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Blind date with a lion

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Posted: Sunday, December 4, 2005 9:03 pm | Updated: 9:15 am, Fri Oct 7, 2011.

asap goes backstage at 'Today' with lion tamer Dave Salmoni. Be a nice kitty...

Meeting a lion for the first time is sorta like a blind date.

"You gotta make sure you're wearing the right thing, smelling the right way," says lion tamer Dave Salmoni, a 30-year-old Canadian zoologist.

Salmoni has met many "big cats" -- as he affectionately calls lions, tigers and jaguars -- in his day. Over six months ago, he infiltrated a pride of wild lions in Africa, the subject of his Discovery Channel documentary "Into the Lion's Den" (premiering Dec. 4).

Removing the barrier between a human and the wild lions at the Thornybush Private Game Reserve in South Africa had never been attempted. Unlike the fate of bear tracker and "Grizzly Man" documentary subject Timothy Treadwell, Salmoni lived to tell the tale of walking with lions.

On Friday, the hunky zoologist forged onto the "Today" show set for a segment with a lion he's never met before. asap tagged along with Salmoni and rent-a-lion Katie -- not Couric -- for their on-air experience.

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8:12 a.m.: "Is that Al?" Salmoni asks as he enters the green room, looking up at the face of Al Roker on a TV monitor. The bubbly weatherman is presenting the lion tamer's segment, but Salmoni has never seen "Today" before. His morning routine usually consists of catching up on sports or hitting the gym when he's not out in the bush.

8:15 a.m.: It's makeup time. Salmoni receives some blush and lip gloss. He usually warns makeup artists to pay extra special attention to his various scars -- battle wounds from handling big cats. Although he doesn't have any kitties, Salmoni's got fresh marks on his hands from playing with his mentor's animals.

8:49 a.m.: Where in Manhattan is Katie? The 14-month-old lion, rented for this appearance, is being driven in from Virginia by trainer Donald Reinhardt. She's currently stuck in the Lincoln Tunnel. As Salmoni is discussing his experiences in the wild, a bearded Pierce Brosnan, on the show to discuss his new film "The Matador," walks by to get a cup of coffee.

9:08 a.m.: Katie -- not Couric -- has arrived. Salmoni treks downstairs to the backstage area. The lion's cage is quickly rolled in from an unassuming red van and plopped down between the "Today" prep kitchen and a table of prop holiday gifts. Reinhardt lets Katie out and serves her a bowl of raw meat. Salmoni comes over and strokes her back. If this were a blind date, it'd be a real snoozer. Katie's less interested in him than her breakfast.

9:13 a.m.: How surreal. Cathy "Peter Pan" Rigby flies in and begins snapping pictures of the lion.

9:20 a.m.: A lone head peeks from behind the giant door that leads to the "Today" set. It's Katie -- yes, Couric -- accompanied by a pride of "ooh"-ing and "here, kitty, kitty"-ing staff members. "Will the lion get upset if we come and look at her?" Couric asks meekly before squatting down next to the other Katie's cage. She also asks if she can touch the animal, but she's quickly met with a stern "no."

9:31 a.m.: Salmoni and Katie -- not Couric -- are called to the set. Although Salmoni's never seen "Today," Katie is a returning guest. During the duo's brief segment, Roker feeds the lion some meat on a stick. Oh, and Katie receives more close-ups than Salmoni.

9:41 a.m.: That's a wrap. Katie is returned to her cage, which is made of the same material as residential metal fences. But the pair aren't done yet. Turns out they're already going to have a second date -- on the Fox News Channel.

___

Derrik J. Lang is an asap reporter in New York. He's grrrreat.

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