National Geographic : 1997 Jun
By CATHY NEWMAN NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC SENIOR WRITER Photographs by KAREN KUEHN HAVE ALWAYS been wary of cats, and now, walking alongside a 500-pound African black-maned lion, I know why. They remind me there is something higher on the food chain. Josef, the lion beside me, is trained. "The best lion in the business," his owner, Charlie Sammut, says, beam ing. Josef has starred as the MGM lion and posed for Disney animators for The Lion King. Josef is a big-time Hollywood cat. But Josef is not tame. No big cat ever is, a difficult fact to ignore as we climb the hills of the Salinas Valley ranch Josef calls home. He strides with the fluidity of unfurling silk. Deliberately-not an ounce of tentative in each footfall. "Cats don't rent; they own," it is said. Lions own everything in sight. As we walk, I hear a low rumble of growl. Does Josef grumble? Perhaps he knows he is not working for union scale today. This stroll is a favor to an inquisitive journalist. We stop at the crest of a hill, and Josef pushes his face in my lap. I've had house cats greet me that way. At Charlie's behest he rolls on his side and lets me stroke a cloud of mane as fragrant as dried grass. Then Charlie flicks a piece of meat in front of Josef. Snap, swallow, gone. Another grum ble. Clearly it is time to head home. As I stand in front of Josef's cage, chatting with Charlie, the big cat turns his back on me, lifts his tail, and sprays me smack in the face. "You might want to wash up," Charlie says, adding that I'm not the first visitor to get such a soaking from Josef. "It's his way of getting attention." Amazed to meet a prehistoricpredatoron the Walk of Fame, a Hollywood residentgets a close up look at Smilodon fatalis, the sabertooththat dominated the Californialandscape10,000 years before movie moguls arrived.Modeled on La Brea tar pits fossils, the skeleton is life-size.