a police raid, and Baloo the bear, Leo the lion, and Shere Khan the tiger found comfort in each other in their years of mistreatment, despite their suffering. When they were found, Shere Khan was extremely underweight, Leo had an open, infected wound on his nose from being cruelly confined to an undersized crate, and Baloo the American black bear was in the worst condition of the three cubs rescued, with a severely ingrown harness cutting into his flesh. His owner had never bothered to loosen it as he grew, and it became so ingrown that his flesh had begun to grow over and around it. Surgical intervention was required to remove the harness and clean his deep, infected wounds.

Baloo’s surgery was the only time the three “brothers” have ever been separated from one another, and Shere Khan and Leo became extremely agitated because of it, pacing and vocalizing for the lost member of their family to return. It was during heart-wrenching moments like these in their new home at Noah’s Ark Zoo in Locust Grove, GA, that the zookeepers quickly realized their incredible bond. They were affectionately dubbed “BLT.”

“We could have separated them,” Diane Smith, assistant director of the Noah’s Ark Zoo told the Telegraph. “But since they came as a kind of family, the zoo decided to keep them together.”

To this day, Baloo, Leo and Shere Khan eat, sleep and play together and even ask for grooming and affection from one another, such as head rubbing and licking each other.

“They actually seek out each others’ affections. They nuzzle each other. They play together,” reported Noah’s Ark animal husbandry manager Allison Hedgecoth. “It’s really amazing that the BLT all interact like they do. As far as we know, this is the only BLT in the world.”

As fate would have it, however, BLT faced separation. Last year, the government passed new federal regulations requiring big cat enclosures to have 16 foot fences put up, which would take effect in October of 2013. Baloo, Leo and Shere Khan’s fence was only 8 feet high. If these regulations weren’t met, the three animals would have to split up. The biggest issue was the fact that rebuilding the fence would cost $489,000.

Noah’s Ark decided to take proactive action, entering a contest to help raise money. On August 15, CrowdRise, an online fundraising site, teamed up with RYOT, a social news platform to announce a challenge called #STARTARYOT, according to ncronline.com. They offered $75,000 to the nonprofit that raised the most money in five weeks. Fortunately, it was a happy ending for BLT, as their story touched the hearts of many people, and on October 10, it was announced that Noah’s Ark Animal Sanctuary had won, receiving a $10,000 bonus on top of this for attracting the most unique visitors during the last week of the challenge. Additionally, Noah’s Ark was able to raise $362,269 through the crowd-funding. The installment company even agreed to discount the price of the new fence.

In addition to their happy ending, the three “brothers” continue to serve as a lesson in love and friendship, despite different backgrounds. Those who visit them at Noah’s Ark constantly marvel at how deep their love is for one another.

“They teach you how to get along,” Jama Hedgecoth, Noah’s Ark founder, said. “They’re definitely not the same color. They’re not the same species. They’re not even from the same country, and they love each other. They’re brothers, and they teach you how to love.”

As one commenter on their Facebook page so succinctly phrased it, “If raised together without prejudice, animals see no difference. They treat each other with love and respect. We humans have so much to learn from our beautiful animals.”