July 23, 2010

Training a tiger like this takes a lot of bottle!

These pictures of tiger man John Wagenaar might give you paws for thought - as he smiles to the camera while a giant 300kg Siberian tiger licks his head.

More astounding photos show how the big cat whisperer is able to stand and support two tigers with a combined weight of over 500kg with his arms - as he bottle feeds them.

Through his unique 'love training' fearless John is even able to let a huge Bengal tiger female take a cat nap laying on top of him - using his head as a rest for her massive chin.
John


John "Tigerman" Wagenaar frolics with one of his hand-reared tigers at the SA Rhino and Lion Nature Reserve

Working at the Rhino and Lion Nature Reserve near Johannesburg, South Africa, big cat lover John is a firm believer in reward-based training of animals.

Most handlers of predators live in fear of the day when they trip over in an enclosure and end up beneath the animals in a submissive position - and vulnerable to an attack.

But John, 35, seems fearless as he rolls around on the ground with some of the biggest cats in the world.

He said: 'Through my love training I am able to do things with these animals that others simply cannot.'

'There are many keepers out there who use sticks and punishment to make the animals submit to them.'

'Because of this the keepers don’t trust the animals and the animals don’t trust the keepers. That’s a very dangerous way to manage a relationship between yourself and a cat weighing 300kg.'

John bottle-feeds one of his 'pets', creating the bond that makes the tigers see him as a parent.

John bottle-feeds one of his 'pets', creating the bond that makes the tigers see him as a parent.

Using chunks of meat and bottled milk, John continually rewards good behaviour exhibited by the 20 tigers at the reserve.

But John says his relationship with the potentially lethal animals is key to getting close.

Apollo, the massive five-year-old male licking John’s head was hand-reared by him and thinks John is a parent.

'He thinks I’m his dad' said John. 'He’s grooming me just like he would another cat and this behaviour displays the level of trust we have for each other.'

'I’m not afraid when I go into situations like this but I am cautious.'

'You have to have total respect for the fact that the Siberian tiger is the biggest cat in the world and he’s designed to kill. I’ve got the scars to prove it.'

'But it’s all about your approach and judgement of when and when not to interact with them.'

'Just as cats in the wild do not continually interact with each other, you must bear in mind the same principle.'

'We are strong believers in observing the energy around the cats. Through experience we know when they are in a happy mood and would enjoy to play or some mental stimulation.'
John wrestles with Alice the tiger

Alice, a five-year-old Bengal tiger weighs 200kg and was also hand-reared by John. She is so comfortable with him she happily snoozes laying on top of him.

'She sees me as a potential mate,' said John. “She tried to shepherd me away from other cats so she can have me all to herself.”

Thor, 250kg and Helen, weighing 180kg, are sibling Siberians both aged three years.

John said: 'I am the only person in the world who can stand supporting two adult tigers on each arm. I believe this is a huge testament to the work that we are doing and the state of mind of our cats.'

'I hate punishment training and much prefer to reward the animals for safe behaviour. I dislike circus where animals are conditioned to perform on command or face the consequences.'

'The way I work is more about going in and interacting with the cats.'

John’s love affair with cats began when he was just nine years old when his mum bought him a tabby domestic cat.

Since then he has progressively devoted his life to the animals working with cats like cervals and cheetahs through volunteer programmes around South Africa.

Five years ago he joined Ed Hurm, owner of Rhino and Lion Nature Reserve.

John said: 'All of the tigers were rejected at birth and we have taken them in to go give them a safe and healthy life.'

'You can see that they are in tip top condition and that fills me with pride because its down to the way we look after them.'

'Cats in captivity often end up overweight, bored and die of heart attacks.'

'What I am doing with these animals is not about performing tricks. It’s about keeping them stimulated and active as part of our animal enrichment programme.'

'If one of our tigers climbs for a reward, it is using its claws and muscles just as it should do in the wild. All credit should go to the cats for allowing me to interact with them like this.'

'None of the tigers can ever return to the wild as they have no fear of man and could not fend for themselves. But I hope that we are giving them the best life possible given their circumstances.'

'All of our cats are part of an international breeding programme. They are not being looked after in their native countries where they are killed for their fur or for aphrodisiacs.'

'We are building up an international number which we can exchange with other reserves to keep a healthy gene pool in the cats away from their native territories.'

Tourists and big cat lovers can visit the South African reserve where they can enjoy talks by John.

It is, as John says 'the only place in the world where you can safely take an hour-long walk with an adult Siberian tiger'.(dailymail.co.uk)

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