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Big cats purr like kittens for ‘Lion Whisperer’

The vivid pictures and video evoke memories of Christian, the lion that had a joyful reunion in Africa with the two Australians who raised him in London. But that was 40 years ago — and Kevin Richardson is romping and even swimming with lions today.

Dubbed the “Lion Whisperer,” the animal behaviorist joined TODAY’s David Gregory Thursday from the Lion Park, a South African game preserve, to talk about his friend Meg, a 400-pound lioness that loves to swim with him. Pictures of Richardson and Meg playing in the water have become an Internet hit.

Richardson sat cross-legged under a tree while Meg and another lioness, Amy, lounged in front of him, seemingly oblivious to the camera crew beaming their images back to New York City. He told Gregory that while not all lions like the water, Meg simply followed him into the water one day when he went in to take a dip.

“It was both for Meg’s enrichment and for me to take a bath and clean up a bit,” he told Gregory. “It’s something that happened naturally. The pictures are really just taken with one of my guides I work very closely with. We always carry a camera with us.”

Mild kingdom
Richardson has recently completed a film about the lions he lives and works with called “The Kingdom of the White Lion.” He said that the number of lions in the wild has dropped from about 350,000 to an estimated 25,000 to 30,000 in the last 15 years. He hopes his movie and the media attention he’s getting will raise public awareness of the need to protect Africa’s wildlife.

“What I do is unconventional,” he said off-camera. “My methodology is to form relationships with colleagues. I call the animals colleagues. I’m a custodian over them. I don't own them. I’m a caregiver.”

  • Slideshow Photos

    A lion's tale

    The life of Christian, the 'hugging' lion who captured the hearts of millions in a memorable web video.

  • A lion's tale

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    Christian the cub

    When he was just a cub, Christian the lion lived indoors in London with John Rendall and Anthony "Ace" Bourke, who had spotted him in a small cage at the department store Harrods.

    John Rendall / John Rendall
  • A lion's tale

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    Just a big kitten

    Though Christian would soon be a full-grown lion in the wild, as a cub he played like any kitten -- which was tough on the furnishings.

    John Rendall / John Rendall
  • A lion's tale

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    The cat's pajamas

    Just like a playful kitten, Christian the cub loved getting into mischief. Here he rummages through his owners' drawers.

    John Rendall / John Rendall
  • A lion's tale

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    Dining in

    Rendall and Bourke and their friends in swinging Austin Powers-era London treated Christian like any other member of the household, even sharing meals with him.

    John Rendall / John Rendall
  • A lion's tale

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    A big house cat

    Still a cub (but growing rapidly), Christian relaxes at home in John Rendall's flat in the fashionable Chelsea district of London.

    John Rendall / John Rendall
  • A lion's tale

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    Cuddling with Christian

    Though developing rapidly, Christian remained a pet at heart: he enjoyed cuddling and napping with his owners.

    John Rendall / John Rendall
  • A lion's tale

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    Out on the town

    Rendall and Bourke sometimes packed Christian into the back of their car and took him out to London restaurants.

    John Rendall / John Rendall
  • A lion's tale

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    Making friends

    The affectionate nature that Christian displays into the hit YouTube video dates back to his gentle upbringing by Rendall and Bourke. Here Christian makes a young friend.

    John Rendall / John Rendall
  • A lion's tale

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    Curious Christian

    Christian was always curious, exploring every nook and cranny including open drawers and the toilet bowl.

    Derek Cattani / Derek Cattani
  • A lion's tale

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    Growing pains

    As Christian quickly grew, Rendall and Bourke soon realized that they would not be able to keep their beloved pet in an urban environment much longer.

    John Rendall / John Rendall
  • A lion's tale

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    The lion's den

    The basement of the furniture store Rendall and Bourke worked at became Christian's den -- and soon he began to outgrow it.

    John Rendall / John Rendall
  • A lion's tale

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    Home, sweet home

    Christian endured a long journey back to Africa, and fell asleep soon after reaching Nairobi, Kenya. It took him two days to fully recover from the trip.

    Derek Cattani / Derek Cattani
  • A lion's tale

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    The real 'Born Free'

    It was George Adamson, the wildlife preservation activist whose story was told in the movie 'Born Free,' who introduced Christian to his natural environment in Kenya.

    John Rendall / John Rendall
  • A lion's tale

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    John Rendall / John Rendall
  • A lion's tale

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    A lion's heart

    Though Christian successfully adapted from swinging London to the wilds of Africa, he never forgot the loving owners who raised him as a cub.

    John Rendall / John Rendall
  • A lion's tale

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    A new life

    Christian had successfully taken to his new environment. Rendall and Bourke spent nine days with him and found that he could handle himself in fights with other lions and was even mating.

    George Adamson Wildlife Preservation Trust / George Adamson Wildlife Preservation Trust
  • A lion's tale

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    Final farewell

    Rendall and Bourke saw Christian for the last time during this trip. In 1973, Christian crossed a river away from the wildlife park and it is not known where he ended up. The duo hopes that Christian was able to start his own pride and that his descendants still reside in Kenya today.

    George Adamson Wildlife Preservation Trust / George Adamson Wildlife Preservation Trust
  • A lion's tale

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Ace Bourke and John Rendall, the two Aussies who raised Christian, have said much the same about their relationship with that famous lion. Richardson said he’s not surprised that Christian recognized his two pals after a year in the wild and again after another year’s separation. Unlike most cats, lions are social animals. Like Bourke and Rendall, all the lions Richardson works with are animals he’s known since they were cubs.

Richardson has always loved animals, but he didn’t set out to make them his career. He was a physiotherapist working with humans when he got the opportunity to work with two lion cubs. He was immediately hooked.

The 34-year-old is employed by the Lion Park, a 1,600-acre game preserve in Broederstroom, a town about 35 miles north of Johannesburg, South Africa. He works there not only with lions but also with hyenas and leopards, not just interacting with the animals but even sleeping with them.

Weighing the dangersRichardson is well aware of the dangers involved in his work. Steve Irwin, the Crocodile Hunter, was killed by a stingray in a freak accident while filming underwater. And a supposedly tame chimpanzee recently savagely mauled a Connecticut woman who had known him for years.

But, Richardson told Gregory, there’s danger in many things humans do, from flying fighter jets to driving cars.

“Obviously one realizes the danger when working with animals of this caliber,” he said. “I’ve weighed the pros and I’ve weighed the cons, and the pros far outweigh the cons.”

He also said that you can’t just look at the pictures of him swimming and cavorting with lions without knowing about the years he spent building relationships with them.

“People like to take things out of context. They don’t know the relationship I have with this lion,” Richardson told Gregory.

IMAGE ID # 794339 Exclusive...Kevin Richardson, known as the 'Lion Whisperer', demonstrates incredible skill in turning the large, powerful predators into docile kittens and tame enough to frolic with. CR: BARM/Fame Pictures Set # CDE2699 06/29/2007 --- Kevin Richardson --- Restrictions apply: USA ONLY --- --- (C) 2009 Fame Pictures, Inc. - Santa Monica, CA, U.S.A - 310-395-0500 / Sales: 310-395-0500

He’s known the animals he interacts with since they were infants. Richardson is not just a human who wanders into the bush and sits down with a lion. He’s grown up with them and is a member of their pride.

Just the same, he’s been punctured, scratched and bitten in the course of his work, but it’s never malicious, he said.

“I get grazed and scratched all the time but that's just everyday life,” he told TODAY. “A lot of people freak out if they get scratched by a domestic cat, but over the years working with the lions, it becomes part of the job. They scratch and bite each other, there's no reason they shouldn't do it to you, too.”

It just comes with the territory when you roughhouse with lions. The point, he told Gregory, is that “these animals aren’t just wild, mindless killers.”

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