We're loving lions: How a cuddle with a big cat helped a thrill-seeking double amputee live on the wild side again
Lions and tigers aren’t usually the sort of animals you’d want to get close to, but that’s exactly what double amputee John Reinke likes to do.
In fact, he’s discovered an incredible ability to get so close to such animals that he can cuddle them. He only released his sensitive skill after a bungee jump accident caused him to lose both legs.
The dad-of-two has a particularly special bond with Bonedigger, a seven-foot male lion, who like John also suffers from a disability due to brittle bones.
Double amputee John Reinke has an amazing ability and can cuddle big cats including seven-foot male lion Bonedigger
‘Bonedigger won’t act like this with anyone else,’ says John as he sits with the 320lb lion draped across his lap. ‘He never shows me aggression at all.
‘When I am having a bad day with my legs, just being with him makes me feel better.
‘I know he knows that we are both disabled.’
John, 43, first came into contact with the big cat through his work at the G.W Exotic Animal Park in Wynnewood, Oklahoma. He bottle-fed Bonedigger, now 18 months old, from birth, and the pair are now the closest of pals.
Speaking about this special bond John added, ‘He’s like a dog and when he hasn't seen me for ages he gets all excited and runs up to me.’
Nothing about the relationship between the pair is normal; Bonedigger was hand-reared by John along with a tiger named Tony.
Cub love: John says of his disability: 'Bringing up Bonedigger and Tony helped me recover'
‘They used to live with me in the house. I raised them both with bottled formula and raw meat until they grew too big for the house,’ said John.
And even though they’ve moved out Tony and Bonedigger aren’t far from John - the cats share an enclosure next to the house John usually lives in with the other keepers.
‘Tony is perfectly healthy, but is a bit too playful. When Bonedigger senses that I am losing control of the play, he snarls at Tony and you can tell he is being protective and telling him to stop.’
Father-of-two John lost his legs as a result of a bungee-jumping accident
Bonedigger, a seven-foot male lion, also suffers from a disability due to brittle bones
Living on the wild side has always been on John’s agenda, when doing a bungee jump in April 1994, he fell through a faulty trap door from 55 feet, crushing both his legs.
‘I pierced my side with a six inch metal stake too and I asked my friends to call my wife because I thought that was it,’ said the ex-turbine engineer.
‘I broke my hip, my back, and shattered both feet and raked my intestines. Needless to say, I was in a coma for eight days after I reached the hospital. My wife Kristi couldn’t recognise me when she first saw me.
John, who works at the GW Exotic Animal Park in Wynnewood, Oklahoma, bottle-fed Bonedigger from birth
Bonedigger was hand-reared with a tiger named Tony, and the pair of big cats now have a joint enclosure next to the house shared by John, the owner and other keepers
‘When I finally woke up the doctors told me that I would never walk again.’
But John was determined to prove them wrong and not let this terrible accident prevent him from enjoying life, ‘I wasn’t going to accept that fate,’ he added
After five years of painstaking rehabilitation, John learned to use his legs again, and he began to rebuild his life. He and his wife Kristi, 45, had a second son Peyton, 15, six years after their first son, Nathan, 21, was born.
But in the years that followed, John suffered from repeated infections in his left leg and, in 2005, made the incredibly difficult decision to have it amputated below the knee.
‘I was at an all-time low then, but in 2006, on a family holiday, we came across the G.W Exotic Animal Park in Wynnewood, Oklahoma and everything changed,’ he said.
It was at this park that John bonded with a nine-foot Grizzly bear called Ozzie, little did John know then that this meeting would turn his life around.
John soon began visiting the park once a week from his home in Texas to see Ozzie and spend time with the other animals.
Three's no crowd: When Bonedigger senses John is losing control of the play, he protectively snarls at Tony and tells him to stop
After spotting his frequent visits, a year later, park director Joe Schreibvogel asked John to as a park manager.
In 2009 John suffered another devastating blow, he had an infection in his remaining right leg and chose to have a second amputation.
‘That was another low moment for me because I value my independence highly,’ said John.
‘Bringing up Bonedigger and Tony helped me recover, especially my relationship with Bonedigger.’
Defiant and brave, John was quickly back at work after his second amputation, using high-tech metal legs built by Scott Sabolich Prosthetics and Research.
And John hasn’t looked back since, ‘At the moment I am bringing up three-month-old tiger cubs named Tippy and Orlando. They are keeping me busy and they need to be entertained every day.
‘Tippy likes to play tug of war with my prosthetic legs, which is good, because I guess that would hurt otherwise!’
John is currently at home in Texas with his family as he undergoes further medical treatment for his legs and shoulder but that won’t be the last of his time with the big cats.
While John is away park staff are looking after Bonedigger and Tony. But everyone is looking forward to the return of their inspirational keeper as clearly John is irreplaceable.