'Shoot the lions if they start eating the actors'

Hampden resident Peter Whitehead kept himself busy during lockdown by making predator traps for...
Hampden resident Peter Whitehead kept himself busy during lockdown by making predator traps for Penguin Rescue. Photo: Gus Patterson
From shooting man-eating hippos and training lions to "act", to protecting endangered penguins from predators, North Otago man Peter Whitehead has covered a lot in his 97 years.

During the Covid-19 lockdown, Mr Whitehead set himself a task of making traps, targeting predators such as rats, ferrets and stoats, for Penguin Rescue.

So far, the Hampden resident has made 85 of them – and his efforts have been getting results. The traps have already killed more than 100 predators.

Not a trap-maker by trade, Mr Whitehead wanted to lend his skills to local projects like Penguin Rescue, so he took a prototype of a trap and started building.

It is not the first time Mr Whitehead has taught himself how to do something.

In 1966, he helped train lions for the movie Born Free, despite having no lion-training experience, when the production crew was having trouble getting the animals to perform on camera.

Born Free was released in 1966 to audience and critical acclaim. Image: Supplied
Born Free was released in 1966 to audience and critical acclaim. Image: Supplied

Mr Whitehead, who had been working on set under the instruction "shoot the lions if they start eating the actors", helped source more lion talent and taught the animals how to "act".

"If you wanted the lions to be active, you didn’t feed them, and if you wanted them to be docile, you fed them," he said.

Luckily, he did not need to shoot any rogue lions, and the movie went on to be an international success.

But lion training is just one of many adventures Mr Whitehead has packed into his life.

Born in Shanghai to British cotton trader parents, Mr Whitehead moved to Australia under the child migration scheme and later served in World War 2.

Returning to Australia after the war, he felt the "call" of Africa, where he spent the most of the next 50 years working in various jobs, including as a safari guide and professional hunter.

One of his first jobs was as a park ranger. He vividly recalls an early task of dealing with an aggressive man-eating hippo that was troubling local villagers at a nearby river.

He gradually moved into the safari industry, and at one point was managing the largest safari company in Africa, with clients that ranged from Greek shipping barons to Boston gangsters.

"I don’t think there are many safari companies left now," he said.

"It’s a bygone era."

Four years ago, he moved to Hampden to be closer to his daughter, who lives in Moeraki.

After moving around for almost a century, it was nice to have a place to settle down, he said.

And there was only one place he would go from Hampden, he said, pointing skyward.

"Or down there," he laughed.

He was happy to lend his skills to local projects such as Penguin Rescue.

"I’ve always wanted a workshop to potter around with no stress.

"All the main interests I’ve had have been over a large scale.

"One didn’t spend time at home – and this is the first opportunity one has had to live and go to bed in the same place."

And if you ask him the secret to living a long and active life, his answer is simple – "breathing".

 

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