Don’t expect any regular TikTok content from Shandor Larenty (26).
“You won’t see dance moves or things like that in it,” says this Johannesburg native who’s in charge of animal welfare at the Lion and Safari Park at Broederstroom in North West.
Instead, his TikTok account, with 9,4 million followers and 90 million likes, features the cutest videos in which kisses and hugs are being shared with the park’s animals. And the creatures have names: George the lion, Cindy the cheetah and Sky the giraffe.
“My content on TikTok is about my animal family,” Shandor says.
His videos have attracted many visitors to the park who want to meet the animals in the flesh.
“It’s fantastic to see how many of those who come here recognise the animals because of my videos. I want to create an awareness of the animals and show people how wonderful they are.”
His most popular video had more than 69 million views. “I’m just waving the selfie stick in front of myself and George,” Shandor says about the video he uploaded at the beginning of the year.
His love of animals goes back to when he was a child. Shandor has lived in the park since he was a young boy.
“I was born in Johannesburg and my father, Alex, is a trainer at the park.
“My mom died when I was 12 and that motivated me to spend more time with the animals,” he says. “They helped me through it. That was where my great love and passion for them started.”
TikTok videos aren’t the only thing that keeps Shandor busy.
“I have a full-time job here. I look after the animals when they’re ill and I clean their camps.”
His father taught him that it’s impossible to form a relationship with the animals unless you care for them.
“In my first years here I didn’t engage with the animals. When I started I had to do the worst jobs – like picking up poo, fixing fences and cutting up meat.”
These days Shandor and George the lion are besties. “People on TikTok always ask how big he is. He weighs about 250kg and I weigh 70kg. He has this thing where he comes to say hello, then he rolls on the ground. One wrong move and he turns me over. He is very, very big.”
Any normal person would be scared of a lion or a cheetah – but not Shandor.
“I grew up with these animals. I’ve known George for nine years. It’s all about understanding them,” he says. “They all have their own personalities, things they don’t like and boundaries you shouldn’t cross. They’re much the same as people; they have their off days.”
There are days when he can see George isn’t in the mood to interact. “I see it in his body language and facial expression. And I respect that and give him space. I’m not going to lose my life just to make a video with him.
If a 250kg lion doesn’t scare him is there anything that does?
“People always laugh when I tell them, but I’m terrified of mice and frogs. Rodents freak me out,” he says. “About four years ago I held a bunny for the first time and I was absolutely terrified. Give me a lion or a snake any day, but not a mouse.”
It’s small animals in the park that cause most damage with their tiny teeth, Shandor says.
“Like mongoose and meerkats. Meerkats have the worst bite of any animal I have ever come across. They have these tiny teeth that are like needles,” says Shandor, adding that he’s been bitten four times to the bone of his fingers
“When you’re bitten by a meerkat, you know you won’t be able to use your hand for a few days.”
The animals he works with are close to Shandor’s heart.
“I work a lot with sick, injured animals and through TikTok I’d like to make people aware of the dwindling numbers and habitats of some animals. I feel if people can bond with the animals through my videos they’ll be more inclined to make a difference.”
It’s important to him to build a relationship between his followers and the animals and educate everyone who follows him about the realities of what’s happening in nature, Shandor says.
He never thought his TikTok account would become so popular.
“My first video was an old one I’d taken from my Instagram. It went viral in the first week and had about 900 000 views. And from there it just grew.” He’s been on TikTok for two years.
“In the first three months I got a million followers. I still find it strange when people recognise me in public. Or come over to me in the park to say hello or see the animals they got to know on my TikTok.”
But he believes people follow his profile, not him.
“They actually want to see George and the other animals.”
Meet Shandor’s MENAGERIE
Shandor has a unique relationship with each of the animals on his Tiktok. Here’s what he says about them.
Sky the giraffe
“She’s naughty and will chase you around all day, and think it’s amusing and fun. She was an orphan giraffe and nearly died. We had to feed her with a feeding tube. She’s nine months old now and doing very well. My followers have been watching her journey from day one.”
Dogs Dude, Trigger, Casey and Pablo
“At work I take care of my animal family and when I get home, I see to my three Labradors and my German shorthair pointer. I’ll be making TikTok videos about them soon.”
George the lion
“He’s one of the favourites of my followers. And when they come to the park he’s one of the animals they ask to see.”
Choetta the leopard
“Everyone thinks leopards are scary and cruel. I have worked with them for the past 10 years and they’re super-lovely.”
Cindy the cheetah
“People really love her. They’re crazy about her story and personality. Unfortunately she lost an eye when she was young. She’s the most loving animal and is crazy about hugs.”