For many of us Switzerland is associated with wellbeing and stability. Therefore not everyone understands this young man who gave up prestigious work in Zurich, luxurious house and family to go to Africa to save wild animals. But, after seeing his numerous Instagram videos @dean.schneider and learning things about animals which he generously shares online, you begin to think of such global and important for mankind things as mutual respect and harmonious coexistence with the wild nature. Dean Schneider talks about his mission in Africa and life of a pride the part of which he considers himself.
Did you happen to be a fan of Steve Irwin's "The Crocodile Hunter" as a child? Was he the one who inspired you to communicate so closely with nature?
Of course, while I grew up in Switzerland (Zurich), I didn't have that type of wildlife around me like I have today. But I've always been inspired by wildlife, even as a small kid I used to rescue frogs and tried not to harm nature in general. Steve Irwin definitely was a huge inspiration to me. When I first came to South Africa and met a poisonous snake, I remember footage of Steve Irwin coming through before my eyes: how he held the snake and how it reacted to his actions. I started imitating them – and like that I learned how to catch snakes. It is possible to say that, thanks to Steve Irving I became who I am now, he lit this fire in me, raised unconditional love and passion for the animals.
Did you have any experience of dealing with wild animals before moving to Africa?
I gained experience by going to different sanctuaries helping out with the animals as for example with feeding. Then I got the chance to interact with certain animals as well as lions and other wild species. So that was actually my first experience. Not a lot, but still something.
You are super-popular on Instagram. Did you ever expect to become so famous?
To be honest, I didn’t. Initially my goal was to build a place where I can bring rescued animals so that they can live a beautiful life as wild as possible. Then through documenting my daily life, basically like every other young person does, I all of a sudden blew up completely on Instagram and social media and the numbers were insane, which actually in some sense opened a few doors. Because now I'm not only able to save animal’s lives, but way more! I can make a difference globally for our planets wildlife – to send message to a large number of people that love and compassion are at the heart of nature protection and a positive contribution to the wildlife of the planet. We all need to learn to love animals, and then the whole world will rise to their protection. That's what we have to invest our money and time in! I believe that we have wonderful nature defenders and scientists with the enormous baggage of knowledge necessary to solve lots of issues. But people don't tend to think about something they're not emotionally attached to.
You moved from Switzerland to work with wild animals in Africa. Were you scared to make such a global change in your life?
I wouldn't say I was scared. I was more super excited to make that move. I built up a quite solid life in Switzerland. I had my own company, I made a lot of money, I have a loving family and I’m greatly respected by friends and the community there. So to leave all of that behind and move into a country without knowing the laws, the culture and their language was quite risky. Besides, English is not even my native language. I mean, if you don't have anything to lose, to make such a step, it's one thing but if you actually have everything you need, It’s quite challenging to leave it all behind and make that move. But in the end of the day, I did it out of passion. And you can't go wrong when you follow your heart.
How many animals did you save and how many of them are still isolated today?
I've rescued lots of jackals, snakes and other animals. For example, aardwolf was rehabilitated and released back into the wild. All of them are in their natural habitat now!
But lions or, say, elephants who have grown up in captivity, are used to care and have lost natural fear of human, will definitely approach people, so these animals can never be released into the wild. Even my lion Dexter and whole pride, though they can all perfectly live, hunt, feed and mate on their own. And the Institute of Nature Conservation will never let me release them into pristine nature. That's why I have a huge fenced area of 3.6 million square meters, three million of which I'm going to allocate to a lion's pride so that lions can live in conditions as close to wild as possible and in a safe environment.
How would you describe living conditions for animals in Africa and the Hakuna Mipaka reserve in particular?
Unfortunately, the populations in the wild decline that drastically that we ended up not even having wild lions anymore out here in South Africa. There are wild lions in Africa, but in South Africa, you find them for example in the Kruger Park, where you can more or less say they're wild. But then if you talk about living conditions in captivity, I would say animals here in South Africa in captivity mainly live under terrible conditions, that most of the people would call this animal cruelty. But there’re still some places which have beautiful homes for animals, which take care of the animals. The Hakuna Mipaka reserve in particular, I believe my animals have a really beautiful life. They are surrounded by pure African nature and that’s where they come from and where they live. Obviously, it is fenced. It will still be fenced on a later stage even when I release them in the back of the farm where they will be able to hunt by themselves and to be as wild as they can. But I also believe that freedom is a feeling and not a place. So I believe there is no other secure place, which can provide them with a better feeling of freedom than our Hakuna Mipaka Oasis.
What are the behavioral traditions regarding nature among local people?
I don't see lots of appreciation towards animals among local people, to be honest. Because the problem is, it's not part of their educational system, they do not get the necessary objective information about the animal world. They see animals more as a threat than as something beautiful or something enriching for their country’s wildlife. Let's just say, most of them don't care what happens to the animal world. And this is not only the case in South Africa, this attitude of people towards nature and animals is observed all over the world. And this brings me back to my mission – bringing animals into people's hearts because that's what our wildlife needs right now.
How many people work on the Hakuna Mipaka team and what do they do?
We have around 15 people who work on the Hakuna Mipaka oasis at the moment, including security, two housewives to make sure that everything is clean and help us with the whole cleaning processes. We have Jesse my farm manager and his right hand Uclen. We have his wife who is our chef here at the farm and makes sure that we never starve and have always filled up bellies. We've got 2-3 farmworkers, who help with general work. Noah, Gaz and Steve all three form the content creation team. And we've got Priscilla who is my personal assistant and actually right hand person in everything I do.
Do you make money from the Hakuna Mipaka park?
I’m not making money from the Hakuna Mipaka oasis. But there is an option to donate on my website for the whole farm maintenance such as food for the animals and so on. This is a private sanctuary which is close to the public and where we don't allow any tourists inside. We don’t have guest houses, any volunteer programs or anything like that. So from the sanctuary itself, I don't make money. Hopefully I'll be able to launch a merchandise collection for sale soon. But I really want to be careful with those deals and stuff like that because I want to stick to my mission and priority number one is bringing animals into people's hearts and not promoting any other products or brands or something like that.
It is widely considered that a wild animal that lives in a single area and hierarchy and experiences seasonal hormonal release is more aggressive than a domestic animal. Is that true?
Every animal has its natural type of aggression and they're only aggressive when they need to be aggressive. There is no reason for an animal to be aggressive towards you if you don’t do anything or if it hasn't been harmed by somebody previously and through that become aggressive in a certain way. If an animal is injured in the wild and you get close to it, it will be way more aggressive because it starts to take on a more defensive position, than when it is super healthy. Same with an animal which is almost starving and will react more aggressive than an animal which is well fed and just wants to rest. And this is the same in both the wild and in captivity. Of course, if it lives under terrible conditions in captivity with no space, no natural enrichment, no socializing without animals, then it can be way more aggressive towards you or any other living being in the environment, thea when it lives in a beautiful environment. But I think it is very relative. Just put yourself in animal’s place and then you’ll know the answer. If a man were to be locked in a cramped room, he would also start acting more aggressive than if he lived freely somewhere on a farm...
Do animals always feel your good intentions towards them? Have you been ever attacked by one?
Well they do feel the good intention and the love but way more than, that they surprisingly combine feeling something through an aura and reading the body language. So first of all in order to be able to express your love and your intention towards them, you need to know their language. So once you speak their language, you will automatically be able to show them that you are here to help, to love and not to hurt them. And I've never been attacked aggressively. We do play with one another and they don't treat me differently from other pride members. So that's why I might get hurt obviously as the other ones also get hurt. They also have scars in their faces, on their bodies and I can't expect to go there and be part of their family, live according to their rules and talk their language but not getting injuries or any scars. It's just very obvious that the same things happen to me and this is also super cool because lions are born to be lions and not humans.
There are a lot of cases in history describing sad consequences of such close communication with wild animals. In particular, there was the Berberovs family in Baku, which kept lions and panthers at home and ended up tragically. Aren’t you afraid of sharing the same destiny dealing with wild animals?
Definitely not. Because the one thing you just mentioned, they kept lions and panthers at home! A lot of people who interact with animals or seem to be partly accepted by them, end up forcing animals to certain situations, which is a big mistake. I consider myself a part of the lion pride. I speak their language and not the other way. I didn't teach them anything. They basically taught me how to be a lion. So I'm living with them in their home. And it's not that I took them into my home. And this is a huge difference! So when they don't want to deal with me, they walk away from me, and that's okay. And when I don't want meet up with them anymore, I walk away from them and that's okay for them as well. You just got to have the mutual respect for one another, give each other space. The animal needs to get used to the fact that you are there when they need you to. And that's why I'm not scared that my lions would ever turn against me. Because they don't turn against their brother or sister unless there’s food. But then I'm not challenging them again when it comes to food.
Do your parents and friends approve of your dangerous passion for animals?
Well, to be honest, I don't need anybody’s approval. In the beginning no one was a big supporter of it, but as soon as everything started to work and that I’m accepted by lions etc., everyone started to even like it.
What are your thoughts on zoos, circuses, and shows that involve animals?
Well circuses and shows are definitely stupid because we humans should just stop to use animals for entertainment. They shouldn’t do something unnatural for them such as jumping through rings which are put on fire or swimming across the pool and jumping after balls and just doing things where they're surrounded by lots of noises and cameras and it's just not a natural environment and no natural behavior. Unfortunately, the majority of zoos are keeping their animals under horrible conditions, which is the reason why zoo’s have a very bad reputation. But in fact, if there is zoo’s which keep their animals naturally and allow them to live a beautiful life in a secure and natural environment, I think that's wonderful! Because it allows us to see animals up closer and gives us access to that animal life and to that animal world.
Can you comment on the video in which you sneak up on a lion at the watering hole, play with it, and the animal shows zero aggression in return? Are animals capable of enjoying jokes like this?
Of course! This is basically what lions do the entire day. If they're not eating, mating or sleeping, then they're playing, sneaking and jumping onto one another and that's actually part of developing hunting skills. And that's what the lions do from an early age up until they are fully grown all the time. Once they're fully grown, they get a little bit calmer and more chilled. Even Dexter, though he looks huge, he's still a baby with an age of 2 years, spends most of his time playing. They will only be fully grown at the age of four years, which is at least another 2 years to grow. If I want to be part of a lion pride, then I've got to behave same like they do. So basically I'm doing what we're doing all day long, just every now and then I have a camera, which captures that moment. And then people will be like “It’s totally crazy” and so but to me and to the lions, this is a total natural and a normal thing to do.
And you haven’t even tried to train them?
No, none of my animals are trained. If I was about to walk up to them and tell them sit down or walk from there to there or do this, they would look at me and ask themselves what the hell does he want? Once again, it was them who taught me their language, and not me.
Can you tell us about your house in Africa? Is it far from the reserve?
Well, the house is on the reserve. I live side by side with my coworkers. Some of them live in my house, which is the main house. For some of them I built their own house like for example for Jesse, my farm manager. Because he's here with his wife and his kid, I built another house right next to the main house. So we all live together as one big family at the same spot. As well as the animal camps are right next to it or around it. All the wild animals are roaming wildly free around the main house as well.
How do you spend your free time? Do you have any passions besides wild animals?
I love to work out and do sport to keep myself in shape. I love to play some music. Sometimes I play a little bit of piano or Ukulele. But you know, I don't need free time because everything what I do is what I love, so it I don't develop the desire to have free time. And if sometimes I want to rest all day long, I do so, regardless of the day of the week. And I think that's amazing! If you do something out of passion and if you’re surrounded by people that bring out the best in you, then you don't need any free time because you're enjoying those moments. And yes, of course, I do have tons of works, which I don't like to do or which is a must for me. But no matter what we're doing in life, we always will be confronted with things we don't like. But we have to go through them to be able to get to the things we like again.
Describe a usual day of Dean Schneider’s life in Africa.
To be honest, there is not a usual day in my life. Something new happens every single day. Today for example, we just caught the Cobra in the gym, which is actually in our barn and released it back into the wild. And after this happened, we made a little tutorial video out of it. Usually when I wake up, I straight away do my stories with JayJay or with the lions when I'm spending time with them. I'm actually permanently documenting my life on social media so that people can live the same life without having to do all the sacrifices I had to do.
Are you vegetarian?
I would call myself part time vegetarian because we mostly do eat vegetarian meals. But two or three times a week I consume meat. And I believe that this is still a good and necessary meal. I enjoy it a lot and I appreciate it way more like that. Sometimes I even hunt it myself…
Do you miss Switzerland and your old life style? Do you plan on returning? Or you are ready to live in Africa your whole life and devote yourself to saving wild animals?
Yes of course, I do miss Switzerland every now and then. Even though I believe I was not made for the life in Switzerland, there's lots of things I had back then, like my people or habits that I miss. I would say maybe twice a year when it happens for me to travel back to Switzerland to visit family and friends, I enjoy all of that. But after maybe 1-2 weeks being there, I did everything I wanted, I had everything I missed, I'm super happy to go back again to South Africa. And yes, I see myself being based mainly in Africa. And definitely I see my entire rest of life being dedicated to saving wild animals by bringing animals into people's hearts. So my future life will take me all around the world because this is a global mission and not a mission only for Africa. But obviously, since my animals and the Hakuna Mipaka are here and this is where my heart and my base is, it will always lead me back to the Hakuna Mipaka oasis here in South Africa.
Are you planning to have a family?
Yes, of course. I love kids and I would love to have my own family. I'm sure I want to have my own one to two kids. But I definitely want to adopt 1-2 maybe even 3 kids. The increasing population of us humans is so huge, that I don't want to just continuously reproduce myself, but rather take what is here and try to give them a great life and great opportunities.
Who is your favorite member of your wildlife family?
That's like asking somebody which one is your favorite kid? I have every day a different favorite one depending on my mood. Sometimes I just want to spend time with Dexter and nobody else, sometimes it's JayJay, sometimes it's just my dogs Rocky.
Can you share some plans for future?
Yes, of course. I'm definitely planning to extend the whole donation section because we need to be able to finance the Hakuna Mipaka oasis. And we are trying to set up a cool merchandise line for people to be able to not only donate something but also being able to wear our name proudly and to talk about our mission out there in the world. I’m also definitely working on a global wildlife show, which supposed to happen this year or next year. And there are lots of different things… I would suggest for everybody to stay tuned over my social pages because that's the most transparent way of me informing people about what's happening.
What is the best advice you have ever been given and who gave it?
“Follow your passion and do something out of your passion” from Steve Irwin. And I'm using that now and I'm being successful with it. So thanks to Steve Irwin for that.
Any free thoughts or facts to Nargis magazine readers on animals? Perhaps something that could make us understand and perceive wildlife with more humbleness.
One fact is just guys, we need to learn to love these animals the way they are and not the way we wish them to be. We want animals to be wild, we want them to be beautiful, but we need to see the whole picture. Nature is the way it is since millions of years and it worked greatly without us. Let's not ruin it! We can create viruses, we can kill one another, we can start wars for no reason, but let's not make animals suffer for it. And in the end of the day we should actually adapt to their lifestyle. Animals have the same feelings than we do. They can’t only see, hear and feel. They also feel with their hearts, they have a soul, they can miss somebody and they can cry inside. I think that's something which gets lost a lot when you think about animals. I'm sure with certain species like insects or so it will be a different type of emotion. But if it comes to mammals, especially, they have the exact same emotions and feelings than we humans do.
What does the tattoo on your arm mean?
It says “Against fate, you're powerless”. This means that there are things happening in life, which you can't change and you just got to accept them. I was struggling for a certain period of my life to accept certain things I was powerless about and I thought maybe I could have done something about it… With that tattoo I kind of told myself, that there's things in life they just happened and this is not because of you or anybody else, this is just fate and everything happens out of a reason. And this is how I got comfortable with those things.
What do you want to be remembered for?
I want to be remembered for somebody who spread love all over the world who inspired and educated people about animals and especially for somebody who used his passion and his love to make this world a better place, mainly for animals. But we can only make this world a better place for animals if we do better ourselves, because we humans set the rules. And how else can we do that if not through love and compassion for one another? – N
*The interview was published in 71st issue.