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Kevin Richardson is known all over the world as ‘The Lion Whisperer’. He is also the producer of the highly acclaimed movie, White Lion… home is a journey, screening at cinemas now. And he is an amazing father.
I’ve heard that you hid bugs under your bed as a child. Did you always have a love for nature’s creatures?
Yes, yes and yes! I’ve loved animals, great and small, since I was a tiny tot. My earliest childhood memories include playing in the mud collecting earthworms and crickets.
You are a self-taught animal behaviourist. How did that come about?
I believe animal behaviour is not always something one can learn on a course or in a book. Don’t get me wrong, I think these can lay the foundations, but I never consciously thought that I was going to be known as an animal behaviourist. It kind of just happened, like being thrown into the deep end. There is no substitute for experience. Someone once asked me, “Kevin, how long will it take me to gain the experience you have gained in over a decade?” To which I replied, “Over a decade!”
How did you become involved with lions? What makes them special?
I became involved with two 6-month-old lion cubs named Tau and Napoleon over 11 years ago. I was presented with an opportunity to visit The SA Lion Park where they lived. I had no idea how they would captivate my heart. I knew immediately that there was something there; a connection if you will. I love all animals, but lions are truly social and until you have been accepted into their world, you have no idea of their capabilities of showing affection and love.
How did the story of White Lion come about?
It’s been the long-time dream of Rodney Fuhr, the executive producer of the movie. His story was modified to suit a full-length dramatic feature film.
You have studied animals and their offspring. Now that you are a parent, what similarities do you find between animals and humans (as parents and offspring)?
The one thing that is common to both is that a mother will protect her offspring at all costs. Animal mothers seem to be a lot harder on their young though. Although there is a closeness between animal mothers and their offspring, there isn’t the same degree of nurturing that goes into raising a child. This is probably because, with many animals, the bond between a mother and her young gets severed at a certain age. Also, animals tend to breed year on year. Most humans don’t have a kid every year or so until old age. At least I hope most humans don’t – we already have a world population crisis!
As parents, what you put in is almost exactly what you get out. Almost exactly the same as with animals!
Human babies and animal babies alike can learn the art of manipulation at a very early age. Animal mothers seem to not fall for this, whereas first-time human mothers probably do. I could go on, but what’s quite interesting about animal mothers is that they won’t bother nurturing a deformed or weak baby. They will simply leave it to die or, in the case of predators, even eat it.Humans will try to keep any child alive, even if he or she is badly deformed and may not lead a normal life. This is unique to human beings.
How do you establish such a close relationship with animals – especially lions – and do we as parents have anything to learn from that?
It’s time, passion, patience, commitment and love – basically the same ingredients that you put into caring for a child. Sometimes humans, living in the fast-paced world that we do, don’t see the wood for the trees until it’s too late – or sometimes not at all. You need to want to form close relationships with animals, especially lions, for the right reasons. If it’s because you think it’s a cool pastime to hang out with big cats, then you’ve got a lesson in humility coming. Lions will level you very quickly and know your intentions! As parents, what you put in is what you get out. Almost exactly the same as with animals!
How did having your own baby change your life? Were you present at the birth and how did you experience it?
Fortunately, I’ve raised enough baby animals in my life to realise the commitment needed in having a child of my own, so I think I was better prepared than most. It does change your life, as you have another little individual to consider 24/7. But having said that, it’s all for the better and they truly are wonderful to have around. I just can’t wait until my son, Tyler, and I can get up to mischief together!
Tell us about your wife.
We met at a pub that we both didn’t go to often. In fact, it was Mandy’s first time there and my second. Not the type of place you would imagine meeting the mother of your children! However, it was the only venue open on a Sunday night before a public holiday on the Monday. Mandy does marketing for both The SA Lion Park and me, and she is my biggest fan. She is extremely interested in what I do, but doesn’t get too involved with the animals. She will come to the park and watch me interact with them.
Whenever I ask my younger son what he wants to become, he insists that he wants to be like David Attenborough. You are one of his local heroes. How do you ‘become’ such an adventurer who gets to travel and work with nature?
I think it’s great that at such a young age he has some role models! The trick is to always be passionate about whatever you do and never give up on your dreams. You’ll be surprised where the road of adventure takes you!
Do you have any interesting pets? What have been your most interesting ones? I’m sure you were never a silkworm guy!
I have no interesting pets at the moment, although I’ve had some in the past. I used to own a 3.5m anaconda and have had a jackal live at my house for a while. I’ve had everything from earthworms to frogs to even an English pheasant! Funnily enough, when I was younger I did go through a phase of keeping silkworms. It was such fun freaking people out by putting them on my tongue and then pretending to swallow them. Once I actually did by accident! Argh! Good source of protein though!
What does nature in general have to teach us about bringing up kids?
Nature can teach us so many things. However, the one thing that always comes to mind is the principle of ‘Only take what you need’. In nature, you rarely see animals taking more than they really require. I would love to instil this principle in my son. Nature is also sometimes deemed ‘cruel’ in the eyes of humans. Nature is not cruel by any means. It relies on sustainability, something that will be humans’ demise if they don’t get it right. I hope that not letting my son have everything his heart desires will make him appreciate what he has already. Also, animals in nature never really destroy their natural habitats like humans do. Before we know it, we’ll be telling our children’s children about the African lion, just as we were told as kids about the dodo and passenger pigeon.
Tell us about shooting White Lion.
Where do I start? Rodney Fuhr’s basic story of White Lion started becoming a reality in 2005, when I was asked to produce the film for him. By then, Rodney and I had known each other for many years and I had developed several relationships with lions and other animals. They were to be the stars of the film.
.. we had to source white lions of all ages and relied heavily on relationships that had been built up with the few that we did have.
A couple of months before filming, the plan was actually to portray the life of a ‘tawny’ or ‘brown’ lion, but then I got a call from Rodney asking what I thought about changing the hero lion in the story to a white lion. Naturally I thought it was a good idea, as it opened up a whole new dimension to being able to tell the story. But, on the flip side, we hardly had any white lions to use in the film! We had to source white lions of all ages and relied heavily on relationships that had been built up with the few that we did have.
That was the beginning of many problems that one faces when making a dramatic family feature film of this nature. We had often wondered why no one had made a movie like this. Looking back, I now know why! In total, we used approximately 50 – 60 lions in this film, some playing the same part as doubles and others portraying the lions the lead character, Letsati, meets on his adventure.
The entire film was shot outdoors in the summer months of the South African highveld – a stylistic choice of Rodney Fuhr’s – typically known for its hot days and rainy afternoons with intermittent violent thundershowers. This meant that we could only work with the lions in the early hours of the morning and then again in the cool of the afternoon, which was inevitably interrupted by thick cloud cover or those thunderstorms. This often delayed filming for days at a time. Also, by then, the locations were usually like swamps and the lions got muddy and wet, and didn’t match the scenes before (known as continuity in film terms).
Other problems included our only adult white lion at the time refusing to work. He walked off location – one that happened to be 20 000 hectares! My team and I followed him around for around four to five hours until we eventually managed to contain him – not something easily achieved with an angry adult lion. He never worked again and we had to wait another year for Thor, a young adolescent white lion, to come of age!
My biography, Part of the Pride: My Life Among the Big Cats of Africa, tells of many of the setbacks we faced making the film. It took us over three years to complete, but there were some really memorable moments too. Relationships with animals got stronger and even I was amazed at what the lions did. In one scene, the lion falls in a river after a close encounter with a crocodile and has to swim to the other side. Amazingly enough, Gandalf – an incredible lion – swam across the river just to be with us. Most people will tell you that lions are not fond of water! On another occasion at the end of a long day of shooting aerials with Thor in wide open landscapes, we just sat there in the middle of nowhere like two kindred spirits sharing a moment, waiting to be picked up to go home. Thor had every opportunity to run away, just as Letsatsi had some years back, but he didn’t. He was just happy to be there with his ‘brother’!
You are away a lot of the time. Tell us what you do then and how you reconnect with your family.
2009 was a year of many overseas trips to promote both my biography and White Lion. It was difficult going to all these countries without Mandy, because I would really have liked to share the experiences with her. Mandy is very accommodating and supportive of my work, and she realises the sacrifices one must make. Reconnecting is not too difficult. We enjoy spending quiet time together, just the two of us – and now it’s the three of us with the birth of my son.
How do you and your family spend quality time together?
For us, quality time is about being alone undisturbed. We can sit in each other’s company for hours on end. Even if not one word is spoken, we are content in the knowledge that the other is within arm’s reach. It’s fantastic to have a relationship that doesn’t need constant talking and reassurance to make it work. I have such a busy life at the moment, so it’s nice to just ‘chill’.
Text by Carlien Wessels. Pictures by Werner Bretz and Peru Productions. This article was taken from the March edition of Living and Loving.
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