ABC News’ Cameron Brock and John Muller report:
It looks like a scene out of a box-office smash movie.
But for Jeff Harwell, 30, an animal handler at Arizona’s Out of Africa Wildlife Park in Camp Verde, Ariz., running at full speed, being chased by a full-grown tiger or waiting for the 450-pound animal to pounce is part of a normal day.
Every afternoon for 30 minutes, Harwell performs in the “Tiger Splash” arena where he plays, roughhouses and seemingly taunts the park’s tigers in a 50-foot swimming pool, all in front of a live audience.
“We’re just playing, having a good time, you know? All I see is her eyes and how intense they are, and trying to figure out what move I’m going to make that will make her spring,” Harwell told ABC News.
The show has been taking place since 1991 with no major injuries. But Harwell realizes how dangerous the job can be.
“If she wanted to me harm, there’s pretty much nothing I could do about it,” Harwell said.
Such a profession begs the question of whether Harwell gets scared on the job. “Yes, I get scared all the time.” he said.
Zoo experts say there is nothing wrong with how Out of Africa interacts with its animals, but reiterate that the handlers are trained professionals.
But critics say that no matter how well-trained Harwell is, performing alongside wild predators doesn’t always lead to a happy ending.
“Eventually, somebody is going to get killed because they do this on a daily basis,” Adam Roberts, executive vice president of animal rights group Born Free USA, said. “It only takes one time for this to be a tragedy.”
It’s a harsh reality that visitors to exhibits promising up-close animal encounters have seen time and again.
A lion at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas lashed out at his trainers in front of stunned guests in 2010. And roadside animal attractions across America have experienced numerous attacks. One Oklahoma toddler was captured by undercover Humane Society cameras receiving severe cuts after getting pounced on by a tiger cub.
For Harwell, however, braving animals that others see as dangerous is worth it.
“A lot of times, I forget anybody is watching, and we’re just playing,” he said. “It’s just my tiger and me.”