Derek Krahn, also known as Big Cat Derek, is the operations director at the Center for Animal Research and Education (CARE), a big cat sanctuary in Texas, and the man behind the best Vine account we've ever seen. Krahn uses his account to showcase his amazing job working (and living) with the tigers, lions, cougars and leopards that live on the sanctuary in Bridgeport, Texas.
In a phone interview, Krahn spoke with Salon about his long, beautiful relationship with CARE, how he uses social media and how it feels to snuggle a lion cub.
This interview has been lightly edited for length.
How did you come to CARE?
I’m a meteorologist by trade and I ended up getting transferred to Texas for my job. The apartment building that I lived at at the time, it had one of those computer rooms at the front office area. I didn’t have a computer, I didn’t have a laptop at the time, so I would go down there just to fart around, check emails, just whatever. And then there was a girl there. She was checking her MySpace page, back when that was a thing. She had tigers on the background because you were able to festoon and adorn your MySpace pages with really colorful images, and she happened to have tigers on there. I’ve had a thing for tigers ever since I was a little kid, as I was a big fan of Calvin and Hobbes, Tigger from the "Winnie the Pooh" when I was a little guy, so I just decided tigers are my thing. I saw the tigers on her MySpace page and I said, “Oh, you have a thing for tigers, eh?”... And she says, “Well, yeah. I actually know these tigers.” I thought she was just some girl, like, “Oh, look at the pretty kitties. Look at these pictures that I found on the Internet." She’s like, “No, I actually know these guys.”
And then she starts telling me about CARE and she starts telling me about the facility and how many cats are out there. And she said it’s only about an hour’s drive away from where we are currently. I started getting really wide-eyed and kind of drop-jawed about the whole idea that a place like this existed, and then I started asking: “Is there any way I can be a part of this kind of place?” She said, “Yeah, we’re always looking for new volunteers. In fact, I’m actually gonna be going there this weekend.” I didn’t even know this girl and I’m like, “Can I go with you? Please? Can I go? I’ll drive, my gas, it’s fine. I just want to go.” And she’s like, “Yeah, yeah, yeah!” So, we went, and I got to meet a bunch of kitties, and I immediately fell in love. It was an amazing experience, like, “Oh my gosh, this is so fun!” And of course I didn’t get to do all the cool things that I get to do now, but I got to be close to these animals that I’ve loved my whole life. Just to simply have them come up to the fence and say hi, it was magical!
The next weekend comes around, and I’m just sitting in my apartment. I don’t know the area, Texas. I don’t know what’s going on. I don’t really know anything, and I just get the itch. So I’m like, “I’m just going to go back to that place.” So I get in my car, and I just go from memory... I drove around that second weekend for about three hours, four hours, something like that, on the back country roads, trying to find the tiger farm, the tiger facility. I remember stopping at gas stations -- they thought that I had two heads. They were like, “I don’t even know what you’re talking about, man.” They had no clue. I obviously was way off the mark at some of these places. But I was able to finally find it. It was kind of at the end of the workday. I was like, “Hey, I’m here! Remember me? I was the guy who was here last weekend, and I’m here again.” And they’re like, “Oh, hey, you!” And of course they didn’t know my name, no one knew me. That kind of started it.
Every weekend, I kept going. It would be like a Saturday or Sunday, and then it became both Saturday and Sunday, I would go back and forth. I eventually got to the point where you just kind of stay in the vet center, like a couch in the back room or something like that. I would spend my weekends there. Then, I started to think, “Screw it, I’ll go in the actual week itself.” Go after my workday is done, drive over there, an hour and a half or whatever it was. And they were like, “Oh my gosh, you’re here!” And I was like, “Yeah, I’m here!” I would drive back, and that was tiring. So there was one time I said, “Okay, well, how about if I go after work, and I’m just so tired in there after work, like helping out the facility and cleaning cat enclosures and fixing things that I’m just going to sleep in the back room in the vet center. I’ll wake up like super early, and I’ll go to work like that. How about if I just do that?” I did that and I was like, “That wasn’t so bad. I’ll do it again.” I started to spend not only my weekends there, but a day out of the week, or one or two days. Then it turned into two, three, four days. Then it turned into — I was just spending all of my time. It was this slow buildup to spending all my time at the facility.
I was gaining more responsibility over time. I was allowed to do more and more tasks over time. Because you’ve got to be able to crawl before you can walk, before you can run, before you can climb. I was gaining responsibility over time. After I got a lot of good knowledge and insight about working outside, Heidi Berry, at the time — she’s the founder and executive director of the facility — we spent a lot of time working outside, and she grew to trust me very much. We had a lot of commonalities. She’s from Ohio, I’m from Wisconsin, we’re both living in Texas. We’re both kind of these Yankees living down in Texas. From a cultural perspective, we were able to click on that level. She would work outside all day, and then she’d be glued to the computer in her house all night long, just trying to balance the books and trying to write check deposit slips, write newsletters. The organization was just a struggling organization, where only a handful of people were doing the work. Heidi, by far, was doing the lion’s share. [Laughs] Yeah, I know, that was awful. I really should just stop the interview right there and just not talk to you anymore.
But, no, I said, “Okay, well I’m helping her outside. How else can I help?” I knew that by helping her I was helping the cats, because I love the cats so much. I knew that by helping her — and she’s my friend — with that inside stuff, that office stuff, I would also be helping the cats because everyone goes to the facilities, they want to do the cool stuff, they want to go out there and help lock up cats and they want to scoop poop and they want to butcher animals. They want to do that really cool rock-and-roll type stuff, but no one wants to do the administrative overhead. That’s an unglamorous thing, but it’s a necessary task, of course, that needs to be done. I decided I’m going to help her there too. I would be there with her after we had done work outside. I would go in there and sit down next to the computer with her, and we’d be doing administrative things and going over paperwork and I'd be helping write newsletters and editing things for her and doing all this stuff. We were just spending all this time together. We were getting to know each other. We were becoming very very close friends. All those things kind of work out, and you start to develop feelings for each other. We ended up kind of sort of falling in love. We’re married now. [Laughs]
I knew this was coming!
Yeah, yeah! I was spending so much time at the facility already that it was like we started dating and within a very short period of time, I was just living in the house. I was already living in the vet center so I basically just stopped living in the vet center and I upgraded. I was at the house now. We dove into this relationship headfirst. It was built on this idea that we’re at this together and we’re struggling together, but we’re doing good things, and we’re making this thing work. There were a lot of tough times and a lot of tense times where we didn’t know how the bills for the next month were going to get paid and there are cats that are getting sick, and there are cats that are dying. It’s just these constant struggles. But we were each other’s strength, throughout all of that stuff. She has three kids from her previous marriage. Their dad was out of the picture for a long time, so I kind of stepped in. I gotta be honest, I didn’t know how to deal with kids at all. I’m like, “Ugh! What are these things? These little people. They don’t have fully formed brains. What are they saying? I don’t know! I don't know!"
But you are so good with the cats!
Yeah, but dealing with them… I was just like a big ogre. I was like, "Look, this is going to be awkward for everyone. Let’s just try to get through this." But Heidi never pressed it. It wasn’t like, “You’ve gotta call him Dad.” Or, “You have to respect!” It was not like that. I just was like, “I guess we’re living together.” It was more like that in the beginning. Because their biological dad was out of the picture, it was a lot easier for me to step into that role in a really slow level. Heidi, she gave me the ultimatum. I was ill-equipped to deal with kids. I didn’t have kids of my own. I didn’t bring them up from little ones. Biologically speaking, they’re not mine. That was a hard thing. They’re not mine. Getting those thoughts out of your head, on that instinctual monkey-brain level. She said, “Look, if you want to be with me, they’re part of the package. That’s how this works.” So it’s like, all right, we have to make this work.
Slowly, over time, you grow to be accustomed to each other, you grow to understand each other to a certain level. Then you grow to be very fond of each other. And I'm talking about me and my relationship with the kids. I ended up adopting them within the year after Heidi and I got married in 2009. I’d have to double check, but I adopted them, they took on my name. Before, when I first was around them, I just — I can’t handle this, this is crazy. I was just counting on my fingers, “Okay this is the number of years before they’re going to be old enough and they’re going to be moving out of the house, and things are going to be back to normal.” Now, they are to that age where my oldest daughter, she just graduated high school, and I’m freaking out, honestly. I’m losing my mind. I’m actually getting a little bit, kinda feeling some emotions right now talking about that. The idea that she’s going to be not living in the house anymore, it’s bothersome to me at this point. Before, they weren’t my kids, and now they’re my kids; they're my kids and I love them.
I grew to love the cats, then I grew to love Heidi, this woman. Then I grew to love the kids. So much of my heart is in this place, in Texas, in the country out in Texas.
That’s lovely! It’s a movie. It’s beautiful.
Yeah, I mean, I know it’s your life, but that’s a great story.
You asked how I got to be here, and that’s it. To move away from the family stuff, you spend all those years fostering relationships with all the cats, and they get to know you and be familiar with you, and then you start to take on this surrogate role as this quote-unquote “daddy figure” out on the compound. As far as anyone is concerned, Heidi and I are the ones that the cats are the most familiar with. We have interns that come and go, our volunteers are only going to be here usually on the weekends, maybe a couple days during the week here and there. So the people that the cats really see on a consistent basis are me and Heidi. It’s been that way for years. The ability for me to then go out into the compound and film their reactions to me -- I think that one of the biggest bits of success for a lot of my content at BigCatDerek, because the cats, they look at the camera because they’re looking at me, and they’re looking at this daddy kind of thing. That really translates to creating a lot of magic on that little screen.
Why did you want to start doing the BigCatDerek vines?
Twitter was the first thing I started doing... At first, I just wanted to be a part of it. I just wanted to see what they were saying on there. Then, I’m like, “Well, I might as well utilize this also as a platform to showcase the cats because I’m here and I’m working with them all the time, so I can talk about that.”...
Now, I realize that it seems almost like a pompous, authoritative kind of thing. “Well, I’m BigCat Derek. I’m the authority on big cats!” I’m certainly not the end-all, be-all. There are people in the world that are way smarter about big cats than I am. I live with a person who is so much smarter about big cats than I’ll ever be. Heidi’s got an amazing story. She’s been on cats for 25 years. She’s definitely a lot more understanding of the big cat thing than I am. So I went with the big cat name on Twitter, and it just kind of worked. For years, it was just rinky-dink followership. I had maybe a few dozen followers... [Then I learned] about this thing called Vine, and I’m like, “Ooh! That sounds fun.” I decided to download it on the spot and started doing little vines, filming the cats. I just felt like this was a really good way to, again, promote the facility.
I’m not going to be an official spokesperson for CARE, but the way that I could tailor my content was that I’m this guy who has this amazing experience, who’s around these animals who are beautiful and it’s wonderful. I get to live this interesting life, so this is going to be my perspective on the whole thing. If I’m speaking officially on behalf of the organization, I’d have to tailor things... but if I was going to spend time showcasing that stuff, I wanted it to be as natural as possible. I wanted it to be me. I thought there was something interesting and relatable for people. People would be able to look at that and be like, “Hey, I get to by proxy virtually live this guy’s life.” It was better than just being an organization, it was a tangible person. That’s what I wanted to showcase. It certainly wasn’t like, “Look at how special I am.” I know that this is a cool thing.
It’s so effective.
I just kept the BigCatDerek name for my Vine, and for the first four months, I had like 40 followers, but I just kept on plugging away. At the time, we had a snow leopard. His name was Arctic. Snow leopards are very rare and out in the wild and in captivity. There was an account called Weekly Whiskers, and it had about 3,000 followers. The woman that runs the account, she was just searching around for snow leopards on Vine, and she found Arctic’s stuff. So she started re-vining Arctic’s stuff. Overnight, I went from 40 followers to 300 followers. And it was like, “Oh my God!” Yeah, I was losing my mind. But it just didn’t stop. It was such a crazy thing. I almost looked at my Vine account like it was some sort of island-hopping campaign that the Marines did back in World War II, where I was making friends with accounts that were just a little bit bigger than my own.
That’s smart. That’s a good strategy.
There were a couple really important people that promoted my content early on. The first one was Weekly Whiskers. The other was another viner out of LA, her name is Jenna Szabo. There was another one, and it was an account called Ocibad. They were crucial to basically slingshotting me on this rocket path to success. It kept on getting bigger and bigger. It just kept on going. Now the voice is growing at this point, and it doesn’t seem like it’s slowing down, so you ramp up your content production to keep on trying to do the things that are getting people’s attention...
Now, there are things that I’m trying to do to be funny and silly and goofy, and then there are the things that I’m doing to try to educate and advocate. That kind of became me three core tenets for my content: If it’s not entertaining, if it’s not beautiful, or if it’s not educational and insightful in some way — one of those three things — then don’t post it. Those are the simple things that I kind of live by in terms of whatever content I try to put out there.
How does it feel to cuddle with a lion cub?
Well, when they’re small, when they’re little like that, there’s a couple different things like, we’ll talk about [cubs] Araali and Zuberi, there’s a couple different reasons why we have to take them away from their mom in the wild. First off, they were born because [father] Mwali is a ridiculously early bloomer. Normally you don’t have to worry about fixing male lions until they’re getting close to their third birthdays. He was less than two years old when he successfully fired off a live round. That was insane. We talked to all sorts of different people within the zoological community, people that take care of lions, people that have bred in the past, and they were like, “I haven’t even heard of anything like that. That’s crazy.” Mwali’s kinda like that kid in junior high in the gym class where everyone’s taking off their clothes and you look over and you’re like “Oh my god!” There’s hair everywhere! That’s kind of like what Mwali was. Like, “Hey, surprise!” It’s like, “Aw, jeez!” And of course we have these babies.
Noelle, she was also extremely young herself. The fact that she was able to tend to those babies as a young first-time mother is nothing short of a miracle in and of itself. So, Mwali being young enough to shoot a live round and Noel being a first-time mom, and normally, it's notorious with the big cat, first-time moms, their babies will die because they don’t know what they’re doing. They’re painful, and all of a sudden these weird little wet wriggling things are coming out of them, and they’re afraid, they don’t know what’s going on. They don’t know how to take care of them. They might step on them or spit on them to get them to stop crying. Or they might eat them. I mean, there’s all sorts of things that can happen, but Noel, she kept all three of those little boys alive. It was amazing.
But she wasn’t taking care of herself. She wasn’t eating, she wasn’t drinking. For a long, long time, we were worried that bad things were going to happen to her. Also, when you’re talking about animals that are being raised in captivity, we want to make sure that they’re being imprinted at an early age on people because they’re not going to be able to get put back out into the wild, so they’ve gotta be able to socialize through the fence eventually as adult lions with people. There’s a tendency with cats that have been raised purely by their mothers that they become very vicious. They become very dangerous and it was a risk that we were just not willing to take. Those are cats that eventually kill people because it’s like they’re always trying to kill people. It’s not a good thing to have around. We got Noelle locked up and we were able to get the boys out of there.
They’re entirely dependent on you. They need to be stimulated to poop and pee. They need to be bottle fed every few hours, and -- the way that they smell, they smell like baby lion cubs, which is a hard smell to describe, but they do. They hug upon you. They feel safe in your arms. They seek you out when they’re afraid or when they’re feeling sick or just when they want to be around you. They take on these qualities of these little needy babies. I mean, they’re babies!
As they grow, you realize what they’re becoming. They’re becoming these very large animals and they’re becoming these powerful, enigmatic beings. Eventually you have to put more effort, more physical-ness into just taking care of them. Like with the boys Araali and Zuberi, I’m carving these big, massive cow legs into their enclosure. It’s also like, taking care of the cats in the compound, you’re utilizing your body to take care of them and to make sure that they have a good-quality life and that they’re staying alive. You put your body into them. You have to put your mind into them because, of course, the nature of the animals that they are, you have to constantly be mindful. You have to be constantly checking their locks and their pins and their gates, and there’s a very specific set of rules and patterns, and you have to be able to look at their body language and how they’re acting. So you’re putting your mind into taking care of them as well.
By proxy, by putting your mind and your body so deeply into taking care of them, you put heart into taking care of them. Again, it’s like you give everything of yourself. You give so much of yourself to these animals. I’ve had dogs and cats my whole life, and I’ve loved my dogs and my cats. But it’s not like the type of connection that you might have with lions and tigers. There’s something that’s very deep and very transcendent, I guess, with taking care of them. It’s also understanding them and understanding what they’re capable of and the fact that, yes, you do have the potential to have these really amazing relationships with these animals, but they’re still wild animals, and they could absolutely kill you, and there’s still that amazing amount of respect that you have to have for them.
There’s multifaceted elements to that whole thing. When you’re raising them from these little babies, realizing what they’re becoming, it’s almost like you’re proud of them. It’s a feeling that I can’t quite describe. When they hold you and they put their little nose into your neck, and they put their arms with their big, dumb paws around your neck and around your shoulders and they hold you so tight just because they want to be around you because you make them feel safe and feel good and happy — it’s amazing.
But it’s all going to end. Someday they’re going to get bigger, and someday they’re going to go out into the big cage. They’re going to graduate, and I’m never going to go in there with them again. You’ve gotta be careful how you construct that type of a message because it is a beautiful thing, and it’s a beautiful relationship, but I don’t want me waxing so poetic about this to inspire people to say, “Well, that’s what I want to do and go out and get these animals for pets myself.” Because you don’t realize there’s so many different things you’ve gotta know, and there’s so much money that you have to have. There’s the ethical, the moral, the legal implications of having these animals. The logistical, knowledge-based implications of having these animals that pretty much no one is truly equipped for.
That’s why we get these animals that have been seized or turned in to our facilities. They were former pets of people who had the same ideas. They had the same kind of like, “I want to have that type of relationship.” But they didn’t know all the other things because I talk about all those really beautiful, wonderful times. But I don’t talk about the times where they’re absolutely ripping apart your house. There’s property damage everywhere. They’re shitting and pissing all over the place. They’re biting. As they get bigger, they’re becoming more impulsive. They’re a lot more instinctually prone to hurting people, eventually to the point where they are certainly capable of killing people.
There’s no, “Basically, I used to wipe your ass” kind of thing. That doesn’t come into play. They become like shitty kids that rebel from mom and dad, and they have 4.5 billion years of evolutionary wiring inside their brains that dictates to them at certain points that “I’m going to get triggered to kill because that’s how I survive in the wild. I kill to establish my dominance, I kill to protect my territory, I kill to protect my young, I kill because I’m hungry, I kill because it feels good.” That’s what lions and tigers do. There’s no person in the world that can foster a strong enough relationship to truly fully eradicate that instinctual proclivity that is ever-present in their brains. It’s so easy to trigger those things in these animals.
They’re like toddlers in the way that they have very simplistic emotions. I tell this to people all the time: Working at a facility like the Center for Animal Research and Education is like working at a daycare center full of toddlers that can kill you. And it really is. That’s how you’ve got to look at it. That’s the emotional capacity that you’re dealing with. A bunch of crazy toddlers who happen to be 600-pound animals with really sharp teeth and claws. That is a very dangerous thing to be around. They have these amazing abilities. They can run fast, they can jump high, they can bite tremendously strongly. They have basically robot hard-wiring inside their brains that tells them to kill at various intervals. And then they have the emotional capacity of impulsivity of a toddler. That is not a safe animal to be around...
When they get full-grown, that’s why we stay on one side of the fence, and they stay on the other side of the fence, and that’s how it is. Because when you go in with them, when they’re adults, you’re rolling the dice. Those are not chances that we’re willing to take. You do something wrong, you get a chance of them having a bad day, maybe you fall down and lose your footing, and that triggers an instinctual response for them to basically go on top of you and dominate you, eventually killing you. There’s so many different things.
They don’t exist for us at all, and I think a lot of people think that they do.
These animals, they could possibly kill a person that they work with and enjoy being around, or they could possibly even hurt or kill another cat. After they come down from that instinctual and emotional high, they’ll look around and feel really bad about what it is that they did. Call it slipping into a depression. I’ve heard of cats getting really upset about hurting other animals and people they were fond of. Yeah, they can’t help themselves. They can’t help who they are. It’s like they’re an addict: I tried not to kill, but when the opportunity presents itself, I just have to. I can’t help myself.