Lujan Zoo Offers a Startlingly Up-Close Look at the Wild

Posted by Rachel S on Thursday, August 15th, 2013

Up close and personal at Zoo Lujan

If you can’t get enough of all things four-footed and fuzzy, you likely love zoos. Some of my favorites are those where you can interact with the animals. Some zoo aviaries allow you to offer seed or sweet drinks to feathered friends. Petting zoos allow opportunities to pet and feed treats to domesticated farm animals. But when it comes to exotics and big cats, in most zoos they remain in habitats viewable from a distance or through glass. But Zoo-Luján outside of Buenos Aires in Argentina offers a hands-on experience with even the most dangerous of predators.

Bears, tigers and lions are among the fuzzies that Lujan’s guests can pet and hand feed which is amazing enough, but made more incredible because you can visit with them in their enclosures – up close and personal. The idea of being able to stand that close to (and even touch) a big cat is amazing and terrifying. Who doesn’t want to pet a tiger? But you have to wonder if this is an evolution in zoos to be explored or disaster waiting to happen. Reviews of Lujan on TripAdvisor are mostly raves that cite it as a once-in-a-lifetime experience.

Mouth feeding grapes to bears at Zoo Lujan

Claudio Nievo, the zoo’s manager, believes he has an innovative method to functionally domesticate the giant predators enough to be friendly and receptive to handling by trainers and zoo guests. Bear, tiger and lion cubs are raised alongside dogs and have constant human contact from the moment of birth on. The dogs are constant companions to the animals and hang out in their enclosure with them to keep them company – and keep them in line.

It’s an interesting notion, but is it foolproof? This calls to mind the accident with Roy Horn of Siegfried and Roy fame. The duo had raised white tigers for years when one of their “pets” grievously injured Horn. The tiger didn’t attack, but rather was trying to help Horn after he fell on stage. Unfortunately, Montecore (the white tiger) treated Horn like one of its own and in doing so, nearly killed him – not realizing human flesh is far more fragile than the scruff of its own kind.

In addition to the hand taming, the animals are fed well, says Nievo, “We feed all the animals, especially the predators, so they won’t feel hungry when a human is inside their cage.” It’s comforting to know that the giant predators won’t be hungry when you’re petting them but it’s important to understand that these animals are tame – not domesticated!

It’s an important distinction. A domesticated animal is less likely to eat anyone while a tame animal is only less likely to eat its owner. And big cats cannot be domesticated – they lack the genetic predisposition that wolves, foxes, pigs and cattle possess. In the 20 years since Lujan Zoo opened, they have had no incidents, but that doesn’t mean it couldn’t happen tomorrow.

Cuddling with tigers at Lujan Zoo

And when the inevitable happens – driven by the hubris of the two legged furless animals that run the facility – and a zoo visitor is maimed or killed – what will happen to the animals? Animal attacks often result in the creature being destroyed solely for behaving like the wild animal that it is. So we have to ask, is it cruel to risk their lives for our pleasure – and the zoo owner’s profits?

I’ve had the opportunity to pet a liger (a cross-bred lion/tiger) cub and a rescued Florida panther and have fed bears, snakes and alligators. I count myself among those who would gleefully (and perhaps foolishly) pony up the $25 entry fee to get up close and cuddly with these potentially dangerous creatures. But I can also appreciate the concern and wouldn’t want to see the eager humans or the innocent animals harmed if nature took its course…

Not the safest ride in the world - Zoo Lujan

If you’re planning a trip to Buenos Aires and put the Lujan Zoo on your travel itinerary, know that their website says children under the age of 16 are not allowed in the enclosures (but photos posted online show this may not be a hard and fast rule). If enforced, the policy makes sense – even to the friendliest of big cats, little ones have to look like bite size snacks! Also, they don’t allow touching of the face or feet since that can aggravate even the laziest of house cats – but feel free to hop on the back of Simba and take a ride.

image sources: PicsToPin.com, Decolar.com, MotoAdventureGal.com, LiveInternet.ru

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