Steve Sipek, aka Steve Hawkes, appeared in two Spanish Tarzan films directed by Manuel Cano – Tarzan and the Golden Grotto and Tarzan and the Brown Prince, as well as the cult film Blood Freak. He suffered horrendous burns after an accident during the filming of Brown Prince and only escaped with his life thanks to the intervention of a lion(!). Anyway, he now runs an animal sacntuary in Florida called Jungleworld, and was in the news a couple of years ago, as reported on the Guardian.
“As an animal lover, Steve Sipek was distraught when his pet cat went missing. He searched under bushes and roamed the woods calling Bobo’s name, while neighbours checked their garages and gardens. Distraught as he was, Sipek was hopeful that Bobo would ultimately come home safely. However, he did not, causing a public outcry so intense that forensic experts have been called in to investigate, so ugly that men have been left in fear for their lives.
Bobo, it should be pointed out, was no ordinary cat and Sipek no regular owner. Now 62, Sipek played the role of Tarzan in several films more than 30 years ago and in 1970 was saved from a burning movie set by a lion named Sampson, a favour he has repaid by caring for big cats at his ramshackle Florida home ever since.
Among these felines was Bobo, a 600lb (270 kg) tiger with “a heart of gold”, a habit of sucking on Sipek’s thumb like a baby and, judging by his escape last week, a curiosity about the world beyond the five-acre compound in which he lived. As in the old saying, however, it was curiosity that killed the cat. After 26 hours on the run, a wildlife officer shot Bobo dead with five bullets to the head.
Public fury over the demise of Tarzan’s tiger has reached “only in America” proportions. “Now people are calling us murderers,” says Willie Puz, spokesman for the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, which has received almost 700 emails and telephone calls since Bobo’s death, the majority of them uncomplimentary and some bearing death threats.
As a precaution, the identity of the officer who fired the deadly shots has not been revealed. He has had counselling to help him cope. His colleagues have been menaced on the streets and in petrol stations by angry protesters, prompting the commission to order its employees to leave their distinctive khaki uniforms at home this week and come to work in civvies instead. “We fear for the lives of some of our officers,” admits Puz, who has suffered his share of abuse, taking a call from one woman who suggested he should be strung up from a tree.
The tale of Tarzan and his tiger is as surreal as it is tragic. On Monday, just as Sipek was beginning to emerge from the shellshock caused by what he insists on calling the “murder” of his tiger, his home burned down due to an electrical fault. For the second time in his life, he found himself trapped by flames with a lion, Stefanie. The pair escaped at the last minute by hurling themselves together through a window. “I just wonder if the Devil came to pay me a visit and is refusing to leave,” pondered Sipek, still clearly dazed, as he stood amid the ashes. “First my Bobo, now my home.”
Born in communist Croatia, Sipek moved to Canada at the age of nine. He developed a love of animals and a fascination with the stories of Tarzan, the 1912 creation of Edgar Rice Burroughs. After moving to America to pursue an acting career, Sipek was thrilled when at the age of 27 he landed the role of his jungle hero. “That was always my dream from the time I was a boy,” he says.
Performing under the screen name Steve Hawkes, the 1969 film Tarzan King of the Jungle was his first. Johnny Weissmuller, whose 1932-1948 portrayals of Tarzan are considered classics, was impressed, calling Sipek the best-looking of them all.
It was on October 31 1970, while filming a second movie, Tarzan and the Brown Prince, that Sipek almost lost his life. During the shooting of a scene in which Tarzan had been tied down to be tortured, some spilled fuel ignited. The crew scattered, leaving Sipek tethered to two iron stakes at the centre of the flames. Tied to his arm on the end of a long rope was Sampson, a lion trained to rush to his rescue and rip off the restraints when given the cue.
“As the fire came towards me, I pulled hard on the rope and Sampson came charging in,” recalls Sipek. “He pulled off the rope and dragged me out and my life changed for ever. I said that if I lived, I would care for any animal that needed me.”
Sipek, however, suffered extensive burns and spent the next five years undergoing 45 skin-graft operations. When money ran low to pay his medical bills, he starred in a bizarre B-movie called Blood Freak, about a Vietnam veteran who turns into a vampire turkey. It was, he admits, “a sad chapter in my life”.
Sipek has faded into relative obscurity since his acting days, setting up home in rural Loxahatchee, 15 miles west of the glitzy enclave of Palm Beach. Over the decades he has adopted more than 50 big cats including Sampson, who lived for 23 years. Some were rescued from abusive owners or zoos. He now has just five – a tiger called Princess, a cougar named Missy, Oko, the leopard and two lions, Elvis and Stefanie. Bobo, bought from a dealer, arrived six years ago as a cub.
“I’m the closest thing to Tarzan there is,” says Sipek proudly. “I love those animals on a scale no man can measure. I radiate something different to ordinary men.” He would take Bobo on drives in his truck “right until that beautiful cat couldn’t fit in the seat no more. He loved to drive with me.”
The animals even take precedence in his affections over his son Stephen, 38. “I once said to my son, ‘I’m sorry, but I don’t love you as much as my Bobo,’” he explains unabashed, bending to embrace Princess, who purrs and licks his face. “I haven’t seen my son in five years.”
Few outside the local community even knew of the ex-Tarzan star and his big cats, though visitors to his compound might have found clues in the signs “Trespassers will be eaten” and “Beware: Tiger in office” hanging on the walls. Since Bobo’s death hit the headlines, however, people have been flocking to pay their respects. Some have even been treated to Tarzan’s trademark yodel as Sipek greets them at his gates.
Suddenly people saw in Sipek a real-life Lord of the Jungle who had forged a unique bond with wild beasts, a man who bathed with tigers in his swimming pool, slept with lions in his bed and rejected the playboy lifestyle his movie money could have bought him in order to keep them all in steak.
Bobo’s demise has received more coverage in the local newspaper, the Palm Beach Post, than that of a three-year-old who died last week when his father left him in a car in killer temperatures. The Post has opened an online book of condolence – for the tiger.
Sipek questions why the wildlife officer had apparently crept up on Bobo, who was resting in woodland 400 yards from home, when the plan was to wait for a sharpshooter with a tranquilliser gun. Even Carol Pistilli, whose skull was fractured when Bobo clamped her head in his jaws during an incident in 2002, joined crowds outside his home for a candlelit vigil, demanding answers. So fervent is the outcry that Bobo’s body was sent 200 miles north to “neutral territory” for the postmortem. Forensic experts plotted the trajectory of the bullet wounds and the scene of the shooting was treated like a crime scene.
The incident has resurrected a public debate – also aired last October when Las Vegas illusionist Siegfried Fischbacher was mauled by one of his performing tigers – on the perils of keeping wild animals. “It doesn’t matter how the cat was reared or treated in its home. There is a point where its predatory instincts take over, and human life and property are in clear and present danger,” says Rodney Barreto, chairman of the Florida wildlife commission, which has also received praise for shooting Bobo.
The letters pages of state newspapers are awash with people’s views. So too is an internet chat-room dedicated to the subject. “This man and his wild animals are a threat,” raged one web posting. “Next time, we might hear about a child that was attacked,” trembles another.
The commission is in despair over how to cool tensions and Sipek has appealed for calm. “It ain’t right that there’s death threats,” he says. “They murdered my Bobo, but another killing won’t bring him back.””