I would never tell somebody to go up and stroke a lion, but through ignorance, I did the first time I saw one. I was working at a zoo sweeping the cages, when suddenly he came round the corner. I was standing there and realised this was the only opportunity I'd ever had to touch one. He was calm, I was calm, so I petted him. His trainer said: "That’s not a normal reaction: he should be chasing you and he should be running away."
That said, I have been attacked by a lion. When I was working as a trainer in Canada, in 1999. It tore muscles out of my arm in front of audience of thousands. Afterwards, lying in hospital, I needed to know if I'd be scared the next time I saw one, so I pulled all the cables off and I took myself to the zoo. I took Bongo’s [the lion] brush and started to do his favourite thing in the world – comb his mane. I relaxed, and all the good stuff came back.
When I was 24 I was approached by the head of the Discovery Channel. To me at the time, that felt like selling out. I was working for a not-for-profit, not taking a salary. I thought that struggle was the way to make an impact. And he was like: "You live in a tent, by yourself, in the middle of Africa. How much of an impact are you making? I have a network that goes out to millions of homes. That’s how you can affect what people think about animals."
You can’t help how you’re wired. When the shit hits the fan, some people want to get out of there. I've always gotten super-focused and moved towards the line, not away. Once I realise I’m in a situation I don’t like – animals charging at you, bearing down on you – everything goes in slow motion, I concentrate and think: 'If I get attacked, how do I keep myself alive?'
It's only afterwards that you start to get that adrenaline dump, and that fear of what could have happened. I need a few hours alone afterwards before I start to rationalise what went wrong.
When animals attack, they’re predictable. A male lion will always charge in a straight line, and what they’re trying to do is get their claws in and then their teeth. So you can’t let it get you on the ground. To prepare, at the gym I do a lot of leg work, so that I can stop a 450lbs animal from knocking me off my feet.
I could teach most people to be okay at my job – the intellect can give you 70 per cent of what you need. But that extra 30 per cent is the part that keeps you alive. So if you want to run when a lion gets angsty, then it's probably not for you.
People think of dominating tigers and lions as a physical situation, but it’s not. I would never be stupid enough to think that I could match a massive animal in strength. But I can mentally assert myself over a tiger I'm training by showing him his favourite toy and asking him to lie down. If he does it, you’ve won.
It’s amazing to go to untouched parts of the world. There’s obviously the larger goal of conservation with what I do, but my inner little boy just wants to go on adventures. There’s times on the show where I’m alone on an island, the crew has to go and I have to film myself. There's a fire, I'm in a sleeping bag, I'm the only human being on this island. Those moments are overawing.
I do have a fear of something going wrong and being so far away from civilisation. If you’re 50m underwater playing with sharks and you make a mistake – that’s it, you’re dead. But all that is secondary to me.
You think they’ll come a point where animals will stop being that cool or it's just going to be your job. And then you get out there and you see a monkey or a bear or whatever, and you’re amazed again.
Deadly Islands airs on Thursdays at 9pm on Discovery Channel from 1st May 2014.