The Lujan Zoo, near Buenos Aires, Argentina, takes the concept of a petting zoo to a whole new level.
For about $25, reports the L.A. Times, the zoo allows its guests to touch and to ride and walk among wild animals, including lions, tigers and bears. Oh, my.
Photos around the Web feature docile lions and tigers lethargically lying about as people — even kids — give hugs and feed the beasts.
In this video from 2011, guests line up to be photographed with a lion that begins to roar. Incredibly, this doesn't stop the curious from going in for the photo op:
The zoo, which opened in 1994, keeps wildlife well fed and — as a result — calm when visitors arrive, according to Atlas Obscura. The animals are also reportedly raised among dogs, so they learn to mimic canine behavior — minus the nipping, biting and jumping, we assume
A Spanish-language video from the zoo appears to show the "bringing-up baby" method at work.
Reviews of the controversial zoo are mixed. Visitors seem torn — on the one hand, they are overwhelmed by the unique experience of touching a wild animal, but they also wonder what was done to make it possible.
"Amazing!" Gemma N. wrote on TripAdvisor on Dec. 26. "Couldn't bring myself to research too deeply into how the animals were trained (just in case it's terrible)." She added, "You can get up close, pat and sometimes hand-feed elephants, lions, tigers and bears ... we even got to hold little lion cubs."
"I enjoyed my visit," SnappleSpice posted to TripAdvisor. "But I did have my reservations about the entire experience. In the end, I'm glad I went because it's something that I don't think could ever happen in the U.S."
The wildlife protection organization Born Free USA, which tracks exotic-animal incidents in the United States, says that getting close to such creatures is a risky idea.
"Wildlife belongs in the wild," Will Travers, CEO of Born Free USA, told Yahoo Travel by email. "Evidence from incidents nationwide in America and more broadly in other countries shows conclusively that wild animals such as lions, tigers and bears, whether bred in captivity or taken from the wild, maintain their inner — and potentially dangerous — 'wildness.' Allowing any close contact with wild animals such as these is like playing Russian roulette."
So far, visitors seem game to roll the dice. According to the L.A. Times, the zoo receives thousands of guests a month. No evidence has surfaced to prove that the animals are doped, aside from the beasts' appearing visibly sleepy to travelers, reported the Times.
"These animals are not sedated. They do not receive drugs," Santiago Semino, a Lujan Zoo official, told Yahoo Travel over the phone. Instead, he explained, the animals came about the behavior naturally because they have been raised since birth by trainers with the help of dogs. He called this method "imprinting."
He noted that lions and tigers generally sleep "10 to 12 hours a day," which he said explained the sleepiness that tourists reported seeing.
Semino claimed that there have been no injuries at the zoo since it opened in 1994. He said one reason is that the instinct to hunt is removed at birth since the animals are constantly fed. The 80 lions and tigers "don't know what hunger is. They don't see any other animals as food. They get food all day," he said.
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