Monday, October 29, 2012

Lujan Zoo

A trip into the campo is more or less an adventure in and of itself, especially for a foreigner. Today's most noteworthy sightings include: A. Buses driving on the highway, full of soccer fans hanging out the open doors and windows, on their way to the country's most intense match, B. Casual encounters with lions and tigers, and C. A criminal fleeing the police by running down the center of the highway. My guess is that if you let the numbers do the talking, option B is the safest.
Lujan Zoo, located in Buenos Aires province, has been toted as "bizarre," "controversial," and "the world's most dangerous zoo." The (semi legit) reason behind these titles is that it's allegedly the only zoo in the world where guests are allowed to get in the cage with and pet a variety of exotic creatures including full grown and baby lions and tigers, monkeys, elephants and a range of other more common animals like camels and farm animals.
That reason, of course, is exactly why I've been dying to go for months. Yesterday, I finally made it. Since the timing of the visit coincided with the Boca/River Plate Superclásico, lines were short or nonexistent. (Touching lions and tigers just doesn't complete with the thrill of a soccer match to most Argies.) Though, some lion and tiger handlers listening to the game on a handheld radio were less than enthusiastic about answering our (distracting) questions while we pet the animals, but I digress. 
(The scene of the indifference. Check those tiger-handler flip flops and that radio)
Some info about the zoo: It's quite old and basic; they don't seem to focus on landscaping, updating or general atmosphere. It's not in bad condition per se, in fact it's exactly what I expected, but if you don't get out of Capital much you might be suprised. It's also designed to be a recreational park along with a zoo. Thus, they have some playground type activities for kids, food stands and picnic tables, and fields for playing soccer and the like. There is also an old tractor/old vehicles "museum" a la Jeeper's Creepers complete with a gas masked army scarecrow, and a small train. I doubt throngs of people are trekking into the campo for these attractions alone, but it helps make a full day of the trip.
The cost of entrance is A$R 70 for Argies and A$R 130 for foreigners. This includes free parking and all the animal touching you can handle. They have professional photographers throughout the park but you are also welcome to take your own pictures everywhere, except the tropical bird and reptile area. I'm not entirely sure why that is. The handlers also happily help with group pictures or solo travelers, in fact they're quite skilled as photographers. (The lion shot above is an example of this!) You are also free to bring your own food and drink. So, that totals out to about U$D 30 for the experience of a lifetime. 
Perhaps the most surprising thing about the zoo is the casualness of it all. There's no waivers or training session. You just wait in line, go into the cage when they call you, and stand where they tell you. Dogs and tigers share cages, so the human-friendly behavior of the dog rubs off on the tigers. Plus, the staff who I doubt were trained zoologists, were cracking me up all day with their candid comments. According to one handler, the tigers don't mind being pet, but if you do it too lightly you tickle and thereby irritate them. When asked about the rumored drugging of the animals, the staff told us that they aren't medicated, just heavily fed. But, if they were to leave the animals two weeks without eating, no one could get near them. 
In this video, my friend and I are inside the cage of two white Bengal tigers. The handler tells us, "it's like raising a dog. People come and touch them and then they get used to it. Well, but these are new, we just got them a few days ago, so we're getting used to them." Meanwhile, outside the cage another worker tells my boyfriend that the animals are new, and the staff don't really know how they will act so they don't let just anyone into this cage. Only trained professionals like us?
All in all the trip was amazing. The zoo was impressive, and though I had doubts about the condition of the animals the vast majority looked and acted healthy and content. I think that for the animals to be so docile around humans they must have the love and trust that comes from years of good treatment. To me, the controversy is all drama. Guests brave enough to get close won't regret it.

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