Animal Lover Kevin Richardson Serenades 350-Pound Lionesses With Love

PHOTO: Lion PrideCourtesy of Kevin RichardsonHandout
Kev and Gandalf

In the scorching South African heat, Kevin Richardson knows it's best to let sleeping lions, lie. And sometimes he joins them.

As the sun rises to its full ascent, a pride can be seen resting in the shade of a tree. And nestled against the stomachs of lions drifting in and out of consciousness, is 34-year-old Richardson -- fast asleep.

"That for me is true acceptance. I can lie down with them. I can sleep with them. I can interact with them as if I were a lion," says Richardson. "It's something I'd like the world to see."

VIDEO: Lion charges trainer Dave SalmoniPlay

At his 1,800-acre wildlife refuge outside Johannesburg, Richardson has raised an entire pride of lions to accept him as one of their own.

"Lions can be extremely affectionate. They can show you affection that I've never had from a human," he says.

Watch Richardson and his lions on "Primetime Outsiders" TUESDAY at 10 p.m. ET

Living With LionsPlay

The trust, remarkably, can be mutual. One lioness braves her fear of water and swims out to Richardson simply to be near him when he calls. And then drapes her 350 pound body around his body, using him as a life raft.

"Words can't describe it. It's something that you cannot tell people how you feel because you got to experience it to feel it and it's a privilege, privilege, privilege," Richardson said. "You run out of superlatives."

Richardson and Thor share a kiss.
Courtesy of Kevin Richardson

Such interactions are wondrous, even terrifying -- and very real. Richardson is the first to recognize the dangers of living in one of the wildest feline families nature never intended.

"I've been mauled by lions that are my friends. If you don't react instantaneously, you're dead," says Richardson.

Kevin also acknowledges that in the wild, even what he describes as his honed sixth sense would not protect him from a lion attack.

"The big headline newspaper article was 'Lion Whisperer'. And everyone's been e-mailing me saying you're the Lion Whisperer. Well, not really because I can't go up into a wild pride of lions and start talking to them and saying 'hey, listen I'm not a threat. I'm going to come up now and tickle you on the throat'. I'm going to get eaten just like anyone else would get eaten," cautions Richardson.

Richardson Breaks Commandments of Lion Trainer's Bible

But there is a method to what some might consider madness. Richardson, a former exercise physiologist, turned his attention instead to the powerful musculature and behavior of captive lions. He has since spent a decade studying them.

Using instinct and anticipation, Richardson discovered early on how to interact with the big cats. And through a kind of baptism by fire, and the occasional well-placed claw, he learned to break just about every commandment in the lion trainer's bible.

"I don't walk into an enclosure and go, 'Oh, today I'm going to push the boundaries of how far I can put my head in a lion's mouth.' These relationships, everyone must always realize, have taken years and years and years to develop," reminds Richardson.

Richardson feels having a relationship with the lions makes dental examinations easy.
Courtesy of Kevin Richardson

Those relationships were crucial four years ago when Richardson began shooting his first feature film "White Lion: Home is a Journey" starring lions he'd trained since cubs.

Unwilling to part with his cast after the filming ended, Richardson's gift to the now-retired actors was a permanent home. More than 40 lions live in a habitat near the Magaliesberg Mountains. And it is here where Richardson began testing some of the limits of inter-species relations with his boundless affection.

"I've always had a nurturing philosophy. Shower them with love and it'll all come back if it's meant to be," says Richardson.

A provocative theory put to the test with every lion hug. Richardson's notoriety has also given him a platform to publicize the grave extinction threat now facing all of Africa's wild lions.

"Numbers have dropped by, in the past decade, up to 75 percent. That's a staggering amount considering that we're sitting on a figure of about 23,000 lions," he said. "I think the greater world does think of Africa as this big, open landscape. And it's not. Humans are encroaching and animal territories are getting smaller and more defined."

Richardson believes documenting his extraordinary encounters with captive lions can inspire public empathy for the big cats. Certainly the intimacy he's achieved can be startling, even to veteran lion experts.

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Dr. Laurence Frank, director of the Living with Lions Laikipia Predator Project in Kenya, Africa, regards these encounters with "absolute terror."

"One of these days one of those lions is gonna be in a bad mood and there's nothing he's gonna be able to do about it," Frank said. "It's great for tourists to see and to come to appreciate lions. But conservation means wild animals in wild eco systems."

Richardson's take on conservation is to help save this ancient species by inspiring public awe of the lions' gentler side. And his mission may be helped, in part, by modern media. With the upcoming release of the nature film "White Lion", his memoir "Part of the Pride", TV appearances and the viral speed of the Internet, the world will soon witness Richardson's extraordinary life among these feared animals.

And many in the public will likely wonder how Richardson can form what he describes as a brotherhood among lions.

Credit: Jay Schadler/ABC News

"People always love to hear about the defining moment, you know? I walked out into the back garden and this frog spoke to me. It didn't happen like that. I was one of those kids who used to play a lot outside in the dirt. And animals fascinated me. I'm like in my own little world with them."

Richardson's early introduction to a pair of boisterous young male lions changed the world as he knew it.

"It was more like an opportunity that presented itself and I grabbed it with both hands without realizing it. For me it was just meeting those two lions," says Richardson.

Their names are Tau and Napoleon. Tau was born with clear eyes and a shy personality. Richardson describes Napoleon as having a steadfast loyalty. Remarkably, he says these lions have since become his soul mates.

"Something just triggered in my innermost self, which was like, wow! This is the most amazing experience I've ever had. And I didn't want it to end. I was pretty, probably pretty selfish in the beginning. It was all about me. What can I gain from it? But I soon realized that they were gaining from it too," remembers Richardson.

When Lions Suddenly Become Deadly

But whether the lions are gaining sanctuary from a rapidly declining bush land, or even love from humans, there is something else that can't be measured -- what remains of their wildness in captivity. Richardson never loses sight that the lions can turn on him in the space of a breath. And, each other. He was reminded of this two nights before ABC News' visit in October 2008 when a lioness named Maditau suddenly became deadly.

"She came flying at me. Like I've never seen her come before. She charged me, full-on charge. And stopped, literally, half a meter in front of me, tail flicking around, eyes as mad as a snake," Richardson remembers.

Maditau had stolen a newborn cub from her sister's litter, intent on destroying it. Kevin was intent on saving the young lion. And his relationship with the 400 pound lioness was about to reach the breaking point.

"She turned around and went back to the cub, which was squealing. It had lacerations I could see everywhere. And she charged me another three times after that. If I moved my arm she would react. If I tried to take a step backwards, she would react. And the tail was winding up and I knew the ... the next time I knew it wasn't a joke," says Richardson.

Watch what happens on Tuesday, Aug. 11, as Primetime's "The Outsiders" returns in its season debut