One of the most frightening scenarios for any person would be to find themselves between a lioness and her cubs. Lions are dangerous animals exceedingly capable of killing humans. Kevin Richardson, the owner of a lion sanctuary, understands that risk but has formed such a close bond with the creatures that one lioness allotted him the privilege of handling her newborn cubs (video below).
Richardson, a zoologist, operates the Kevin Richardson Wildlife Sanctuary in the Dinokeng Game Reserve, South Africa. A fearless advocate for lions, he hosts dozens in his sanctuary, where they are given a wide berth to roam.
In an extraordinary recording that shows Richardson's bond with his charges, he cuddles with a lioness that had recently given birth. With the mother lion lying right beside him, he lifts up one her cubs onto his lap and proceeds to pet it.
Noting that the cub was less than a week old and that its eyes had only just started to open, Richardson quipped about how unusual it was for him to play with the newborn while its mother lay contentedly beside them.
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"Not many people get to see cubs this size, never mind interact with them," Richardson said.
The zoologist explained he had established trust with the mother lion, instilling confidence in her that the cubs were in good hands.
"Another thing I'll do is bring her cubs to her, show her that I'm not really hurting them," Richardson added.
The lion handler had separated the mother and her cubs from other members of the pride to ensure the older lions wouldn't hurt the newborns.
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"When they get to 8 weeks, they will be strong enough and robust enough to handle the big lions outside," Richardson explained.
The daring zoologist is so comfortable with his feline friends, that he can even be caught sleeping beside the lioness, who purrs away peacefully. Richardson's unusual bond with the dangerous animals has made him an international celebrity and earned him the nickname of "Lion Whisperer."
The zoologist has no illusions he is playing with fire whenever he interacts with the lions.
"If I told you there are no issues associated with what I do, I'd either be a liar or mentally unstable," Richardson told Reader's Digest.
An admitted thrill-seeker, Richardson also has a moral interest in tending to the lions. Since 1950, human encroachment and poachers have reduced the African lion population from 200,000 to 35,000, a reduction of more than 80 percent.
Richardson hopes his fame will help inspire conservation efforts to increase the lion population.
"If I didn't utilize my relationship with the lions to better the situation of all lions, it would just be self-indulgent," Richardson told Smithsonian Magazine. "But my 'celebrity,' my ability to interact with the lions, has meant I've had more impact on lion conservation."