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Big cats purr like kittens for ‘Lion Whisperer’

Powerful predators purr like kittens for zoologist and animal behaviorist Kevin Richardson, who frolics with South African lions like he’s part of the pride — and even gets the big cats to go swimming with him. “I don’t own them,” he says. “I'm a caregiver.”
/ Source: TODAY contributor

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.”

A lion's tale

Slideshow  18 photos

A lion's tale

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

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: Kevin Richardson
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.”