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The Couple Who Fell in Love While Taming Lions

Asking for a dance or going for a romantic meal might be an easier way to find a partner.

But big cat lovers Michelle Looij, 23, and Ben Nieuwenhuis, 22, first fell in love when they were taming wild lions.

Now wrestling, swimming and walking with 15 stone lion cubs is all in a day’s work the infatuated pair.

The brave couple spend their days guiding lions through the South African bush to help them prepare to return to life in the wild.

Ben and Michelle met at Ukutula Lion Park and Lodge in the country’s North West Province nine months ago and are now engaged to be married.

Dangerous work: Ben and Michelle bonded while they rehabilitated lion cubs to be released into the wild in South Africa

Dangerous work: Ben and Michelle bonded while they rehabilitated lion cubs to be released into the wild in South Africa

Lion tamers: Young couple Michelle Looij and Ben Nieuwenhuis fell in love while working with lion cubs

Lion tamers: Young couple Michelle Looij and Ben Nieuwenhuis fell in love while working with lion cubs

Their unique situation mean the couple combine their favourite things – big cats and spending time together.

‘Ben acts like the lion’s leader and dominates them slightly,’ said Michelle. ‘They look up to him.

‘Of course there is danger as they never lose their instinct. I must admit that sometimes when one of them jumps up in the water I get slightly scared.’

The cubs are bred in captivity and then taken from their parents at two weeks old and trained by the couple to prepare for life in the wild.

They will be released back into their native environment to help to boost the numbers of lions in the region.

Specialising in caring for rare white lions, Ben and Michelle are as deeply committed to each other as they are to the conservation of their deadly but immensely cute and furry students at Ukutula.

Caring for a young group of 15 month old lions they call ‘The Gremlins’, the duo’s daily schedule at Ukutula is dominated by lions Kash, Bella, Cherry and Sammy.

‘We wake early to feed the lions their breakfast of chickens,’ said Ben.

‘It is important to reintroduce ourselves to them in the morning through a bit of light play.

‘After they have eaten they are taken on a morning walk around 9am. We stop to climb trees and to play around in the water.

‘This is important to enrich their lives and to plan for the possibility that one day they will be reintroduced back into the wild. Exploring their natural surroundings is all part of rehabilitation.

‘They need to know that they might one day have to recover a hippo carcass from the water and which trees are the right ones to climb.’

Tame: Michelle can stroke the cubs before they are released to fend for themselves

Tame: Michelle can stroke the cubs before they are released to fend for themselves

Ukutula is working with the University of Pretoria to try and combat the ‘unethical breeding practises’ of white lions in South Africa.

Project leader Wilhelm Jacobs, who runs Ukutula, said: ‘White fur in lions is caused by a recessive gene much like the one that causes blue eyes or blonde hair in humans.

‘Due to their rarity they fetch a high price and as a result some lion farmers use unethical breeding paractices, such as forcing white-on-white breeding to try and produce more valuable stock.

‘We have the world largest collection of related lions with over 60 individuals. Taking blood, skin and hair samples we are trying to identify the gene that cause the white fur when brown lions mate.

‘If we can identify this we can provide an alternative method to white-on-white breeding which can create unhealthy individuals because of inbreeding.’

Ukutula plans to rehabilitate and reintroduce as many of their lions as possible back into the wild when their project is finished, which is where handlers like Michelle and Ben come in.

Passionate: The couple love their their job taming lion clubs which has helped their relationship

Passionate: The couple love their their job taming lion clubs which has helped their relationship

Cute: Ben and Michelle cradle a tame lion club like a baby

Cute: Ben and Michelle cradle a tame lion club like a baby

‘I grew up fishing, trekking and camping in the bush,’ explained Ben.

‘I came to work with lions and fell in love at first sight and now work full time at the Ukutula lodge, where I met Michelle.

‘There is a bond between the animals that I care for and myself. It’s rewarding work and enriching for them and me.’

Each of the lions that Ben and Michelle care for has their own unique character and just like their betrothed keepers they have their good days and bad days.

‘We are just like any other couple in that we have up and down days,’ said Michelle.

‘Ben is better at the larger older groups of lions and I prefer to work with smaller ones.

‘These lions are our passion and our love and it is also fortunate that I came here to work as a volunteer.

‘Otherwise I wouldn’t have met Ben.’

Read more: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-1323305/The-couple-fell-love-taming-lions-South-Africa.html?ito=feeds-newsxml#ixzz13JE9rwFC

bigcatrescue.org

2 Comments

  1. Stories like these are a real joy! The world has indeed its moments of glory and love.This is one of them.

  2. Stories like these are a real joy! The world has indeed its moments of glory and love.This is one of them.

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