Big cat expert Dave Salmoni on living with ‘problem lions,’ rehabilitating them, and how to fend off an attack if one has you in its jaws

A conversation with Jonathon Gatehouse

Big cat expert Dave Salmoni on living with ‘problem lions,’ rehabilitating them, and how to fend off an attack if one has you in its jawsDave Salmoni is a Canadian who has found international fame as the hands-on host of shows about animal attacks and rogue predators for the Discovery Channel and Animal Planet. For his latest project—Into the Pride—he spent six months living with a group of “problem lions” in the African bush. The show has its Canadian premiere Oct. 12 on Animal Planet.

Q: How does a kid from Sarnia, Ont., end up as a large-predator expert?

A: Mostly by mistake. Animals were always an interest. I was one of those kids, when I had to give a speech or do a project, it was always about animals. But I grew up in a pretty standard home on a cul-de-sac, not the circus, so I never thought of it as a career. When I went to university at Laurentian, I chose biology because I was still interested in animals. The biology department there was small enough that you actually got to do stuff—go out into the wild and interact with nature. I did my undergraduate thesis on black bears. But toward the end of my degree, I noticed that I was spending a lot more time on my laptop than with animals. So I thought I could go to a zoo and have the best of both worlds—the research and working with animals. I went to the Bowmanville zoo as a researcher, although I mostly got hired because I was a big, 220-lb. bouncer guy and the owner thought I could pick up a lot of s–t. As a small zoo, most of their money comes from animal training. And I really bought into that.

Q: For the new show you spent six months living with a pride of problem lions on a private Namibian game reserve. What made these guys rogues exactly?

A: These guys were born in the wild, in a national park that is saturated with lions. And with the poverty in Namibia they don’t have the kind of fences needed to keep them in. Unfortunately, on the outskirts of this park there are a lot of small villages and cattle farmers. These animals were escaping or being pushed out of the park and becoming cattle raiders, potential man-eaters. The management technique in Namibia is to kill the problem lions so there isn’t a war between the villagers and the animals. But there’s a gentleman there who owns a 75,000 hectare reserve and he wanted lions. I was doing a show, Rogue Nature, where we helped with the relocation of the lions to this guy’s park. A year later he calls me up and says, “Dude, you said these guys would calm down and they haven’t. They’re going to kill my staff.” And that spawned this project.

Q: You trained for months at the gym and worked with lions in preparation for a possible attack. How does one fight off a lion?

A: Basically, I looked at a lot of film with my personal trainer and showed him how a lion would attack me, and asked him to help me build those muscles. He trains army guys and firefighters and policemen, so he got it—that if we screwed up in the gym, I might die. He took it as seriously as I did. I barfed every single time I worked out with him. And when I worked at Bowmanville—the owner is one of the best cat trainers in the world—he put me in situations to teach me how to fend off an attack; how to gag a lion with a wooden crook and stop them coming forward, or if they are on top of you, the little skin fold in their lip where you can put your finger, and stop them from biting you. Over the years now, I’ve probably had a few hundred fights with captive lions, or good play wrestling, where you practise that gag, or block their teeth and learn the techniques.

Q: But what specific exercises can you do in the gym?

A: All of my stuff is compound movement—training your core, and for power in your legs. Reverse lunges, twists, squats and presses. Three or four different movements in a row. And pushing yourself mentally, so that you can tell your body when it’s exhausted that there’s more in there. I’d be on the ground, ready to pass out, and he’d say, okay, 50 push-ups. In a fight with a lion all I want to do is stay alive. I’m training for survival, buying seconds. I always go into the bush with a safety crew, and a paramedic. They all have things they are going to do in the case of an attack.

Q: And you’ve been attacked before?

A: Yes, right here in Toronto.

Q: What happened?

A: I was in my first year of lion training and doing a live show at Canada’s Wonderland. The lion was getting possessive over something and I was challenging him, letting him charge and then rewarding him off the object—something I’d done before a number of times and was confident about. And on the third charge, he caught me in the rib cage, because I ran out of room on the stage.

Q: This was in front of an audience?

A:Yeah, 6,500 people. And he realized he got me, that I was breathing funny, and a predator sees that as an opportunity. So the next charge, he went for my throat and all I could do was block it with my forearm. He was trying to drag me down to the ground, so I tore my arm out of his mouth and all of the muscles just kind of flopped out. But you still have a lion that wants to kill you, so I wrapped it up with a sweat towel and gaffer tape and went back to work. For about 40 minutes.

Q: On the blog you kept during filming of this show, you talked about having panic attacks when you were out in the tent, all alone at night in the middle of the reserve. Did they stem from that attack?

A: No, I don’t think so. I’d never had one before. I didn’t even know what they were. Fear has always been a pretty foreign experience to me. But that first night in the bush—all of a sudden it was like, man, you’re going to die if you screw up. I was 20 km or more from anyone, and these two lions I didn’t know were walking around four metres from my tent. All that confidence I had went away. It was “Oh my God, what have I done?”

Q: You’ve described this show as a personal journey. What were you trying to prove?

A: I was trying to figure out my identity in a weird way. We all fall into traps where we have to define ourselves. When I was younger, I was the animal guy, the bush guy, the free thinker who didn’t follow the rules. I thought I was still that guy, but I hadn’t tested it in some time because my career had taken me into boutique hotels and red carpets. Could I give it all away and have nothing but my passion? I wanted to figure it out for myself. I’ve been telling people that it was a mid-life crisis, although at 33, I’m younger than when most people have them. But it makes sense to me, I deal with my own mortality a lot more than most people do.

Q: And did you prove all that?

A: Yes. The most important thing I found was that I didn’t have to define myself. I can go to a network premiere party and be surrounded by 500 people who want my autograph and be flattered and not panic. And the next day you can throw me in a tent for six months and it’s awesome.

Q: You’ve also talked about this being a matter of faith. How?

A: As I say in the first episode of the show, I’m not in this to push my religion on anybody. But as a scientist, I find a lot of proof that there is some maker out there. And before I get nose to nose with an animal, I need all of my zoological background, the physical training, but I also need that belief that God will give me a little hand out there. That’s where I find my comfort.

Q: So you’re Daniel?

A: Exactly. God has totally told lions not to eat people before. If he would do that again for me, I’d be happy.

Q: You made some choices for the show—spending the nights alone in the tent, approaching the lions on foot—that would strike most people as foolhardy. Why do it that way?

A: Part of it was that personal journey. I could have easily stayed in the lodge with the crew, but safety wasn’t my issue. Walking on foot with the lions, I needed to push those cats to a point where no one else would. Those cats will never have to go through what I put them through again. We were trying to protect the people that are working at the reserve and the eco-tourists. If someone hops out of a car and starts changing a flat tire, those lions know how to handle that now. Those lions are no longer scared of people. They are unfazed by human contact, and that’s the way it needs to be.

Q: Was there a point over those six months where you thought things were spinning out of control?

A: Definitely. I took a break to fly home for my sister’s wedding last August. But just prior to that, I was ready to give up. I had tried all the things that had worked for me in the past in integrating with lions, and nothing was working. They were escalating their behaviour, and there were a couple of times where I felt I was really getting close to being killed. And I don’t have a death wish. Loneliness, compounded with failure, and I knew that every single day I was pissing these cats off. So I called the network when I was home and said there’s one or two more things I can try, but I may have to pull the pin. The only thing that kept me going was I knew that, if I left, those cats were going to die.

Q: With the trend in animal shows like this—the Steve Irwins, the Austin Stevenses—isn’t there pressure to get yourself into dangerous situations?

A: I would have agreed with you a year or two ago, there was a crazy trend, the wow factor. But I think the networks don’t want that anymore. Since Steve’s death, no animal guy has had that kind of acclaim. I think those were his viewers. My viewers want to go on the journey with you, and learn something different. The danger stuff is just to catch your attention.

Q: Still, there are people who have criticized this show, including the head of Panthera, a large-cat conservation group, who says you’ve put the lions in more danger by conditioning them to accept people.

A: Oh, Luke [Hunter]. I know him. He’s definitely vying for the political side of the conservation world. And I think he just didn’t understand the situation. If he’d watched the show a little more closely, it’s all explained, why I had to do the things I did, use the methods I did. There’s no way to debate that I saved this pride of lions. They were going to be killed.

Q: What does your family think of this?

A: My family is pretty understanding. They know this is my passion. They came to see the first show I ever did that season at Wonderland. And they told me that they were glad that I love what I do, but that they never wanted to see it live again. If I’m home sitting next to them, they’ll watch the TV shows, happily. But when I go out to film, I tell them very little. They have found their comfort in a lack of knowledge.

Q: What are you going to do when you get old? Hire someone else to wrestle the lions?

A: Maybe. I own a production company. I can imagine myself going back to school—maybe I’ll ask Luke Hunter to be my thesis adviser. I don’t think I’ll ever walk away from animals altogether, but physically at some point I’ll have to call it a day. I can’t do this forever.