Surprisingly, my initial anxieties about stepping into the tiger cage had abated, “how silly”, I thought, to have worried about socializing with these calm and majestic creatures who were now slurping up milk from my palm. My heart jumped, however, when one of the tigers crept up from behind, slithered around my waist and nudged its massive head under my arm to get in on the action. “Gently, gently,” one of the cats’ trainers instructed. I found the advice reassuring as well.
Luján zoo, about an hour and a half outside of Buenos Aires, provides visitors the opportunity intimately interact with its animals. Visitors can feed lions and tigers milk from their hands as they caress their fur. They can hand feed grapes to the grizzly bears or, if so inclined, follow the trainer’s lead and allow the bears to use their tongues to snatch the grapes from between their lips. They can stroke the leathery skin of the elephants and toss fishes to the sea lions.
All of this feeding and petting of the animals takes place without patrons being required to sign any legal waivers, and there seems to be no worry that anything could go wrong. Since the zoo opened in 1994, there haven’t been any attacks or other violent incidents, and the zoo’s director, Jorge Semino attributes this to his unique methods of raising the animals.
Semino’s methods are centred around the animals’ constant interaction with people. The big cats receive the most attention, and immediately following the birth of a new litter of kittens Semino and his trainers begin working to diminish the aggressive behaviours associated with the competition for food. During nursing, the trainers make sure that each kitten is able to gain access to one of its mother’s teats, and that nursing time is distributed equally.
As the kittens grow they begin to be hand fed meat. Using vocal cues, the trainers teach the kittens to recognize the difference between their hands and the meat. In the same way that dogs are taught to recognize vocal commands, the lions and tigers respond to the command suave, or gently, as an instruction for them to both ease their bite and generally behave more calmly.
The kittens are also raised in the constant presence of dogs, and they witness how the dogs peacefully and obediently interact with people, and theoretically learn to model this behaviour.Semino says of his methods, “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.” Juan José Bianchini, a biologist who works with the animals at the zoo, states, “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.”
Many people, however, do not see the zoo as an example of peaceful coexistence among species, but rather as an extraordinary demonstration of how zoos exploit animal’s welfare for their own commercial gain. The Born Free Foundation, an international animal rights group, has called on local authorities to launch an immediate investigation into the zoo’s practices. The group has started an online petition against the Luján zoo, which so far has collected 1,400 signatures. The petition states, “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 (ADDA) which successfully campaigned for the closure of one of the biggest circuses in Argentina, thinks that the mission of the zoo, to show that such diverse species as humans and tigers can live together peacefully is altogether misguided. She says, “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.”
Dr. Juan Romero of the local animal rights group Association SOS Vida, vehemently condemns the zoo: “It is one of the worst in Argentina on multiple accounts: conditions, objective, structure but especially for allowing close contact between animals and people. It puts both people and the animals at risk. Like most zoos, there is no useful function, it is only a business and made at the expense of abuse.”
In response to such accusations, Semino says that he respects these groups for their work towards the welfare of animals, but asserts that the issue is more complex: “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.”
Semino points out that while zoos might not be the ideal place for wild animals, at least at the Luján zoo they are well fed and receive constant attention. He says, “in most zoos, all they do is throw the food over the bars and hardly give any attention and love to the animals. It is much easier to not risk anything and prevent any potential human error by only taking care of the ticket office and not the animals. In our case, our animals have to be in a good mood, so we always try to make them happy and give them the best possible quality of life.”
Still, other critics claim that it is not Semino’s methods and affection that pacify the animals, but instead accuse the zoo of sedating them. Past visitors have speculated on this in online postings, and Martha Gutiérrez says she has heard the same from concerned animals rights groups.
When asked for his comment on the matter, Dr. Daniel Mudrovici, a Buenos Aires veterinarian who specializes in exotic animals and has attended to those at the Luján zoo for many years, called the claim “a pure invention”. He added, “if it appears that way it is because their eating habits have been altered. They are constantly satiated, and have lost their drive to hunt prey. They are mostly overweight and don’t get enough movement; the secret is that, there is no mistreatment that makes it worse than other zoos.”Dr. Mudrovici went on to say that he would prefer to see wild animals in their natural habitats as opposed to in zoos or circuses, but the unfortunate reality is that these places exist. He believes that the owners of such venues are less to blame than the government organizations that allow them to continue.
One recent visitor to the Luján Zoo, Lee Ann Jensen, a college student from Texas and a committed vegan, said that the animals appeared to be treated much better than those at both the Buenos Aires Zoo and the one in La Plata, where, “the animals looked sad and emaciated.”
It is undeniable that the animals at the Luján Zoo live in a manner entirely different from their natural existence. It is debatable, however, how their quality of life compares to that of other wild animals in captivity.
The Luján Zoo is located just outside of Luján, at the 58km exit off of the Acceso Oeste highway. The easiest way to get there is to take the 57 bus from Plaza Italia. The fare is $20 roundtrip, and the trip takes about an hour and a half each way. The bus line has a ticket office outside of La Rural, on Avenida Sarmiento, but if the office is closed you will have to pay with coins, so come prepared.
The Luján Zoo is open everyday of the year from 9am until sunset. It closes during heavy rains. Entrance costs $40 for adults, and $30 for children under 12 years old.