The lion froze when he saw the little sausage dog wander into its enclosure. There was nothing anyone could do as the jungle cat slowly approached the oblivious pooch.
Onlookers expected the worst, but as the big cat locked eyes with the nervous pup and took a sniff, it did something no one could have predicted.
When John Reinke took a new lion cub into the sanctuary for big cats, he never imagined he would eventually be put in such a difficult position with dozens of guests watching with their mouths agape.
Bonedigger was raised by John from a young age. “He won’t hurt me because I’ve been with him from day one,” John said. “You do have to keep your guard up. You’ve always got to remember that they are natural stalkers.”
John initially took Bonedigger in at the G.W. Interactive Zoological Park in Wynnewood, Oklahoma, after veterinarians determined that he wouldn’t be able to survive out in the wild on his own.
In fact, it was this that led to the lion’s intimidating name – and to the feeling of dread that struck John when the dog found itself in reach of his devastating claws.
Bonedigger was diagnosed with a metabolic bone disease when he was born. The rare condition meant that the lion’s bones would grow abnormally and that they would be far more brittle than usual.
This meant that the animal would never be able to live out in the wild and that his condition put him at a serious disadvantage. John had to keep his guard up at all times.
John’s job as park manager at the notorious zoo also meant that he had to put out a fair share of fires.
And as the park grew in popularity, more and more people were showing up at the zoo to witness Joe “Tiger King” Exotic’s big cat stunts. But it wasn’t long before it began to attract a very different kind of clientele. It was John’s job to keep them at bay.
People began to stream into the park, but the big cats weren’t the main attraction. They were hoping to catch a glimpse of Joe Exotic himself.
The park’s detractors — personal enemies of Joe’s and a few extreme animal rights activists — also began to arrive in droves, hoping that something would go wrong. And that day, something did happen… and nobody, least of all John, was prepared for it.
Also in John’s care at the sanctuary were four dachshunds. Among them was his favorite, Abby. The dogs ran free in the park, stealing unattended food from the cafeteria and generally getting underfoot, to the annoyance of some visitors.
“The wiener dog actually thinks she’s a lion and the lion thinks he’s a wiener dog,” said John, laughing. But despite their identity crises, the reality is that one of the animals is several times bigger and more dangerous than the other.
John – who appeared in the hit Netflix documentary series ‘Tiger King’ – had developed a special bond with Bonedigger that had led him to believe he wasn’t a threat to either himself or any of the other animals.
“That’s a risk you take working around 180 cats. You never know when it’s your time. But if I died, I would die doing something I loved,” he said. But John had already had a brush with death. And it had cost him both of his legs.
After a bungee jump in 1994 went horribly wrong, John plunged 55 feet to the ground without a rope, breaking both his feet, his back, and his hip. To make matters worse, he had landed on a 6-inch metal stake.
Doctors told him he’d never walk again, but John wasn’t the kind of guy to let a little diagnosis like that keep him down for long.
With some physiotherapy and a lot of determination, John eventually learned to walk again. But sadly, repeat infections meant that John had no choice but to undergo surgery and rely on prosthetic limbs.
Being a stubborn man whose passion was to live on the wild side, John was soon back doing the work he loved. But needless to say, he wasn’t able to move quite as quickly as he used to.
Despite loving all the animals he cared for, Bonedigger had a special place in John’s heart due to their shared disability.
But Bonedigger was growing more and more anxious and unhappy due to being separated from the other animals. So when an oblivious little creature found itself in his den, he seized his chance.
Bonedigger grew up with another big cat, Tony. The tiger cub had entered the sanctuary at the same time as Bonedigger, so they essentially grew up together.
But as it became apparent that the animals were getting too boisterous with each other, putting Bonedigger at risk from injury, John was forced to keep him in his own enclosure. And there he stayed until an uninvited guest found itself thrown into the ring.
To express his discontent about being locked up on his own, Bonedigger would pace the length of the enclosure listlessly and bite at the fence.
John started to get worried. He knew it was the best thing for Bonedigger’s own safety, but at the same time, he couldn’t bear to watch him acting out due to his intense loneliness. He felt as though he were being just like the doctors who’d tried to tell him his own limitations in 1994. So John was determined to come up with a plan to help Bonedigger.
John knew there was no way he could reintroduce Bonedigger’s old pal Tony into his life without taking a huge risk, but there was another resident of the zoo that might be able to help.
Abby the dachshund was extremely friendly with people and animals alike, and being small and harmless, seemed like the perfect companion for the lion. But John hadn’t counted on what would happen within seconds of their first meeting.
Abby didn’t balk at the idea of entering the lion cage. A little bravery goes a long way for anyone, but perhaps one should be at least a little on their guard when walking into a lion’s cage.
While another zoo keeper kept hold of Bonedigger, John slowly entered the enclosure with Abby on a tight leash. He’d expected the little dog to be hanging around his legs to make sure it was safe before venturing further, but that’s not what happened at all.
The second Abby made eye contact with the big cat, she started pulling at the leash and jumping up, eager to get over to play with her toothy new friend.
John knew he had to take this slowly. With guests in the park watching, he wasn’t prepared for them to go home with photos of a pair of sausagey legs disappearing into the lion’s mouth. But when he looked up from the excitable dog, he jumped when he saw the lion had gotten away from the other keeper – and it was heading straight for Abby.
Bonedigger stopped dead in front of Abby, eyes wide and wild. But Abby wasn’t fazed, she just carried on exploring her curiosity, sniffing up at the wild cat that could swallow her in the blink of an eye.
The keeper that lost control of the lion lay on his back, breathing heavily as he watched the scene unfolding before him. John gulped and slowly backed out of the cage, but Bonedigger was having none of it.
Abby let out a bark that Bonedigger could have effortlessly drowned out with his mighty roar, but the jungle king didn’t retaliate.
The lion jumped back at the sight of the uppity little dog. To the onlookers, it seemed the lion was actually scared of Abby, but the lion leaned in to sniff the sausage dog. Then things took a turn.
Abby wagged her tail in all the excitement of meeting a new friend, but everyone looking into the cage was more concerned with what the lion was going to do next.
Willing to take things to the next level, John let Abby off the leash. But he didn’t expect the curious little pooch to go directly for Bonedigger’s stash of toys. The lion wasted no time, pouncing in to protect them.
Clearly not taking the situation as seriously as John or the other terrified onlookers, Abby looked up at the lion standing between her and the new play things she’d found – and licked the lion’s nose.
Bonedigger just stood there, dumbfounded at the cheek of the dog. John himself was aware that Abby was clueless to the fact that some animals were more dangerous than others. Sizing Abby up, Bonedigger made his move.
Bonedigger and Abby became fast friends. The pair ran and frolicked in the cage for hours after their first encounter. Bonedigger was over the moon to finally have a friend to share his life with.
It was incredible to see how this tiny dog was so unafraid of a lion who, although still young, could seriously hurt her. But apparently, that’s to be expected.
Apparently, dachshunds aren’t really aware of their size, so they aren’t daunted when they come up against bigger animals, no matter how dangerous… or hungry.
Bonedigger, who was craving a new playmate, found the perfect companion in Abby. And soon it would become a pride when John introduced even more unorthodox friends for the lonely lion.
Bonedigger and Abby were moved into a bigger enclosure where Abby got her own bed alongside her new best friend. Soon, three more dachshunds were introduced to Bonedigger, and they all got along swimmingly.
They became part of his pride and he became part of their pack. They run around playing and chasing each other, and they’re never apart – except when John has to clean their enclosure.
Every once in a while, John has to enter the enclosure to trim down the grass and get rid of weeds. The dachshunds love to attack the weed-whacker, so John is forced to take them out.
Bonedigger spends the whole time pacing around the fence, crying. “As soon as I’m done weeding, I let the wiener dogs back in and he counts his dogs, makes sure they’re all there, and just loves all over them,” he says. But Abby’s definitely the one he loves the most.
“I think there’s a bigger bond between Abby and Bonedigger than the other three wiener dogs,” says John. “He even bites at the fleas like you see dogs do with each other. It’s just crazy what they do.”
Now, it might be easy to call this a fluke. But, it’s by no means the only story of a pooch helping a big cat. Thousands of miles away, a Russian zoo scrambled to help three rejected tiger cubs.
The workers at Madagascar Zoo in Nizhny Novgorod, Russia, thought it was going to be a day of celebration.
Their very pregnant tigress, Shaherizad, went into labor and everyone prepared to welcome the new cubs into the family. However, there was an underlying fear that follows these kinds of births.
Mother tigers are one of many animals that can reject their babies right after birth.
There are many reasons – they might have to reduce their litter size so they can care for their cubs better in harsh environments, or they want to breed again. But there is a special reason that might be directly tied to their life in zoos…
Animal stress is one of the worker’s biggest fears. Zookeeper, Olga Prokhorova, held her breath as the little cubs came into the world – so did the rest of the team.
With careful coaxing and watchful eyes, they waited to see what would happen. The tiger leaned down and sniffed.
Everyone deflated as she walked away. The signs were clear. She wanted nothing to do with her new children.
Olga sighed and leaned against the window. The little peeps and cries the babies made would normally be cute, but now they were just heartbreaking. It was extra sad that they would soon have to sell them.
Yes, two of the brothers were spoken for by other zoos. And within a few days, the last cub was on his own. The fuzzy blankets did nothing to calm him and the goat’s milk only offered nourishment – nothing more.
Olga thumped her head against the desk, praying for an idea. All of a sudden, the answer scampered through the door.
The black and brown dog pawed at the window, trying to get to the crying infant.
“Could it work?” Olga wondered. They had never tried anything like that before. The others thought she was crazy, but they were out of ideas. Besides, what’s the worst that could happen?
The introduction was slow and careful. On one side, the grown dog wagged her tail and jittered with excitement.
The cub sat on the other, wobbling back and forth. They each leaned in, took a sniff, and the dog left a long, gooey lick over the cub’s face. It didn’t end there.
Olga felt tears form as the maternal mutt curled around the cat and the little one fell asleep in an instant.
After that, they were inseparable. The cub was quick to walk, and in no time they were taking walks around the zoo together. Then the playing started.
They would jump and skip around each other. It was an adorable mix of cat and dog play – each one acting a little like the other, but always having fun.
The stress of separation melted away and the new family was the highlight of everyone’s shift each time they came in.
The zookeeper felt a tiny piece of her heart break off at the idea they would have to eventually sell the cub.
But, at least for now, the tiny creature would know love and safety. It would have a mother. These two are another miracle of the animal kingdom.