Lion tamer Shandor Larenty doesn’t fear working with majestic lions, what he fears more is working with humans! Honesty is a trait that he loves about animals. Read on to know about his passion and his dream job.
Words By: Samreen Khoja
Photography By: shandor larenty
It is often said that dogs are a man’s best friend, but for Shandor Larenty, it is an enormous male lion called George. So, when I came across his profile on instagram, I was left speechless. Videos of him giving a belly rub to a lion... A LION, nuzzling cheetas and matching outfits with a Zebra left me baffled. Various questions came to my mind, ‘how does he do it?’ ‘Isn’t he scared?’ ‘How does he make patting a lion so easy, as it were patting a dog?’ So here he is, giving me all the answers, talking about his journey, his special connection with George and why creating awareness about animal conservation should start at a young age!
Originally from Chipping Norton in Oxfordshire, Shandor now lives in South Africa and works at the Lion and Safari park. Shandor moved to South Africa with his wildlife expert father Alex in 1999 and has certainly inherited his skills. He is often seen cuddling and kissing lions, cheetahs, hyenas and even giraffes. He has become a social media sensation, mainly due to the rapport he shares with the big cats.
First big cat encounter
Shandor is a third-generation lion tamer and showed early signs of carrying on the family tradition. He was only a young cub himself, when he had his first encounter with a cheetah aged 11 and he has never looked back. “So I’ve been fortunate that I have been able to grow up around so many beautiful animals most of my life, as my dad and his mom are both animal handler‘s and have been for their whole lives. But at the age of 11 I started volunteering at the park I now call home. After two years of volunteering, I did a lot of dirty work, working my way up from the bottom. It was only then my father decided that it was now time for me to follow his footsteps, and that’s when I met Shitana. Shitana was a female cheetah and the first time I was able to interact with her was while I was assisting my father on a film shoot. Even though it was so long ago, it’s a memory that I remember so vividly, despite me being little apprehensive in that moment, I never would’ve thought that Shitana would soon become one of my most influential teachers. She was where I started and it had such a big impact on both me as a person, and also the way I worked with animals. I will forever hold her close to my heart,” recalls Shandor. A pair of adorable cheetahs regularly feature on his social media accounts.
Part of the pride
While his friends were out partying and enjoying, he was working night shifts mucking out hyenas, attending special night feeds with injured giraffes or watching over sick lions. “Despite the fact that my dad probably would’ve preferred me going into something like IT, he instilled a passion in me from a very young age, and that paired with my deep love for wildlife. I couldn’t help but follow his footsteps. He is my mentor. Everything I’ve learnt about working with these animals has come from him,” said Shandor who is a third-generation lion tamer.
The Lion King
But this lion tamer is the mane man when it comes to big cats. He has struck up an extraordinary bond with his animals. Pictures on social media often show Shandor walking among predators, nuzzling wild beasts, or giving foot massages to a lion. So how does he manage to strike such a close bond be it with lions, leopards, zebras, hyenas or giraffes? “There’s no simple answer to this, no matter what specie, every single animal is different in their own way, both in personality and behavior. But the way I work with them across-the-board comprises of the same few principles, love, patience, boundaries and behavior.”
He has built up an unbreakable rapport with George the lion, so much so, that Shandor calls him his best friend. “Over the past years, I’ve built relationships with many animals, but George and I definitely have a special connection. We’ve grown up together and I think this is what plays such a big part in how close we are. He’s my family, there’s no other way to describe it. A lot of the lions that I work with were born when I started learning, so I’ve grown up with them.
But in saying that, Shandor also understands the fact that George is a wild animal at the end of the day and he totally respects the fact that he is a 250kg apex predator. So, when I asked him if he has ever feared working amongst nature’s most dangerous hunters or if there has there been an incident wherein there was a mishap, being the daredevil he is, he says, “I can’t say I’ve really ever feared working with them, I have moments where I may feel a bit nervous, but those are very few and far between. It’s also key that I understand their individual personalities so I’m able to read their body language and behaviour as that’s how they tell me when something is wrong. I totally respect the fact that these are apex predators, they could very easily kill me, but in all honesty I have more fear about working with people, animals are honest, people often are not that’s one of the traits I love so much about animals.”
Animals don’t have a clock so this is definitely not a 9-to-5 job, but Shandor says that this is his dream job and he has the best fur family one could ask for. “Firstly I get to create the amazing relationships that I have with all my amazing animal family. Secondly, being able to make a difference, whether that is in the lives of the animals I work with, or rehabilitation cases that we treat and release. That’s what’s makes it work it! Doing what I do is not a job it’s a lifestyle and something you really have to do dedicate your entire life to,” he says.
When I asked Shandor what does a typical day look like for him, he throws a fit of laughter and then says, “This is a question I get asked so frequently, and I never really have a straight forward answer. I’m not exaggerating when I say every day is completely different, and that’s what makes what I do so exciting. I can go from animal relocation, to wading through murky waters looking for Crocodiles, to sitting in a meeting in the boardroom all in a space of a few hours.”
Talking about the safari park he says, “So we have over 60 species of animals in the reserve, now I don’t like hands-on with all of them, but there are a few very special individuals from many different species that form a part of my amazing animal family. Not for me to have to give you a detailed description and every single animal I work with, I can assure you there’s not enough space in the magazine, but the most prominent species are lion, cheetah, leopard, wild dog, hyena and giraffe. The Lion & Safari Park has developed so much in the last few years and definitely for the better. With our big move to the new reserve which is over 1000 hectares, coupled with amazing personalities we have here at the park I can honestly say it makes for a truly magical African experience when you visit us!”
While Shandor says that this is his dream job, he admits that his work doesn’t allow him to have a social life. “Working with wildlife is a privilege, and where there’s privilege there’s sacrifice. Our whole team that works with animals at the park is incredibly dedicated and when I say we work around the clock, we’re often sometimes working at 2 am. This means we give up a lot, if not most of our free time, it’s just one of those things you get used to when doing this. The last time I took a vacation was four years ago and that was only for a week, but let me tell you it’s so incredibly worth it!”
For Shandor, animal conservation is a pressing issue and educating people about it is important. “Conservation is incredibly important because without it many of the species we know today won’t have a future. Education is one of the most important aspects of conservation. The Lion & Safari Park brings in over 20,000 school kids every year, many are often from underprivileged areas, giving them one of the only opportunities they’ll ever get to see these animals in real life. We also run numerous research projects on various species in our reserve, some being the first of their kind. As well as the outreach work that we do, we have rescued, treated and released hundreds of animals onto our reserve.”
The wildlife expert says that he has always been passionate about animals and they have been an inspiration to him when it comes to wildlife conservation. “The animals have always inspired me, I mean why wouldn’t you want to spend every day working with these beautiful creatures right! But the fact that I can help bring awareness to serious issues that threaten so many of these species is what has made the last two years so incredible. TikTok has given me such a large platform where most of the demographics are our younger generations and the fact that I’m able to instill a passion for wildlife in so many youngsters gives me hope that in later years there will still be people wanting to help our wildlife. Educating our kids of today, is educating our conservationists of tomorrow.”
Videos of Shandor and George have created quite a stir on social media, and he thinks it is a right platform to create awareness on animal conservation. He says, “Today’s youth are engaged on social media. All I’m doing is sharing a little bit of what I do every day of the world, and people seem to connect with it. Hopefully by doing this I can inspire a few of our younger generation to help conserve our wildlife when they’re older.”
As a conservationist Shandor thinks that at the rate we are going, there soon will be no tigers or lions. According to him we are cutting it very fine, but we still have enough time to make the changes and help protect what we have left. Projects like ‘save the tiger’, which has now become a global one helps prevent the species from being extinct. As we came to the end of the conversation, Shandor quoted Mahatma Gandhi, and said, like Gandhi says ‘be the change you wish to see in the world’, if we all make small changes, it helps secure a future for so many others.