Welcome to the World’s Craziest, Most Controversial Zoo

At the Lujan Zoo, on the outskirts of Buenos Aires, visitors can do much more than admire wild animals from a distance. They can ride on the backs of wild lions, feed tigers or hand-feed cheetahs.

You couldn’t pay me enough to get up close and personal with a full-grown lion, but apparently there are people out there who can’t wait to get into a cage with it, and at the Lujan Zoo they get to do just that. Daredevils can feed grapes to the grizzly bears or even allow them to use their tongues to pick up the fruits from between their lips, pet elephants, ride on the back of tigers and whatever else you can think of that involves interacting with wild animals. I know what you’re thinking, all this is an accident waiting to happen, but you’ll be surprised to learn that ever since the zoo opened in 1994, there hasn’t been a single accident. In fact, zoo keepers are so confident nothing is going to go wrong that they don’t require visitors to sign any waivers before entering the animals’ cages, and they even allow small children.

Photo: The Wide Wide World

But what makes wild predators act so tame around human strangers? Many have argued that animals at Lujan are sedated so they don’t pose a danger to visitors, but zoo representatives have denied these accusations, saying it would be impossible to constantly drug the animals because they would soon become sick and die. According to Jorge Semino, the zoo’s director, the secret lies in his unique methods of raising the animals, which involve constant interaction with people. The big felines receive the most attention, and as soon as new cubs are born, animal trainers start work on diminishing violent instincts associated with competition for food. They make sure they all have access to the mother’s teets and that nursing time is distributed equally. As they grow up, trainers start using vocal commands to teach the felines to recognize the difference between their hands and the meat they are fed. Dogs are also used as an example. Semino says the big cats witness as the canines gently and obediently interact with humans, and this serves as an example for them.

Photo: The Wide Wide World

“The only way is to raise them from when they are babies  and educate them with love, affection and respect, and they will return the same,” the Lujan Zoo director said about his methods. Juan José Bianchini, a biologist who works with the animals at the unique zoo says “the early learning causes the animals to lose their aggressiveness in a total and irreversible way. They learn to live with other species and lose the aggressive drives which are primarily related to the competition for food.” Animals at Lujan are fed constantly to keep them satiated and prevent them from even thinking of visitors as food.

Photo: The Wide Wide World

According to statements made by representatives of the Lujan Zoo, many of the animals there are sick undernourished house pets people bring in illegally. Because Buenos Aires is so close to the Brazilian rain forest, exotic animals are sold as pets all the time, but people get bored with them, so they end up at the zoo, where they are fed, cured and trained to act friendly around humans.

Photo: Matheus

All of the above would have you believe that Lujan Zoo is a wonderful place where man and beast can interact peacefully, but not everyone believes that. The Born Free Foundation, an international animal rights group, has asked authorities to investigate the practices at the Argentinian zoo, stating it exploits animal welfare for commercial gain. The online petition they launched against this place, a few years ago, read  “No one wants to see animals forced to behave in ways which are abnormal and degrading to them, and no one wants to see Luján Zoo (or any zoo) putting its visitors at risk.” Martha Gutiérrez, the president of the Association for the Defence of the Rights of Animals, also said the zoo’s intention of pacifying wild animals was misguided: “I think it gives a terrible message to the public about the relationship between animals and people. These are wild animals, and are not meant to be under our control.”

Photo: Jesse Akin

Jorge Semino said he respects these animal right groups and the work they do, and admits Lujan Zoo may not be the ideal place for wild animals: “We know that this is not the ideal place for an animal to live, but many zoos, including ours, give protection to animals that were abandoned or born in captivity. An animal born in captivity and who has spent many years in contact with humans can not be released into the wild. They don’t know how to survive on their own.”


The Internet is full of photos of people petting and feeding all kinds of wild beats at Lujan Zoo, and while some speculate the animals are way too calm around people and they must be sedated, there are others who say that although the only fitting home for them is the wild, animals here are treated much better than at other zoos around the world.


Sources: Argentina Independent, Zoo Lujan

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