Matchmaker lions: How a group of cubs brought couple together
By Daily Mail Reporter
Last updated at 11:34 PM on 12th October 2010
As first dates go wrestling, swimming and walking with 15 stone lion cubs might seem somewhat unusual.
But for one couple this unlikely start to their relationship has seen love blossom as they work to return a group of lion cubs to the wild.
Michelle Looij and Ben Nieuwenhuls, both 23, have managed to combine their love of lions with that for each other and, after meeting nine months ago, are now engaged.
Matchmaker: The lions cubs of the Ukutula Lion Park and Lodge have bought Michelle and Ben together, and the couple are now engaged
The couple met at Ukutula Lion Park and Lodge in South Africa's North West Province, and spend their days guiding lions through the thick South African bush.
The pair specialise in caring for the rare white lions and are deeply committed to the conservation of their deadly, but immensely cute, charges.
'Ben acts like their leader and dominates them slightly,' said Michelle.
'They look to him and he is so good at dictating how the play they engage in develops.
'Of course there is danger as they never lose their instinct and I must admit that sometimes when one of them jumps up in the water I get slightly scared. I don't think Ben does.'
On their tail: The couple walk three of 'The Gremlins' as part of their daily routine, which they hope will see them re-introduced to the wild
The group of 15 month old lions, named Kash, Bella, Cherry and Sammy, which the couple affectionately call 'The Gremlins' dominate their daily schedule.
'We wake early to feed the lions their morning feed of chickens,' said Ben, a South African national.
'It is important to re-introduce ourselves to them in the morning through a bit of plight play.
'After they have eaten they are taken on a morning walk around 9am during which we stop to climb trees and to play around in the water.
'This is important to enrich their lives and to plan for the possibility that one day they will be re-introduced back into the wild.
Sleeping beauties: The cubs are so used to the couple they can play and rest with them, but they are always wary of the dangers
'They need to know that they might one day have to recover a hippo carcass from the water and which trees are the right ones to climb.'
Removing the cubs from their parents at two weeks old, the young lions are dependent on the natural affinity their human carers have for them.
'I grew up fishing, trekking and camping in the bush,' said Ben.
'I came to work with lions and fell in love at first sight and now work full time at Ukuttula, where of course I met Michelle.
'There is a bond between the animals that I care for and myself, it is rewarding work and enriching for them and me.'
Paws at the ready: The lion cubs wrestle in the water
Each of the lions that Ben and Michelle care for has their own unique character and just like their keepers they have their good days and bad days.
'We are just like any other couple in that we have up and down days,' said Michelle.
'Ben is better at the larger older groups of lions and I prefer to work with smaller ones.
'These lions are our passion and our love and it is also fortunate that I came here to work as a volunteer.
'Otherwise I wouldn't have met Ben.'