The first animal you think of when you go to a zoo is probably a lion. They’re known for their gorgeous manes, terrifying roars, and elegant stature. In the wild they are social creatures that roam the land in prides. There was one pride that consisted of 40 lions!

While everyone bows down to the alpha male lions, it’s the female lions who hunt for the pride and take care of their young. They are vicious and strong and will do anything to protect their pride.

Imagine what happens when a small dachshund pup is thrown into a lion’s enclosure. Surely the poor dog wouldn’t have a chance.

King of the Wild

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Lions are known as the kings of the wild thanks to their power, strength, and might roars. Seeing them in captivity may give us a different view of the ferocious animals, though. We can witness that lions are very similar to their distant relative, the house cat and aren’t as scary as one may have assumed.


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John Reinke is one of the few lucky people who get to play and handle large wildlife animals from when they are babies. He raised a tiger named Tony and a lion named Bonedigger from when they were just small cubs and left without parents. The three of them became an unconventional family. Then, John noticed something intriguing. If Tony became too rough when playing with John, Bonedigger would come to Tony’s side and growl at Tony.

Health Issues

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The lion cub was born with some health issues. His bones were metabolic, which meant they were more brittle and weaker than other lions. While other animals may not have made it to adulthood with the deformities and health issues Bonedigger had, he beat the odds.

A Terrifying Fall

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Bonedigger wasn’t the only one fighting through medical issues. In 1994, John decided to go bungee jumping. However, the something went wrong and John unexpectedly fell 55 feet and landed on a 6-inch metal spike. This resulted in both of his feet, back, and hip being broken.

Life-Altering News

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The doctors never expected John to walk again. Then came the news John dreaded the most; he had to amputate both of his legs. This opened John’s eyes. He realized that he wanted to help the world in any way he could. So, he decided to work with animals.


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John felt a special bond with Bonedigger because they both had medical issues to overcome. When Tony would get too rough and pull on John’s prosthetic legs, Bonedigger came to his rescue.

Growing Up

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Inevitably, the cubs started getting bigger and bigger with each passing day. They became too large for John to handle in his home, so he took them to the Wynnewood Animal Park in Oklahoma where they could roam and have the space they needed.


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While Tony was introduced to other tigers in the park, Bonedigger was put in his enclosure all by himself. He wasn’t fond of his new home. He would pace in his enclosure, wishing he had friends and other lions to play with.


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Four dachshund puppies roamed the park and acted as mascots. They would eat up any food guests may have dropped and taunt the parrots in the bird section. The group’s leader was a small, but mighty pup named Abby.

New Friends

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Just like the zoo’s visitor, the dogs loved looking at the animals. They were excited to see the new lion. They quickly welcomed Bonedigger into their family. This was very new to the lion. He wasn’t used to receiving all of this attention.

Joe Exotic

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Joe Exotic had over 32 years of experience working with large cats at the zoo. He noticed how uncomfortable Bonedigger was and made it his mission to make him feel at home.

Risky Decision

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Joe came up with a risky plan. He decided to bring Abby the dog into the lion’s enclosure. He kept her on a leash and hoped that the lion would warm up to her. Unfortunately, the Bonedigger was so afraid of the dog that he kept pulling away.

Bonedigger’s Reaction

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Joe requested that the keeper who was holding Bonedigger let go so the lion could make the decision to become friends with the pup or not on his own. Abby was excited to be near the lion and jumped around on her leash. Bonedigger stepped back from the dog and the keeper and tried out his mightiest roar. Though it came out to be more like a squeak, it was time to get Abby away from him.

Second Meeting

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Joe wanted to try his plan again. This time, Bonedigger seemed to be a little braver and approached the small dog. He towered over her and slowly lowered his head to sniff the little dog.

New Friends

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It was after this second meeting that Bonedigger approved of Abby. They let Abby off of her leash and she ran around the enclosure excitedly. To make Bonedigger feel at home, the keepers laid out some of his favorite toys. Abby noticed the toys and made her way towards them. To protect his possessions, the lion ran towards the toys. Abby playfully licked him on the nose.

Moving In Together

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After a little while of the dog and lion becoming friends, it was time to move them to a bigger space. The zoo moved Abby and Bonedigger to a larger enclosure and gave them beds next to each other. It also had a large platform where the lion and dog could look over the park.

A New Pride

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Knowing that lions needed to socialize, Joe decided to let the rest of the dachshunds into Bonedigger’s enclosure. It was the start to a new, unconventional, pride. The new dogs, Bullet, Angel, and Milo, were welcomed by Bonedigger and quickly became part of his pride.

Family Dinner

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The zoo keepers were amazed at how well the dogs and lion got along. They decided to try something else, feeding them together. They gave the dogs kibble and the lion raw meat. Abby, being the mischievous pup she was, started barking knowing that Bonedigger would come to see what was wrong. Once he left his food, she ran over to the meat and stole a steak! Luckily Bonedigger was willing to share.

Separation Anxiety

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Abby and Bonedigger formed an unbreakable bond. They were together all the time, cleaning each other’s fur and teeth. The lion hates to be away from his dog friends. When they leave, he sits and waits for them to return.

Learning About Each Other

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From spending so much time together, Bonedigger and Abby have taught each other new skills. Abby learned how to growl just like a lion while Bonedigger learned to understand Abby’s body language.

More Unlikely Friends

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Abby and Bonedigger aren’t the first unconventional friendship in the animal kingdom. One example is of a tiger, lion, and bear. The three friends can be found roaming around in Noah’s Ark Animal Sanctuary located in Georgia.

Life-Long Friends

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Baloo the bear, Shere Khan the tiger, and Leo the lion were all brought to Noah’s Ark in 2001. They were all rescued from an abusive owner who kept them in their basement. Through the healing process, the three formed an unbreakable bond and made them the most unlikely friends.


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As cubs, the animals were all mistreated by their owner. Shere Kahn was underweight and malnourished. Leo had an untreated wound on his nose. Baloo had a skin infection from being kept in a harness. Luckily, the cubs regained their health through treatments after being rescued.


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The unlikely group became known as BLT (bear, lion, tiger) by visitors and the zoo’s staff. They lived together for over 15 years. Sadly, Leo became ill and died in 2016.

Noah’s Ark

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While BLT may be the most well known group at Noah’s Ark, the sanctuary has over 1,500 rescued animals. They provide abused animals a permanent home where they are taken care of and live safe and good lives.

Sanctuary vs. Zoo

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What is the difference between a sanctuary and a zoo? One major difference is that zoos aim to make a profit from visitors while sanctuaries aim to make a difference and protect animals. Sanctuaries get their animals from rescuing them and keeping animals that won’t make it on their own in the wild. Zoos buy, trade, and breed their animals.

More Animal Lovers

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There are many more people like John Reinke in the world. Frikkie Von Solms from South Africa has taken care of a lion, Zion, for over 15 years. Solms took care of the lion cub when it was separated from his mother and father.


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Solms has raised over 19 lions, but has the best bond with Zion. He taught Zion to respect and appreciate people and to be gentle with them. Nobody has any reason to fear the lion.

Protecting People

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While there are plenty of stories about people protecting animals, there are some cases where animals protect people. In Ethiopia, a little girl was rescued from being kidnapped by three lions. Four men captured a 12-year-old girl on her way home from school.

Lions to the Rescue

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The four kidnappers were surprised by three lions chasing after them. They ran away in fear and the lions waited with the girl until the police arrived to take her home. This miraculous incident is just another example of how animals and humans can coexist in a loving and peaceful world.