In “Part of the Pride: My Life Among the Big Cats of Africa,” animal custodian and self-taught behaviorist Kevin Richardson recounts the story of how he made connections with and came to be accepted by lions. The following is an excerpt.
“Tsavo! Come, boy.”
His ears went back. The skin on his face went taut as he snarled. He puffed his body up, in the way lions do when they mean business. It was as if he was standing on his tiptoes, trying to make himself look even bigger and grander than he truly was. Then he charged.
Tsavo came at me at such a pace that I wouldn’t have had a chance of getting out of the enclosure if I’d run. I just had to stand there and wait for whatever came. My family, I later learned, were thinking that this was all part of the gig. “Wow, this is so cool,” one of the kids on the truck said.
Tsavo stopped a couple of paces from me, raising a cloud of dust and loose grass. He reared up on his hind legs and at that point he stood about seven feet high. I’m not a particularly tall guy and Tsavo dwarfed me as he blocked out my view of the sky. When he swiped at me with his huge calloused paw he was striking downwards, at my face.
In my troubled teen years I was a bit of a fighter, but that blow from Tsavo was harder than the hardest smack I’ve ever had in my life. Such was the size of the paw and the weight behind it, the swipe felt like three fists hitting me at once and when he connected the blood exploded from my nose, spraying all over my shoulder and shirt. The driving force of the hit pushed me backwards, but the fence behind me stopped me from falling.
I don’t really remember what happened next — whether he dragged me or I rolled away from what I knew was coming — but we ended up in the middle of the enclosure with me on my back and Tsavo straddling me.
“I think Kevin might be in trouble,” my sister, Corrine, said to my brother-in-law Trevor on board the truck.
“No, Kev’s fine. He knows what he’s doing,” said Trevor, who later told me he hadn’t seen the blood pouring from my face at that point. They thought it was still play time, but this was something I hadn’t encountered before, the full fury and strength of an angry male lion.
Tsavo started biting me. He sank his canines into my leg and when he raised his head for the next strike I reached up and used my fingers to push the skin of his cheek between his teeth so he couldn’t bite down again without cutting into himself. I’d never heard of this being done — it was instinctive — but what do you do when a lion is trying to eat you? Anything you can think of.
He weighed so much that I couldn’t move and for a while it was like Tom and Jerry — a cat playing with a mouse. If the mouse moves, the cat strikes, but if the mouse stays still the cat loses interest temporarily. However, even though I kept rigid, Tsavo became restless and attacked me again. He bit me on the leg, calf and shoulder, but each time he released his hold on me as soon as I pushed the skin of his cheek into his mouth again.
Tsavo’s canine teeth were so wide apart that when he grabbed my upper arm the teeth grazed down either side of the muscle. My leg, however, was a bigger target and the sharp points tore through my trousers and drove into the skin once more.
I was lying bleeding in the dust and my relatives were now climbing down out of the caged truck, running to the fence and screaming. My family knew this was no longer part of any show, and Uncle Kevin was most likely dying in there. It seemed like an eternity that Tsavo had been standing over me, but it may have only been seconds.
The lion lowered his massive, shaggy head to my groin and hooked one of his curved, yellowed teeth under the stout leather belt on my trousers. As he lifted me clear off the ground my back arched and I thought: “Oh s--t! Here we go…”
When I got outside the enclosure I was thinking; oh no, my arm is probably half hanging off, but when I checked I found that his two canines had actually passed either side of it. I’d been lacerated and my shirt was torn, but Tsavo hadn’t bitten into the skin of my arm. When I checked my leg I found that while he had punctured me it was nothing fatal. If he had bitten down harder he might have severed the femoral artery and I could have bled to death.
Tsavo had always seen me playing with Tau and Napoleon in the next door enclosure and I think that for me and Tsavo our clash may have been a territorial dispute. It was about him teaching me who was the boss, and who was in charge of the piece of land where he lived. I know now that lion never meant to kill me, though if he’d had claws that may well have been the outcome. He wanted to give me a slap around, which he did, in the same way that male lions do to each other in the wild.
Perhaps my running up and down the fence with the younger lions was irritating, or possibly he was simply telling me — as deep down I think I knew on the day of my family’s visit to the Lion Park — that he didn’t want me in his territory.
However, when Tsavo bit me it wasn’t a case of me being lucky or fortunate that he missed an artery; it was him deciding to teach me a lesson rather than kill me. He was in total control and every action he took, everything he did, was calculated.
I also don’t believe now that pressing my fingers into his cheeks and forcing his skin between his teeth was what stopped him from going further. I have seen lions over the years since then in a frenzy of feeding or fighting and I know that Tsavo would have bitten through his own flesh and severed my finger without hesitation if he was intent on finishing me off and feeding on me. He was playing with me as he moved his teeth from my shoulder, to my calf, and to my leg. Lions have incredible control over their jaws and the pressure they want to exert.
People have often asked me if my life flashed before my eyes when Tsavo attacked me. It didn’t. I knew that I had to try and survive this incident one step at a time. When I asked my family how I reacted they said I was cool and collected and that they didn’t know how I managed to stay as calm as I did during the attack.
I’ve been in situations with leopards and a jaguar when I’ve thought to myself “how did I get myself into this situation — again.” I used the knowledge and experience I’d gained to get back in control, but mostly these days I try to not get into these situations in the first place.
Deep down inside I think I was hoping that Tsavo would just leave me alone. I didn’t think I was going to die — that didn’t cross my mind — or that I should have told my mom I loved her. One thing I do remember was that when he started charging towards me, I thought: “Kevin, you should have listened to your instincts, boy.” I look back, now, though and realize that Tsavo was an example of how a person’s childhood, or a lion’s “cubhood,” can have influence over the way that person or lion behaves as an adult.
Initially, I think Tsavo was a well loved animal who eventually got tossed aside like a used oil rag. He reminds me of one of those Hollywood child actors who never quite cracked it as an adult actor, kind of like Macaulay Culkin. Even though he tried to kill me I knew that Tsavo’s behaviour stemmed from the fact that his spirit was conflicted and broken. And, I could only guess at what a very sad place that is for an animal to find himself in. Given half the chance, if Tsavo were human, I would guess he would've committed suicide by now. And, that makes me all the sadder for him.
From “Part of the Pride” by Kevin Richardson. Copyright © 2009 by the author and reprinted by permission of St. Martin’s Press.