by Jack Fletcher
Playing around in the lions den wouldn’t appeal to most people but it is just another day at the office for this man – meet the South Africa’s lion whisperer.
Animal behaviourist and physiologist Kevin Richardson works amongst the largest and most dangerous predators known to man.
Based in ‘Lion Park’, a conservation area just outside Johannesburg, he has formed a unique bond with the lions, cheetahs, hyena’s and leopards that roam the area.
Working closely with a select group of animals that he raised from birth, he affectionately refers to these man-eaters as his “buddies”.
“I spend every waking moment with these guys,” reveals the 32-year-old.
“I know their personalities, their every quirk, preference, mood and I can respect their limits in terms of the closeness they’ll allow.
"They are intended to be ambassadors of their species for the visitors to the Lion Park.”
Kevin’s unique interaction methods have earned him such trust amongst his students he is able to sleep with lions and hold newborn hyenas without being attacked.
It is a unheard phenomenon of in the field of wild animal handling.
“The number one method I use is love, understanding and respect,” he says.
“Unconditional love when it comes to lions. I also use the five senses because like humans, they respond to touch, to the sound of your voice and to the things that they like.
"I communicate differently with each species, and treat each animal as an individual – just as we humans do each other.
“I have to rely on my own instincts to gauge an animal or situation, and will not approach a creature if something doesn’t feel right.
“You can never be too confident. Lions and leopards have been known to turn on their human ‘friends’ for no apparent reason, so the element of danger is always there.”
Amazingly Kevin began his career working in human physiology.
A Bachelor of Science in Zoology and Physiology, Kevin originally worked with humans in the field of pre and post-operative rehabilitation.
It wasn’t until 1997, when former patient Ian Melass offered Kevin the chance to work at the Lion Park that he found his true calling.
“Believe me it’s one in a million to have that ability – to have that love and also that nerve. Kevin has nerve to pick up a brown hyena,” said 65-year-old Ian.
“A brown hyena can bite through thick steel. But Kevin will pick it up and talk to it for a while. I couldn’t do that, and I wouldn’t want to do that!"
Kevin said: “To be honest I find animals far easier to communicate with and visa versa. Humans are not my favorite although I’m not a social misfit. Humans are not to be trusted.”
Despite his experience and undoubted skill, the transition from working with humans to animals has not always been straightforward.
Things could have been very different after one close call with a lion in his early days, which he attributes to inexperience and miscalculation.
“I was still feeling my way with the animals when this lion, about four years old named Savo was brought in. I had not reared him and knew very little about him, but I felt sorry for him,” he recalls.
“I went in the enclosure, but on this particular day, I was feeling uneasy. He looked at me like he’d never looked at me before and suddenly he ran at me.
“He then reared up on his hind legs and smacked me across the face, causing a nosebleed. He got frenzied up and I submitted to him immediately and lay on my back.
“He pinned me down on the ground and started to bite me in various places, but the bites were interesting… he would apply pressure and see how I was reacting.
“I started pushing his skin in his mouth so he was actually biting down on his own gums and he eventually saw he was not getting anywhere, so he just stood above me.
“After this I realised I had to change my methods - trying to make friends with a wild, adult lion that he didn’t know was asking for trouble.”
Kevin now has a strict a cut-off age of 10 months to a year, where it is still possible to accustom a lion to humans.
However, he is quick to point out that his unique methods don’t always have immediate effect.
“Leopards and hyenas are the hardest animals to bond with,” he says.
“Leopards are elusive and are loaners. You can’t get in their hair so to speak.
“You have to respect their solitary nature and can’t make them in to lap dogs - of course you do get exceptions to the rule but these are few and far between.
“The hyena code is something you never stop learning.”
Despite the obvious dangers of the role, Kevin insists his unique methods differ from those of other animal whisperers, like Timothy Treadwell.
In 2003, Treadwell and his wife, Amie Hugenard, were killed after being attacked by wild bears in Alaska.
In a similar fashion to Kevin, Treadwell had claimed he could speak to wild Alaskan grizzlies.
“I’m not interacting with wild lions or leopards. I use time, patience and love with these animals.
“The big animals you see me with have taken years to get to know. I don’t use sticks, whips or chains or any form of weapon to beat the animals with.
“You can’t expect to form close knit bonds with wild lions, leopards or hyenas. You must start from when they are little!
“If I can’t interact with them on their terms then I shouldn’t be interacting with them in the first place. They don’t respect me out of fear, but rather because they see me as one of their pride or clan mates."
Kevin is now concentrating on the park’s new conservation project called Kingdom of the White Lion, a species recently rescued from extinction.
“I want to show people that they do actually show feelings, have their own characters and are able to develop a special bond with man,” he says.
“It maybe a dangerous but this is a passion for me - not a job. It certainly beats sitting in an office.”