Real-Life Tarzan Shares Home With Big Cats
For 40 years, Steve Sipek has shared his home with uncaged lions and tigers.
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.
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