The call of the wild turned into a TV career for Dave Salmoni. Although currently holding forth as host of the Mark Burnett-produced series Expedition Impossible, the rugged native of Sarnia, Ont., is better known for his exploits with the animal kingdom.
Salmoni studied zoology at Laurentian University before he took the position of animal trainer at the Bowmanville Zoo, east of Toronto. In 1999, he was midway through a demonstration for students when a 500-pound male African lion named Bongo unexpectedly sprung at him and fastened his massive jaws on his arm. Salmoni survived the attack and a few months later accepted the offer of training two captive-bred Bengal tigers to survive in the wilds of Africa. The experiment became the Discovery Channel series Living with Tigers, which Salmoni followed by hosting the documentary cable series Rogue Nature, After the Attack and Savaged.
On Expedition Impossible, Salmoni is both tour guide and mentor for 13 three-person teams navigating their way through exotic Morocco. He spoke to The Globe and Mail last week in Toronto.
What exactly is your role on Expedition Impossible?
I'm inviting people on this adventure with me and I'm sort of an authority figure to the people going on this expedition. I can speak from experience because I've been through these types of situations before and I can offer advice. It's a tightrope.
Does personal attitude factor into the fortunes of each three-member team?
Personality is probably the most important part. When you look at everybody at the start line, you can guess who's going to do the best physically, but the people who get along the best are the ones who succeed. The people who argue with each other, no matter how fit they are, it's just not going to work.
How do you guarantee the safety of contestants?
You can't. These people were told at the very beginning they were responsible for their own safety. We had safety people there, of course, but the fact is you can't stop someone from falling off the edge of a cliff. You can only warn them.
How involved is Mark Burnett in making the show?
He's integral to the process. There's a reason why Mark Burnett is so successful. He knows what people want to watch and he understands how to build the best human drama. During shooting you never forget it's a Mark Burnett show. And if you do, a helicopter flies overhead and you're reminded of it.
Is it true you first ventured into the woods at age seven?
That's true, but not alone, of course (laughs). I was one of those kids who didn't take rules very well. The bush was the place where there were really no rules. Unless you die, you're doing it right.
Did you have a lot of pets as a kid?
No more than the average kid. Dogs and cats like everybody else. Certainly no big exotic animals
Was Bowmanville Zoo your entry point into the exotic animal world?
That was the first place I really got hands-on. I went to university because I wanted to party, but I got into zoology because I was interested in animals. So when I graduated I wanted to go to a place to get hands-on with animals. The Bowmanville Zoo offered me the opportunity to be an animal trainer and that's how it all started.
Was there a lesson learned when you were attacked by Bongo in 1999?
Bongo taught me how amazing a relationship with an animal could be. He really was the best-natured animal I've ever worked with, but he had one last lesson to teach me. He came for me and nearly killed me. I survived it, obviously, but it taught me this animal was willing to kill me if I made a mistake. That's the number-one lesson any trainer working with dangerous animals needs to learn: complacency will get you killed.
In working with animals, have there been occasions when you've feared for your life?
Fear is not something my body does well. In most situations where fear should be kicking in, I just get really focused. One time I was surrounded by a herd of elephants that had already killed five people - we were there to find out why - and I knew we were in trouble. We were getting threats from the dominant female. My body just went into extreme focus. Then suddenly she realized we weren't a threat and let us go. Afterward it scared the hell out of me.
Are you comfortable with your new-found celebrity status?
Celebrity is a difficult thing to understand. More people recognize me now. Every so often someone wants a picture or autograph, which is really flattering. But I've been in TV for 10 years now and I don't feel like fame factors into my daily life. If I was a 115-pound pop star, I might worry about people rushing me, but I'm 220 pounds and I know how to fight off lions. I just smile and enjoy it.
Are you game for a second season of Expedition Impossible?
I really want to do another season. This is the biggest, most epic show ever shot for TV. The only problem is I don't know where we could go that could possibly top Morocco. I don't know of anywhere else that could live up to it.
This interview has been condensed and edited.
Expedition Impossible airs Thursdays at 9 p.m. on ABC and CTV.