Bella fixes me in her gaze and I become lost in the dark pools of her eyes. There is less than a yard between me and the Bengal tiger lazing in her enclosure, with only welded wire mesh between us.
Then she licks her lips. “You can never prepare yourself for your first encounter with a tiger,” said Steve Nicholls, the CEO of the Lincolnshire Widlife Park. “You get a lump in your throat and become totally immersed with them.
“Then you realise they hate you and want to eat you.”
Only Steve is allowed to touch the fence that divides us, and as he does Bella snuggles up close enough for him to tickle her ears.
It’s a special bond between man and beast that has grown from working with them every day from sunrise to well after many people’s bedtime. Since the first tigers arrived at the wildlife park four and a half years ago - changing what had been a parrot sanctuary forever, Steve has devoted his life to learning everything he can about them - and in turn raise awareness of why mankind should do everything they can to protect them.
That opportunity arrived for the park which is run as a charity on Sunday, International Tiger Day. Hundreds of families turned out for a day of fun activities and to see the 11 tigers who live there - making it the biggest collection in the UK..
It’s a chilling fact that one per cent of the world’s tigers now live in Friskney.
“When you hear the stories of what is happening with tigers then you can get your head around justifying why I can keep them in captivity. They are the most iconic creatures on the planet but they are an endangered species - would you believe the latest thing is tiger wine?
“All of our tigers were once the possession of a human - none of them have experienced what it is like to live in their natural environment.
“What we endeavour to give them is luxury - and that includes everything from where they live and exercise to what we feed them.”
Their £1.2m enclosure, features underfloor heating in the living area and is kept at a temperature of 14-18C.
The meat they are fed is fit for human consumption at a cost of £700 a week - a standard maintained throughout the wildlife park.
For Steve it is almost a 24/7 labour of love, his day beginning at 5.30am and ending at 10.30pm. He has three full-time staff to help with feeding and the rotation from inside to outside enclosures every one and a half hours.
“Tigers are naturally a solitary animal and it’s only by working with them that we know which are happy to be together and the ones we need to keep apart,” said Steve.
Their natural instincts kick in when it is time for the next rotation - and tigers begin pacing along the length on the inside enclosure with its separate living areas that can be shut off if required.
“During the hot weather they hated it. We put them out and they were at the door lining up to come back in.”
Nine year old Emma Wheatley of Horncastle was busy telling mum and dad Sharon and Robert all about it when I caught up with them in the cafe.
It was her birthday and the trip to the wildlife park was a special treat to celebrate.
“Tigers are my favourite things, “ she said, showing me her t-shirt. “We had to come with it being International Tiger Day and saw three. It’s been really good.”
As well as an opportunity to see tigers, the wildlife park hosted special displays of birds of prey, reptiles, circus performers with Mr Fips, Theatre with Gary Starr and face painting. In addition, families could wander around the sanctuary’s collection of birds, mammals and reptiles.