Real-Life Tarzan Shares Home With Big Cats

"When I heard the producer was coming, she's a friend of mine and I know that the majority of places that have cats in their backyard aren't professional and they don't know how to be safe. And the only way that I know I can ensure that she was safe was to be there," explains Salmoni. "You have to be ready for that worst case. And these cats will come. And they're great at killing."

Salmoni should know. Eleven years ago he was performing with a captive lion he trusted when it attacked -- breaking his ribs and then lunging for his throat.

"I blocked with my forearm. He sunk his teeth into my forearm. I knew if I got to the ground, I was dead. So I squared up with all the power I had and just tore my arm out, flesh and all, out of his mouth," remembers Salmoni.

Even Sipek admits that in places like his backyard pool, the tigers can reveal their wild side.

"In the pool, they think they're in a river attacking a crocodile," he says. "They see me as an object -- "Oh, I can get this object" -- because their mind locks up. And when it locks up, you don't want to be there."

Now 68 years old and 280 pounds, Sipek believes he still has the strength to escape an attack. Yet he says it's not his physical dominance but his spiritual connection with the animals that has kept him alive.

"It's love. Once you love something you lose your fear. You can trust them and they can trust you. Once that happens, you're home free," he says.

Salmoni disagrees. Love, he says, cannot trump nature.

"Wild animals cannot love him back. Wild animals, as much as we'd like them to, cannot think like human beings," counters Salmoni.

Sipek's desire to have a wild life began while he was growing up in what is now Croatia. He discovered one of the silver screen's first super heroes, Tarzan, played by Johnny Weissmuller. The laws of the jungle resonated with Sipek, and Hollywood's portrayal soon became an escape from a difficult childhood.

Tarzan Man: Lion Saved My Life

"In the bottom of my heart I wanted to be like him," says Sipek. "I wanted to be like Johnny Weissmuller."

The forces of destiny conspired in his favor, and young Sipek grew up to be a strong, handsome man. He emigrated to America, and eight years later, under the name Steve Hawkes, he was cast as his hero in a new Tarzan movie.

But Sipek's promising acting career quite literally went up in flames. On the set of only his second film, he was working with a lion, Samson, when a fire erupted.

"I was burning alive," remembers Sipek. "All of a sudden I felt this enormous power. Somebody was dragging me out. I didn't know because there was smoke and fire. It was Samson."

Sipek suffered burns over 90 percent of his body and spent six months in a hospital recovering. His dramatic rescue by a lion led to a profound decision. He would adopt Samson, and devote the rest of his life to the care of big cats.

"I knew I was never going to be able to go back and play Tarzan, 'cause I was crippled. I realized there was a higher power calling on me, and I knew that I needed to comply. And I did. For 40 long years," says Sipek.

That devotion has come at considerable personal cost. Twice divorced, Sipek currently lives with his girlfriend, Melanie, who shares his passion for tigers. His son is grown now and lives out West. There have been periods of estrangement. And no wonder.

"I once said that I love Lepa [a tiger] more than I love my son. I don't know why. But I do," reveals Sipek.

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