Man hugs adult lions (and hyenas)

May 16, 2014 • 2:02 pm

This guy has the best job in the world; let’s hope it lasts for a long time! It’s Kevin Richardson, whom we’ve met before as “The Lion Whisperer.”


A brave man named Kevin Richardson is a South African zoologist, who studies native animals to Africa. He has studied lions to such an extent that he seems to have uncovered the secret to not being mauled to death, as you will see. He has decades of hands-on experience studying how lions behave, and he was able to use that knowledge to his benefit in an amazing way.

Richardson and his crew got together their GoPro cameras and traveled to get as close as they possibly could to these African lions. After he calls them, they miraculously DON’T attack, but they go in for a hug! You have to admit that when you watch, you immediately think he’s doomed. Instead, you’re a witness to one of the most adorable hugging sessions ever. These 400-pound animals seem to act like nothing more than house cats around Richardson.

People will comment that the man is mad; that animals like this can’t be trusted, and so on. And maybe they’re right, at least about the latter. But Richardson has had immense experience with these animals, and, oh, what a thrill it must be to have a lion run at you and then hug you!

A couple of pictures. Indented text from the site above:


Richardson is capturing the eyes of the world through his relationships with these lions, as well as hopefully attracting much-needed awareness to the issues that wildlife animals are facing in Africa. Wild animals numbers are dwindling as time goes on, and if these trends continue, animals such as these beautiful lions will eventually be on the endangered species list.

Richardson truly believes that this is a possibility within the next 20 years – not that these lions will be put on endangered species lists, but that they will be extinct.


h/t: Richard Dawkins Tw**er

81 thoughts on “Man hugs adult lions (and hyenas)

  1. Obama should call this man everytime he needs some advice on how to communicate with different species.

  2. I agree, that looks amazing, and part of me really really wants to do that… But it’s really irresponsible, for two reasons.
    1. By allowing himself to be filmed/photographed playing with his lions he is inadvertently encouraging the exotic pet trade. People look at this and think ‘hey, I bet i could hand raise a lion cub and it’ll be like a big cuddly housecat’. There are a lot of suffering lions, tigers, leopards etc because of this misconception that it’s possible to domesticate big cats. Google Tony the truck stop tiger or look up how white tigers and ligers are bred.

    2. He’s risking those animals lives.
    Yes, their lives. What happens when they get a little too excited during playtime and kill him? Who will look after them then? They’re not cheap to look after and ‘killed previous owner’ is not a good reference for them to have. The animal may be put down, and all because his desire to play with his lions is greater than his desire to keep them safe.

    1. 1. Got evidence for his particular actions as being responsible, or are you judging him morally?

      2. They appear to be doing fine.

      PS. What is your personal experience when handling animals?

      1. By allowing himself to be filmed playing with his lions he is encouraging the exotic pet trade. I know he has spoken out against it in the past but he should also know that actions can speak louder than words. I would have thought commonsense would tell you ‘playing’ with a 200kg animal was dangerous and that commonsense would also tell you what will happen to the animal when the inevitable happens but I guess I assumed too much.

        “They appear to be doing fine” does not change the fact that they are lions and not house cats. It would be extremely easy for them to accidently injure or kill him. Anyone who has worked with wildlife would be able to tell you that they are not 100% reliable and predictable, regardless of how much you ‘love’ them.

        Travis the chimpanzee was killed by police after attacking his owner of many years. Teddy the black bear was shot by a neighbour as he mauled the woman who raised him from a cub. Amber Couch’s mountain lion mauled a child and was put down. Other people have already mentioned the fate of the grizzly man.

        I’ve some experience doing volunteer work at a zoo a couple of hours away from where I live, but I wouldn’t call it animal handling- humans shouldn’t be touching most wild animals for reasons other than vet care.

        1. The exotic pet trade has been around for centuries and I’d bet you have no evidence showing that his activism is in any way encouraging it.

          He has been bringing attention to the need to keep them in their natural habitat. Showing how happy they are *in that habitat* in no way diminishes that message.

          When I watch his videos, I don’t think “I want to own one as a pet”. I think “I want to punch in the face anyone who tries to own one of these incredible creatures as a pet.” And I’d bet I’m not alone.

        2. What about the endless number of dogs mauling people, are you calling for an end to dog ownership as well?
          He said he saved at least two of those lions as cubs and raised them.
          Do lions in a reserve get put down for hurting humans or is it up to people to be responsible?

    2. In regards to your point 1, you would have to weigh up the good he is doing through making the plights of wildlife better known compared to whether it increases the mistreatment of them by having them as pets.
      Do you have any evidence regarding this?

      Your point 2 only makes sense if he is feeding them and there is no evidence in the video that that is the case.
      Do you have evidence for this?

    3. Okay, knock off this derailing. I’m tired of seeing videos I present for people’s interest devolve into this kind of self-righteous fighting about ancillary stuff. I disagree that this is irresponsible, and you have no evidence otherwise. He’s also doing conservation work, as he says in the video. And I think these lions are looking after themselves in the park.

      1. Sorry you’re right he is as far as I can see not looking after them in that sense. My bad. My point about the danger to their lives still stands I think and you only have to look at the fate of most animals that attack humans to see why it’s irresponsible behaviour. The bears that Timothy Treadwell ‘loved’ lost their lives as a direct result of his desire to be closer than is safe to a wild animal.
        I don’t think animal welfare is ancillary to the topic but I realise that that is your judgement to make on your website.

        1. I see the points you two are making, but we need to look at them on a case by case basis. Treadwell lived with wild bears who never needed his help. They were adult bears that he hung out with. In all the cases that I know of, Richardson here rescues and raises the lions and hyenas from infancy. He basically saves their lives and gives them a much better life than what they would have in compared to other rescued top predators. Of course they are bonded to humans, as it would be difficult for that to not happen.

  3. It reminds me of that touching story about a lion called Christian, and of that woman who had saved a lion and visited him in the zoo years later – big loving lion hugs in both instances.

  4. Yes yes Lions are love bunnies. Reminds me of that idiot a few years ago that hung out with the bears in Alaska. Of course they ate him eventually. Not surprised to see Dawkins comment. After all we are about to see evolution in action and a blood line abruptly ended. Hopefully he has not had children.

    1. To those that say he’s like the bear guy, I kind of have to say “so what?”. Timothy Treadwell died doing what he loved to do. It was of course a horrible decision to bring another person out there – but he lived his life to his potential fullest. Same with this guy.
      I can’t help but want to dig my fingers into these lions’ manes and scratch their big bellies. That doesn’t make me think I am capable of raising or maintaining a large predator. Nor do I take Richardson’s message as “look how cute they are! You can have one!” He is obviously concerned about their future and environment.
      My only concern is that the lions’ and hyenas’ familiarity with this man could endanger them if they tried rough-housing with someone not as comfortable with them – which could lead to serious injury or death – for both parties.

      1. Two bears were killed following Timothy Treadwells death. That’s what his so called love for those bears brought them.
        Refused to carry bear spray because it causes the bear pain but winds up getting them shot. Let’s not forget either that the audio of the attack reveals that Treadwell’s girlfriend died after him- she got to watch her boyfriend being killed by a bear, found herself alone and then was killed herself.
        I really hate to be the buzzkill but it frustrates me that people romanticise irresponsible behaviour.

        1. IIRC, she bravely tried to drive off the bear that was eating him, and was attacked and killed herself.

        1. What I meant was, he loved those bears so much – if he had the chance to do it over, even knowing the outcome – he would do it all again. His love for them was not for show, it was not to impress anyone. He really felt a connection with them that fulfilled some need that was not met by interacting with other humans.
          However, I do not think he would want his friend to die like she did, but I think he would sacrifice himself.

  5. I wonder if he has to take special bathing precautions after spending time with lions before visiting hyenas, and vice-versa? Those lions, at the very least, are obsessed with marking him with face-scent. They’re making it as emphatic as they possibly can that he belongs to them….


    1. From other videos I have seen, he has (or had) lions and hyenas living together in a social group. Not sure about this group though.

        1. Actually, it is much more widespread than felines. Animals of all sorts form cross species “friendships” under certain conditions. The more these relationships are studied, the more data is gathered, it really seems like many animals are not hardwired for relationships with specifically their own kind, but merely to form relationships in general.

          And yes, I think culture has to be rethought just as intelligence is currently. It is pretty clear that, like intelligence, culture is a spectrum. The conception of most other animals, except humans, as existing purely instictively, no intelligence, no culture, no emotions, is not standing up well to scrutiny. It was just another unevidenced ode to human exceptionalism.

  6. Oh, why wasn’t I born a hyena? I been told that I laugh like one, does that count? 🙂

    “Man, they can smell your fear.” I wonder if the Dalai Lama could hang out with wild animals as his personality is not a reactive one. But I think the lions would not actively play with the Dalai because unlike Richardson, he would just stand there, perhaps not emitting fear, but not enticing them to him either. Richardson must be able to pick up non-verbal communication to an astounding degree in addition to his appreciation of the individuality of members of another species. He is a global human. We need more of those.

  7. I showed this video to my students last week. I of course explained to them why it would be a terrible idea for any of them to try it, but what I wouldn’t give to be that guy for 10 minutes!

  8. Absolutely astounding. I’m watching this thing with chills (a cliché, but true), thinking this guy is going to be done for in any moment. Just amazing.

  9. “But Richardson has had immense experience with these animals”

    So did Roy (of Siegfried and Roy). It isn’t about trust, it’s about recognizing these are very complex beings. No one can predict exactly how they’ll react in all situations.

    1. I don’t think you can really compare Roy’s situation with Richardson’s. Richardson isn’t making them do repeated performances in a frightening and artificial environment. He’s meeting them on their level, in their territory. Not to mention, tigers aren’t pack animals like lions. Plus, the inbreeding to get the white tiger could also very well have been a part of the problem in regards to the attack. I very much enjoyed this video, and sadly I didn’t know that lion populations were this low. “Imagine a Africa without lions.”

    2. Lions and tigers are very different creatures. Lions are highly social animals. Tigers are solitary hunters.

      I doubt someone like Richardson would (or could) have developed these sorts of relationships with tigers.

      1. I doubt someone like Richardson would (or could) have developed these sorts of relationships with tigers.

        I wouldn’t be too certain. Captive tigers have bonded with humans, and I’ve seen equally-solitary jaguars in zoos behave affectionately (through a chain-link fence) with keepers.

        I think almost any two mammals are capable of forming a close emotional bond under proper circumstances, and I’d probably extend that to include avian / mammal pairing as well, and perhaps even surprising numbers of reptiles.

        There may be exceptions, and it’s obviously not normal or common, and very likely generally requires friendly introductions at a young age. And it wouldn’t be hard to come up with examples, such as a polar bear and an hummingbird, where the logistics simply wouldn’t make sense. But I’d lean strongly towards the potential being near-universal.

        We’re all cousins, after all, and it seems pretty reasonable that our basic social language (including facial expressions and posture) and desire for companionship dates back to before our last common ancestor, maybe sometime ~350 – 400 MYA with future-mammal-specific refinements ~150 MYA. If that one guess is correct, the rest follows pretty naturally.


        1. (Hiya Ben!)
          I think you are correct that many different types of animals have the capability of forming emotional bonds, but I have to disagree with reptiles. There may be a few lizards that enjoy companionship and cross-species companionship – but I have never experienced a snake seeking out human interaction other than feeding or a possible warm spot. (My ball python seemed to tolerate my neck as I run very, very warm). But there was no affection, at least that I could tell. I’ve had a LOT of different snakes and lizards and I just can’t make myself believe that snakes require anything more than their most basic needs. Some lizards are gregarious – beardies and green iguanas can be quite personable and have a range of moods that lead me to suspect they feel emotions, even if it is less basic than a chimp or dog.
          On another note, tigers do form bonds with human trainers, but I think the fact that in the wild they are solitary opens up a door for non-social, aggressive behavior on a whim – they aren’t used to having to “play nice” – no pack to teach them how to be a part of a team.

          1. I have to disagree with reptiles.

            I wouldn’t argue as strongly for reptiles, but I think the case for birds is pretty clear, and we’re (roughly) the same evolutionary distance from each — and you yourself offered up a couple supportive examples. So, either it comes from our common ancestor or it’s a case of convergence between all three, and common ancestry seems much more plausible.

            On another note, tigers do form bonds with human trainers, but I think the fact that in the wild they are solitary opens up a door for non-social, aggressive behavior on a whim – they aren’t used to having to “play nice” – no pack to teach them how to be a part of a team.

            It might, but don’t forget that tigers and lions are still interfertile and that I’m guessing the source for the traits go back a quarter billion years and display a great deal of plasticity. It would be interesting, for example, but likely highly unethical, to introduce a tiger cub into a wild litter of African lions and vice-versa, and observe the behaviors of them as they mature. I would suggest that the ugly ducklings would have behavior norms more consistent with their littermates rather than their parental heritage, suggesting the behavioral differences might be more cultural than genetic.

            …of course, it may well be that the experiment was already done….


            1. LOL! “You’ll be right as rain in a couple of days.”
              It is surprising that birds, being so close to reptiles, have highly complex intelligence and emotion. Corvids and parrots especially. There is nothing cuter than a baby cockatoo – fluffy and smelling like warm honey – who wouldn’t fall in love? Sadly, most people don’t realize that you have now signed on for a bird that can easily outlive them, has an ear piercing screech, and absolutely needs interaction and socialization. They mutilate themselves and go quite mental if ignored. There is no reptile that would mutilate themselves for lack of affection or attention. They can hurt themselves by scraping against their enclosure repeatedly but that’s probably because the enclosure does not meet their needs (too small, hot, cold, dry, etc).
              I don’t know about the tiger experiment – but I would think that instinct that makes them solitary in the wild would have an effect upon maturity, if not sooner.

          2. There are lots of stories of pet tortoises that seem to seek out human affection. They like to have their neck scratched, for example. But it is hard to tell what is going on inside that tiny brain.

            1. Desert tortoises have a deserved reputation for being friendly. A cousin in Joshua Tree has a pair that are quite gregarious (and like neck scratches), and I know a family in Mesa who’s got an entire clutch of them in their back yard — again, very friendly and curious and attention-demanding.


  10. Does anyone know if these are fully wild animals or perhaps captive raised then released into large areas? If the former, it would explain why these animals have bonded with this guy and run up when he calls them. According to Wikipedia, Richardson has worked in zoos and in lion park settings so it made me wonder if these animals are familiar with him from when they were cubs. Still impressive to play with full grown lions but it would be pretty crazy if this guy were habituating fully wild animals.

    1. You must not have watched the entire video.
      He explains that the cubs were abandoned by their mother and he then grabbed them and raised them.
      He doesn’t explain what that entailed and neither does he say whether he feeds them now and so whether they could survive without him.

    2. He says he raised two lionesses because their mom basically tried to drown them I guess. I think it might be a mix of rehab and wild lions .

        1. Get a few beers into them, maybe a couple hits of ‘nip, and I bet they turn into real party animals, wild as anybody else in the nightclub….


              1. Very cool. I think maybe we’ve seen part of this before, but not the “scientific” aspect;-) Loved Saber the black panther, is it?

  11. I wonder if it hurt when the female lion licked the entire side of his face lol. They must have rough tongues similar to house cats.

    1. Yes, anymore than a couple of strokes of a cat tongue in the same place can get quite painful. Freddie has developed a taste for the lotion I put on my legs and as much as I don’t want to hurt his feelings, I try to discourage that lucking.

      1. Lions lick their carcasses to help peel off the skin. Getting lion-licked must be substantially difficult.

    2. All I could think when the Lion was licking him was “Why in the world doesn’t that set off every instinct to eat the guy?”

      I mean, the Lion eats flesh. It is “licking” what could be dinner. It’s like me licking a steak! How can the lion, tasting the guy, resist the instinct to pounce on and eat the food it’s licking?


      1. Those lions look well fed and healthy. They see the human as a beloved member of the pride.

  12. Human-reared lions can be very affectionate even to strangers. As I’ve mentioned somewhere else on this website, a big male lion (“Marco”) in an Ecuadorian military zoo used to rub against me through a chain link fence when I would visit him. The keeper played with him inside the cage.

  13. That was really fascinating. I remember when I was introduced to Kevin Richardson before on WEIT. My kids may only know of them as captive animals (sad). If it happens, I would rather see religions turn to myth before the extinction of wild cats, that’s obvious but scary to realize the latter will happen first.

  14. I find the videos thrilling, like most.
    And also scary. It’s hard not to have the sneaking fear, if not outright hunch, of how this man’s life might end, gawd-forbid.

    When I think “this kind of thing shouldn’t be done, look at the danger he’s putting himself in” I step back and realize that there is nothing particularly unique about someone doing something dangerous. People do it all the time, from playing pro football to climbing mountains. Yeah, it may go bad, but that’s the case with plenty of human pursuits.

    I think it’s hard for anyone to watch something like this, see two different “animals” who could be predator and prey, connecting like this, without it kindling
    a desire for those animals to stick around.

    1. Driving a vehicle is statistically one of, if not the most dangerous things humans do. Yet, we do it day in and day out – we are so casual about it that driving itself is secondary to thousands and thousands of people who text and drive (or any other distracting task we feel is more important than actually, you know, driving). Richardson has a much, much higher chance of dying from a vehicle accident than one of those lions.

      1. A lot of African big-game zoologists get smashed up in small aircraft, hacked to death with machetes, or machine-gunned. Can’t recall any being killed by their study animals, though there must surely have been some.

    2. These lions are animals he hand-reared. Very different from the bear guy’s situation. A German Shepherd or Husky is also a big predator (granted, not as big as a lion), but how often do they turn on the people who raised them?

      1. LOL – I get your point, but you picked two of the dog breeds that are in the top five of fatal dog attacks on humans (mostly children). Still, overall very rare.

      1. Per Wikipedia:

        Hyenas or hyaenas (from Greek “ὕαινα” — hýaina[1]) are the animals of the family Hyaenidae /haɪˈɛnɨdiː/ of the feliform suborder of the Carnivora

        And from their Feliformis page:

        Feliformia (also Feloidea) is a suborder within the order Carnivora consisting of “cat-like” carnivorans, including cats (large and small), hyenas, mongooses, civets, and related taxa. Feliformia stands in contrast to the other suborder of Carnivora, Caniformia (“dog-like” carnivorans). Both suborders share one characteristic which distinguishes Carnivora from all other mammals: the possession of the four carnassial teeth.

        The separation of Carnivora into the broad groups of feliforms and caniforms is widely accepted, as is the definition of Feliformia and Caniformia as suborders (sometimes superfamilies). The classification of feliforms as part of the Feliformia suborder or under separate groupings continues to evolve.

      2. If you have access to a museum exhibit of mounted skeletons, spend some time looking at a spotted hyena and similar sized big cat side by side. The differences are remarkably subtle, and mainly in the teeth.

  15. Lions are fascinating, to me, because they belie the feline stereotype of the solitary hunter.

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