Real-Life Tarzan Shares Home With Big Cats

For 40 years, Steve Sipek has shared his home with uncaged lions and tigers.

March 23, 2010, 11:12 AM

March 24, 2010 — -- There is no welcome mat at the front door, but the sign on the electronic front gate offers a greeting just as clear: "Trespassers will be eaten."

Driving past the slowly withdrawing gate, even invited guests can feel some unease. And the tension only increases upon first sight of the yard.

A gravestone is flanked by tusks protruding from the ground. Sculptures of menacing beasts are mixed with nudes of the human form, all showing the wear of wind and rain. It's an atmosphere of a carnival halted by grief. Somehow the place is both wondrous and a monument to the dead. One isn't sure initially who, or what, is buried here.

Inside, stone hallways give way to a most unusual household. Guests are kept behind bars for their own safety. And yet, in a scene as tender as it is bizarre, a young tiger named Lepa is enjoying her afternoon bottle on the kitchen counter.

"I've had her since she was 18 days old and weighed 4 pounds. She's my baby," explains the tiger's caregiver, Melanie.

Part "Wild Kingdom," part "Addams Family," it is a home of startling domestic eccentricity where a tiger can be the apple of her human parents' eye.

The home and the big cats that inhabit it belong to Steve Sipek, a former actor who once played the title role in a pair of Spanish language versions of Tarzan movies in the early 1970s.

"I love her to pieces," Sipek says about Lepa. "She's so special. She bites me all the time, and she loves me, and I have to accept that, she's a tiger and I don't want to change her."

Humans and the most fearsome felines on the planet have coexisted here for more than 40 years, and have even become family. Important milestones are cause for celebration. Lepa's first birthday is no exception.

"She has grown into my heart so deep, and I'll never be able to pull her out of there. Not that I want to. She's my baby forever and ever and always," says Sipek.

Sipek has been a proud papa to more than 100 lions, tigers and leopards over the years at his compound in Loxahatchee, Fla., about 15 miles west of Palm Beach.

"Touching a tiger's face is touching the face of God," says Sipek. "I feel that enormous, overwhelming pleasure and it's just wonderful. It's almost equal to a woman you love."

These predators have always had the run of the place, eating, playing and swimming right alongside Sipek, his family and volunteer assistants. They even sleep with Sipek, who says he's protected by an extraordinary gift.

"I have this sixth sense that always works for me. No tiger can come with the intent to hurt me without waking me up before that happens," says Sipek.

CLICK HERE for more photos of Sipek with tigers

Tarzan Man: Russian Roulette?

So confident is Sipek of his abilities that he raised Steve Jr., his only child in a house full of wildlife. Grown lions and tigers could often be found slumbering in his son's bunk bed.

"That's a perfect example, in my opinion, of playing Russian Roulette with wild animals," says Dave Salmoni a large predator expert often seen on the cable network Animal Planet.

When he found out about the "20/20" shoot at Sipek's home, he wanted to ensure the crew's safety, and with good reason.

"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.

It is clear that Lepa has taken up permanent residence in Sipek's heart, as well as his home.

For Sipek has shown that what we thought were nature's boundaries are, in fact, very moveable lines ... and he's moved them right through his own front door.

"Little Lepa, she's a terror in the house! She tears up the house, she tears up the couch, she tears up the chairs. But that's part of life. You have to accept it.... It's us, the way we live," says Sipek.

For the full story watch "20/20" this Friday at 10 p.m.

And watch more exotic pet owners who seem to prefer the company of dangerous animals over their own families on Animal Planet's series "Fatal Attractions," Thursday, March 25 and Sunday, March 28.

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