Jeff Harwell grew up with a pronounced cat fancy that eventually led to a full-time career – cavorting with African lions, Siberian tigers and other fearsome felines at Out of Africa Wildlife Park in Camp Verde, Arizona.
For the past six years, the Texas-born lion-lover has entertained audiences as one of the zoo’s eight big cat “handlers.” The cats – which can top 600 pounds – respond to his playful provocations by pouncing, pawing and sometimes tackling the 185-pound Harwell, who has drawn national attention for his derring-do. In October, the 32-year-old performed his crowd-pleasing “tiger swim” on Good Morning America, which was followed by a stern finger-wagging from an industry expert who invoked Vegas mauling-victim Roy Horn and other exotic-animal cautionary tales.
Despite being caught up in a claw or two, Harwell says he has the utmost trust in his feline wards. Off-hours, he often kicks back with the cats, sometimes using the soft belly of a Bengal for a pillow.
When did you first discover your passion for these predatory animals?
I always had a calling to do this. I just got really blessed to get the opportunity to play out my dream job. For as long as I could remember, I’ve always been fascinated with the power and beauty of big cats. It’s weird. I remember as a little boy, crawling around acting like a jaguar, long past the appropriate age.
You started at the park cleaning habitats. Do you have any formal training as a handler?
It’s not something you can be taught because no one does this. Nothing can prepare you to swim with tigers. It’s something you have to do under the supervision of people you trust and hope it works out.
You are careful not to call yourself a “trainer.” Explain.
I’m a large carnivore handler, not a trainer, because we don’t train animals; they train us to work with them. You’ll never see any of us with a whip or a stick. Our defense against our animals is our relationship with them. We are very unusual. We are one of the most hands-on facilities in the world.
Describe one of the games you play with the cats in the show.
Sometimes I shake my rear at the tiger and take off running and turn around in time for the tiger to knock me over and tackle me. It’s pretty crazy to do this with a tiger. The animals have to really care about me, so I am constantly honing my relationship with them. The stronger my relationship with the tiger, the safer I am.
And sometimes they scratch?
I’ve gotten my share of scratches, but I have never been intentionally hurt. My biggest scar is on my knee, but I have scars everywhere, on each leg, each arm, and the back of my chest. I have two bite marks on my right arm, but I can tell if a cat is biting; these came when the cats were just playing.
Do you think an animal will inevitably some day turn on you, as some experts claim?
No more than a car crash. If you do anything long enough, there are potential dangers that will surface. Everything has its risks and rewards. But I don’t believe it will happen. We have had no major injuries here in 19 years, but it’s definitely a concern.
Is there purpose behind your work besides putting on a fun show?
One hundred years ago, there were 100,000 tigers in the wild. Now we’re down to 3,200. This is mainly from poaching and habitat loss. People don’t care about what they don’t know. At Out of Africa, we have an amazing platform to educate people and spark a desire to help and channel that desire to an organization like World Wildlife Fund. They do amazing work. It’s a privilege to help these majestic, powerful animals.
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