For his latest Animal Planet series, Into the Pride, zoologist and predator expert Dave Salmoni spent six months alone in the African bush in an attempt to tame a rogue pride of highly aggressive "problem lions" for the sake of ecotourist safety and the creatures' own survival. Think that sounds like a daunting expedition? Try interviewing Salmoni without falling prey to his hunky good looks and cuddly Canadian charm. As an adorable 10-week-old lion cub named Shera sucks contentedly on his finger, the 33-year-old "big cat trainer" shows us how he whips gay fans into submission.
By Brandon Voss
Advocate.com: Have you ever seen Mean Girls?
Dave Salmoni: Yeah. Wait, I mean, no! [Laughs] OK, you caught me.
Then you'll remember how it illustrates parallels between the African jungle and the high school jungle — survival of the fiercest and all that. Having spent so much time in the wild with the lions, did you observe any interesting parallels to human society?
There are so many parallels between these animals and people. I recently wrote a Cosmo article about 10 lessons you can learn from the wild. My dating life seems a lot like a big male lion.
Are we talking sex here?
I wish I had the sex life of a male lion. He's got, what, 10 women who all don't mind sharing? Unfortunately, living in the bush alone in a tent does not bode well for my personal life.
How did you deal with loneliness out there?
At times I really welcomed it. I love being with people, but I like being alone a lot. On good days when things were going well and the lions were accepting me, I didn't even notice it. I just appreciated being around the animals, the sunset, sunrise, the fire, camping. But on the days those cats would try to kill me, when they didn't want a relationship with me? Those were the days I'd wake up and think, What in the hell am I doing here? They don't want me here. I should be home dating and hanging out with my buddies. But I don't go into deep depressions when I'm lonely. I just recognize it, go for a long walk, find some giraffe to hang out with, or play with some rhinos.
Did you read any good books?
Lots. I'm a big nonfiction reader, so I read lots of autobiographies and scientific journals. I ran out of them by week 2, so my director sent me the first fiction books I'd read in years. I read lots of books where, you know, one guy takes on the whole world — spy-type books where a superhero comes in, saves the world, and gets the girl. A wonderful book I read twice while I was out there was Anthony Kiedis's Scar Tissue. I also read Long Way Down, which is about Ewan McGregor's little motorcycle trip. I was considering getting a motorcycle for a long time, and I just got it recently.
How'd you cope without a gym for six months?
My trainer taught me long ago how to apply my workouts in the bush. I used water cans as weights and tree branches for chin-ups. And I did lots of push-ups, sit-ups, and squats.
I see you've shaved your leonine beard since leaving the bush.
Yeah, the network wasn't too impressed with it. Halfway through the show, you'll notice that it takes a taming too. By episode 4, I remember getting a phone call from the network, like, "Dave, you know that whole idea where you weren't going to shave or cut your hair? We need to trim that thing."
You've posed for your share of beefcake photos in the last few years. How do you feel about so much attention being placed on your looks?
I was very bashful about it when it started because I definitely grew up in the background; I was never the good-looking guy in the group. When people talked about it at first, I didn't know how to respond to it. Now, if people are going to talk about me in that way, I think it's awesome and superflattering — and hey, maybe I'll get a date out of it.
What do you think about Animal Planet's "Salmoni Showers with Lions" promotional video on YouTube?
Very embarrassing. The first thing I thought when I saw it was, Yeah, I'm going to get teased a lot.And it's true. I'll sit on Twitter and a bunch of people will be like, "I love it." Then others will be laughing, like, "Come on!" My younger sister teases the heck out of me.
I actually first discovered you when Towleroad.com posted your shower video earlier this week. How conscious are you of your gay fan base?
I'm really conscious of it, and I think it's awesome. They've been a really vocal group over the years. I feel like my gay fans are the most appreciative. I get lots of e-mails from them, and they're not shy. A young girl may say, "Hey, I really like you, you're kinda cute," whereas a gay guy will be like, "Hey, take your shirt off more and you'll get better ratings."
Do you have any gay friends in your pride?
I have a fair number because my mother's a figure skating coach and there's a strong gay community there. I definitely grew up with lots of gay friends. Toronto, where I live, is a pretty open city, so my friends are a pretty healthy mix of gay and straight.
Did you ever consider figure skating as a profession?
I was a horrible child — much like a male lion, I didn't like to take instruction — so the very first time my mom tried to give me a figure skating lesson, I just wouldn't listen to her. That was the end of my figure skating career.
You've gone into a pride of lions, but have you ever been to a gay pride parade? Now, those cats can be vicious.
Toronto just had its gay pride a few weeks ago, but unfortunately I had to miss the party. I went to one gay couple's wedding, and their anniversary party every year is about the closest I get to the gay pride parades. But you're right — sometimes you'll get the very polite gay man who wants a picture with you and says, "I think you're cute." And then others just grope you [laughs].
We've all heard about the gay penguins, but have you identified homosexual behavior in lions or any other animals you've worked with?
There are definitely behaviors that we would look into. You know how a dog in a dog park will dry-hump another male? It's not so much gay as it is about domination. I've definitely seen male lions do that to each other — where they're like, "I'm going to show you who's boss and dry-hump you." I've never seen a male-male partnering where a female's been replaced with a male, but you see certain behaviors like that in any animal that has dominance in their social structure. If a big male elephant wants to show a younger male he's boss, he'll jump on his back and dry-hump him so he'll pay attention.
You've worked closely with lions and tigers. How familiar are you with the bear community?
Well, I started off as a bear scientist. My first degree was in bear behavior. But that's probably not the same community you're talking about [laughs].
So you tame wild animals and brave the wilderness. We get it, Dave — you're butch. Do you have any notable feminine qualities?
My family sees this side of me more than anybody, but since I was a kid, I've never been able to handle weddings or funerals. I was always the teariest one in the family. Because of my career, I'm always asked to give speeches at weddings, and I'm completely unable to get through them.
Finally, settle a hot topic that's up for much debate on various nature-lover's message boards: Could you kick the asses of wildlife TV personalities Jeff Corwin and Bear Grylls?
As a tag team, if they both had really big weapons, they might have a chance. Unfortunately for them, I actually have physical contact with 550-pound animals. And I don't think the two of them combined are 550 pounds. Nor do they have big claws and teeth.
Advocate.com, August 2009.