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WYNNEWOOD - Former professional bungee jumper John Reinke gave up his risky profession.

Now he sleeps with a lion.

The lion named “Bonedigger” settles a little unsteadily into Reinke’s bed each night.. The lion typically tucks his golden Mohawk-topped head against the zookeeper's chest and rolls over to get his belly rubbed.

The crippled lion and the legless man eventually drift off to sleep together.

"He won't hurt me because I've been with him from day one," Reinke said.

"You do have to keep your guard up. You've always got to remember that they are natural stalkers."

It's something the 135-pound Reinke can't afford to forget about the 120-pound lion. After a bungee jumping accident, the 43-year-old park manager must walk on steel prosthetic legs as he cares for the large cats and other rescued wildlife at the G.W. Exotic Animal Park.

His special charge is 1-year-old Bonedigger. Reinke and the lion were brought together by tragedies that happened years apart.

Tony, a cub tiger, looks out of a pen at the G.W. Exotic Animal Park south of Pauls Valley
Tony, a cub tiger, looks out of a pen at the G.W. Exotic Animal Park south of Pauls Valley

A helping hand

G.W. Exotic Animal Park is launching a new way to donate to the park.

Cold weather and a decline in visitors have resulted in a 70 percent decline in donations at G.W. Exotic Animal Park, said park director Joe Schreibvogel.

The ice storm knocked out power for 1 1/2 days and destroyed bamboo and cedar trees.

Schreibvogel said they relied on generators to supply warmth to the primates that can't live in cooler than 45 degree temperatures.

The park was already struggling to pay its $2,000 November electricity bill. Additionally, the park has been asked to accept 23 more tigers and 64 primates, mostly from small parks and zoos that have shut down, he said. But the park can't accept more big cats until there's space for them. Plans to build new pens for the animals have halted because there isn't enough money to buy construction materials, he said.

"If we could just get 8,000 people to donate $10, these animals will be safe for the rest of the year," Schreibvogel said.

To donate to the park, text "GWPARK" from your cell phone, enter 85944 and reply with "yes" when you receive a confirmation text back.

'Bonedigger', an ailing lion being tended to by John Reinke, park manager  at the G.W. Exotic Animal Park south of Pauls Valley
'Bonedigger', an ailing lion being tended to by John Reinke, park manager at the G.W. Exotic Animal Park south of Pauls Valley

The first accident

Reinke was a bungee jumper helping friends test a bungee jumping ride in April 1994 in Burkburnett, Texas. A pulley malfunctioned, sending Reinke tumbling 55 feet. He bounced, crushed both legs and landed on a 6-inch metal stake that pierced his colon and stomach. He was bleeding heavily, motionless but able to speak.

"I kept asking them to get my wife, Kristi, but they wouldn't. If they had I don't think I'd be here today," he said.

"I was ready to tell her goodbye."

Reinke became so swollen that when his wife first saw him in Wichita General Hospital, she didn't recognize him. Doctors put him into a drug-induced coma for eight days and performed surgery to save his life.

"When I came to, they told me I'd never walk again. I said I thought I'd probably learn," Reinke said.

"They pretty much tell you that your life is over. That wasn't me."

Surgeons began the first of 20-some surgeries on his feet and legs.

"I asked them to cut them off," Reinke said. "The bone infection made me so sick."

For about 1 ½ years, Reinke had to use a wheelchair until he learned to walk again through a rehabilitation program by Dallas Rehabilitation Institute. But in 2006, OU Medical Center surgeons had to remove his left leg. Reinke learned to walk with his left prosthetic leg and his right leg partially supported by a cadaver heel placed inside his foot. And life went on.

Serendipity

In 2006, Reinke, his wife and two sons noticed the animal park just off Interstate 35 on the way to Oklahoma City during spring break. They stopped and a rescued grizzly bear, Ozzie, caught Reinke's eye and, eventually, his heart. Over the next three years, Reinke drove back virtually every Sunday to the park where Ozzie gave him kisses and high-fives in exchange for Ding-Dongs and swigs of Mountain Dew. Reinke bought the grizzly a swimming pool, built him a house and other gifts.

When a manager left in early 2007, Reinke didn't hesitate when park director Joe Schreibvogel asked if he wanted to pick up some additional volunteer work and move to the park.

"It's amazing what all he does. I could never replace him. Never," Schreibvogel said.

Reinke began sharing a two-bedroom house in the park with six other volunteers, four dogs, two monkeys and a menagerie of cubs that need regular bottle-feeding. Reinke's wife and sons remain in Texas but drive in to visit him every weekend.

“ It's Not everybody that gets to sleep with a lion at night. ”
>>> John Reinke

Misfortune strikes again

Reinke enjoys taking care of each of the 500 animals, including the 187 big cats. When a male cub was born 11 months ago with a crippling calcium deficiency, Reinke happily began the 3 to 4 hour bottle feedings. Reinke named him Bonedigger because it just seemed to fit him.

Bonedigger eventually graduated from bottles of kitten milk replacement to a daily calcium-building meal of about 3 pounds of raw beef or chicken, plus milk and half-a-dozen whole eggs. At just a few months old, he graduated from the crib to Reinke's bed.

"It's not everybody that gets to sleep with a lion at night," Reinke said.

While Reinke worked at caring for Bonedigger, Ozzie the grizzly, Tony the tiger and others, his sickness and pain increased.

Last September, OU Medical Center had to amputate Reinke's right leg. But he was back at work in 10 days, walking on gleaming high-tech metal legs built by Scott Sabolich Prosthetics and Research in Oklahoma City.

John Reinke, park manager at the G.W. Exotic Animal Park, stands in a pen while 'Bonedigger', an ailing lion, plays at his feet. Reinke enjoys taking care of each of the 500 animals, including the 187 big cats.
John Reinke, park manager at the G.W. Exotic Animal Park, stands in a pen while 'Bonedigger', an ailing lion, plays at his feet. Reinke enjoys taking care of each of the 500 animals, including the 187 big cats.

Will work for love

One recent day, Reinke sat on the ground and Bonedigger made a low noise between a growl and a meow, and then crawled into his lap. Like a big kitten, the lion pressed his head against Reinke's chest and closed his eyes.

"Nobody else can do that," Schreibvogel said, as he watched the two from outside a fence. "He'll snarl at other people."

He noted that lion and man have an imperfect walk.

"They say animals sense things," he said. "I swear to God that animal knows John is crippled. They have a connection."

And Reinke's connection to the wild animals continues uninterrupted seven days a week, with most days beginning about 6 a.m. with a cub's squeal from the crib and ending about 6 p.m. When he isn't feeding or welding or helping with health care, he's just visiting the creatures.

Bonedigger and 4-month-old Tony the tiger stay together in a pen outside Reinke's house during the day. Reinke left the two in their pen and walked with a slight limp down a row of huge pens holding big cats.

"Trey! Trey!" he shouted.

A large, noble-looking lion with a full mane jumped up, swatted open a gate, ran to the front of the pen and plopped his head, puppy-like, against the fence so Reinke could scratch behind his ears.

At each cage, Reinke shared stories about the animals: Trey has an overbite, the plump donkeys were scrawny when they first arrived, the hyenas just learning to laugh sound like giggling teenagers.

"He works just because he loves the animals," Schreibvogel said. "He doesn't get one red penny. Not one penny."

More about the Animals

Siberian brown bears rescued by local sheriffs

>>>These Siberian brown bears had no food or water and were locked in cages inside a moving van in heat exceeding 100 degrees. Sheriff's deputies found them when they answered a domestic disturbance call in McClain County. The three bears were severely malnourished and dehydrated but are now healthy and living at G.W. Exotic Animal Park.

male african lion, Mufassa

>>>This young male African lion, Mufasa, was kept in a wood gazebo in Arkansas and controlled with shots from a b-b gun. After the underweight lion was rescued, workers dug 172 pellets out of his hide. “Moo” is now thriving at the animal park.

The black Leopard, Baghera was rescued from Ardmore

>>>This black leopard, Baghera, was confiscated by the Carter County sheriff's office from its owner in Ardmore. He and his mate had been abandoned with no food or water. When deputies arrived, the leopard had eaten half of the wood house he slept in inside a makeshift pen. The female leopard had died and Baghera survived by eating her remains. The leopard has calmed down since arriving at G.W. Exotic Animal Park. But park manager John Reinke said Baghera continues to treat every meal as if it were his last.

“ He works just because he loves the animals. He doesn't get one red penny. Not one penny.”
>>> Joe Schreibvogal
G.W. Exotic Animal park director talking about John Reinke
'Bonedigger', an ailing lion being tended to by John Reinke, park manager  at the G.W. Exotic Animal Park south of Pauls Valley.
'Bonedigger', an ailing lion being tended to by John Reinke, park manager at the G.W. Exotic Animal Park south of Pauls Valley.

Grab life by the jaws

Katie Allen, 21, said she's learned a lot about wild animals since she first started working with Reinke about three months ago. She's learned to be cautious, knows not to push big cats and to watch out if a grizzly bear flattens its ears.

But she said she's learned bigger lessons from the man who walks on two metal rods and enjoys an uncanny connection with the animals.

"Watching him, I've learned nothing can hold you back. Don't let anything keep you down," Allen said.

Reinke said he's never been scared by the wild animals and they've become vital to his life. He said he would probably die if he didn't have the animals.

But what if the worst happens? Reinke said he's aware there are incidents of long relationships between wild animals and owners that ended in a mauling or death.

"That's a risk you take working around 180 cats. You never know when it's your time. But if I died, I would die doing something I loved," Reinke said. "I hope it doesn't happen that way."

• Photos by Jim Beckel, Staff Photographer •