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Meet the man who turns big cats into movie stars

By Saskya Vandoorne, CNN
updated 7:25 AM EST, Fri February 22, 2013
  • Frenchman Thierry Le Portier has been training big cats for the past 49 years
  • Three of his tigers were used as references for the Oscar-nominated film "Life of Pi"
  • Le Portier says training is "an art" that takes time and an understanding of the animals
  • He says the only animals that scare him are those that have been made "exotic pets"

Editor's note: As a teenager Thierry Le Portier dreamed of one day owning big cats. Pumas, lions, leopards and tigers -- he wanted one of each. Nearly half a century later and Le Portier's remote farm in the west of France boasts over 60 animals, the majority of which are not only big cats, they're movie stars too. CNN paid the big cat-tamer turned Hollywood agent to animals a visit in his home town in Nantes, France.

(CNN) -- For the past 49 years French animal trainer, Thierry Le Portier, 63, has been a calm handler of wild felines. Growing up he had originally wanted to be a gym teacher, but after catching a glimpse of a lion tamer during a trip to the zoo in Marseille, Le Portier decided to give up his hobbies -- rugby and judo -- to spend every free afternoon watching the tamer at work.

On his 17th birthday, Le Portier was finally given the opportunity he had patiently been waiting for when before the show began, as the lights dimmed, the trainer surprised the teenager by forcing him on to center stage.

"He grabbed me by the shoulders, pushed me in the cage just before a show with a lioness and said, "go!" And I did the whole show," he said.

The show was so successful that Le Portier was confident he had found his vocation and was soon touring Europe with his act. So remarkable was his skill that Italian director Pier Paolo Pasolini called on the talented young tamer for a scene involving a lion in his 1974 film "Arabian Nights."

Ang Lee surrenders to 'Movie Gods'
Ang Lee's 'unusual' 'Life of Pi'

Le Portier quickly became a specialist of big-cat scenes and after Pasolini came other famous screen directors such as Jean-Jacques Annaud with "Two Brothers," Ridley Scott with "Gladiator," and more recently Ang Lee with "Life of Pi," which stars a digital tiger.

The trainer -- along with his three tigers -- was flown out to Taiwan for four months and filmed extensively for reference. During this time he developed a close bond with the film's director.

"Every time we went somewhere [film producer] David Womack called me the quality control and Ang Lee would say 'and inspiration,'" Le Portier said.

Read more: Director finished film using phone

Le Portier believes he and Lee struck up a close friendship because of a shared work ethic.

"I work with tigers for the same reason Ang Lee is in the movie business: because we can't do anything else."

It's this passion for taming which makes Le Portier arguably the best animal trainer in the world. When talking about his work, his whole body becomes animated.

"Training is an art; it takes time and an understanding of the animal you are with."

Read more: 'Life of Pi' is bold and wondrous

Le Portier doesn't use food as a means of enticing the animal, or a whip to control it. He simply uses his brain.

"You don't train with physical abuse because he's so strong, it's a mental arm-wrestle," he explained. "It's a real psychology, mental manipulation."

In fact, Le Portier said he was only scared of one type of animal, the kind which has been raised by humans as an exotic "pet," the one that "looks dead behind the eyes." Le Portier believes these are prowling "time bombs." He warns that one day their natural instincts flood back and without warning they turn aggressive -- these wild animals were never made to be patted.

"I'm not meant to be his friend; you are never his real friend. You have to intimidate him," Le Portier said.

Read more: What's the buzz on 'Life of Pi'?

In the cage Le Portier is the boss. But even just a few lapses of concentration in the past have cost him dearly, and he has the scars to prove it.

Director Jean-Jacques Annaud believes Le Portier's job could one day cost him his life.

"Whenever Thierry confronts a wild animal, he risks his life. I think he secretly hopes to die taming, as Molière died acting, in the exercise of his art."

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