Zoo Luján, is reportedly “The World’s Most Controversial & Dangerous Zoo,” so why then does it attract several thousand (if not more) visitors each year? I first stumbled upon the establishment back in January (a time when I was slightly obsessed with researching BA) and kept it in the back of my mind as a place to check out. I mean come on, how cool would it be to come home and show friends and family pictures of you cuddling with lion cubs and perhaps even going face to face with the papa OR even a tiger?! Right before shipping off down south, Pat Conklin, a good family friend from home (and my former employer), mentioned in passing that her son, Michael, had just returned home with incredible photos of him riding a lion! Such cool bragging points – I mean, where else in the world would one ever be able to do that?!
Where else in the world would one ever be able to do that. . . . hm well, nowhere. Perhaps if you were a wild animal veterinarian who worked with wild beasts in zoos, or a lion tamer for the circus (do they even have lions in circuses anymore?) However, I could not come up with any place in the world that would permit any random citizen into the cage of a wild beast, neither to see, pet, and surely not to snuggle n’ nuzzle. With this thought, my curiosity rose. After a google search or two, I found a very opinionated post written by 5 Election: the International Coolhunting Magazine. The writers expressed a similar curiosity as I had done, and were ultimately shocked by what they came to see. Reading this account made me both disgusted and (unfortunately) even more curious to see the injustices before my own eyes and satisfy the touristy hunger within me.
So I went one glumby, greasy, overcast August morning. Around 8:30 am near Plaza Italia, my friend Anna and I caught the #57 Colectivo, which was more or less a coach bus, that took us an hour out of the city towards Lújan. Side note: Luján is a wonderful little town, full of family-owned restaurants, a wonderful feria in the center of town on weekends, and the humungous, historical Basilica de Nuestra Señora de Luján. Right outside of this lovely town is the notoriously controversial Zoo. The bus dropped us off right on the highway’s off-ramp, thus we had no other choice but to follow our trust of the bus driver’s pointed finger and word that our destination was just around the corner… I’m not necessarily thankful, but our noses confirmed that fact. The smell of rot mixed with mud and manure was emanating from who knows where, but was a sure sign that we were close. Sure enough, we see a small, blue, rectangular sign reading “zoo” in bright white letters with a corresponding arrow directing us on our way. Finally we see an old, dilapidated fence, some posts tilted at angles, some fallen completely, but held together nonetheless by wooden planks and wires, some of which were barbed. Behind the fence were fields of brown, choppy, muddy mush with a variety of apathetic-looking hooved and horned animals just minding their own. If anything, this cold, damp and gray winter day did nothing but amplify the feeling of uneasiness in the depths of our stomachs.
We finally came upon the entrance to the zoo, marked by another little blue “Zoo Luján” sign, this one with a round image above of a cutesy cartoon elephant prancing around the grass and flowers. Needless to say, the zoo itself was quite the opposite of such merriment. Upon entering, we learn that the entrance fee is a whopping $130 pesos (which in reality is only equivalent to $28 USD, or $21 if you get the 6-1 exchange rate at xoom or the black market). Still, it’s a hell of a lot more than the $30 pesos we expected it to be. Apparently that special price is only for native Argentines (slash, we’re foreigners and they knew they could jip us). Anna and I exchanged a look, but nevertheless proceeded to hand over our pesos. The young man accepting our money proceeded to hit on us, asking if we had boyfriends and if they were in Argentina.. oh no? oh but you’re so beautiful, linda, let’s get a drink, etc etc, all of which is quite tame, really, and common treatment towards us U.S. women in Argentina, but tis annoying all the same.
A bit further beyond the front entrance was a small cage, roughly 3 x 5 ft, barely large enough for the beautiful young lion cub caged within. Ducks, geese, roosters, crows and wild dogs roamed freely about the grounds. The geese were probably the most violent creatures in the whole zoo. I saw one chase and almost maim a small child who was carrying “animal food” to give to one of the horses. Thankfully the mother was there to snatch the food out of the toddler’s hands, diverting the goose’s attention. The first animal we came upon was the tiger. As we waited in line, we began to exchange some conspiracy theories. The most pressing concern was the tiger pacing back and forth behind along the fence right in front of the tasty-looking humans… we figured it was looking at the dog or chicken behind us… But hey, at least that tiger had some life in him. The animal that we were able to take pictures with was a massive beast that was laying high upon a pedestal of sorts. Every so often they would feed it some kind of milk-like solution… but who’s to know if it was actually milk or if it contained some other kind of chemicals. En serio, the animal was stone-faced and barely moved the whole time that we were waiting to enter the cage. Also, I didn’t notice til leaving the cage, but there was a heap of 7 or so tigers (and oddly one lioness) ‘sleeping’ in what appeared to be a giant cuddle puddle near the front left corner.
Our suspicions grew more when we passed by the lion cubs. There were a bunch of dogs inside the cage with the cubs, apparently it’s a way to domesticate them… Nevertheless, the cub ‘on display’ was not the cutesy, cuddly, playful baby that one would expect, but was instead sprawled out lifelessly on the pedestal, apathetic and motionless while surrounded by happy-go-lucky tourists who beamed with joy. It was like they didn’t even care that the cub was nearly incapacitated… all they cared about was getting that one piece of evidence that showed them touching the wild beast.
Anna and I couldn’t even bear to enter that cage, so we made the executive decision to go to the big lion’s cage and then call it a day. We’d seen enough.
The papa lions were in a similar state as the babies. There were two of them, nearly passed out asleep. As we peered in the cage, there was one lion that was somewhat coherent and would accept the milky concoction. (Apparently the zookeepers would ensure that every visitor would get the opportunity to feed it). As we were waiting in line, we were entertained by a sassy little rooster in the tree above our heads that would crow whenever people would walk by, giving them a fun startle. About an hour later (it was a long line), Anna and I finally made it into the cage with an obnoxious group of Brazilians and their tour guide. Thankfully Anna and I were the first ones to take pictures, and 5 minutes later we were all set. All done, that’s it. We ask one of the zookeepers to get us out of there. He was hesitant: Oh? You don’t want to feed the lion? Why not? We just said it made us nervous, so his questions went no further and he let us out. Far from the beast; far from the obnoxious tour group; far from the questionable formula.
Zoo Luján is also home to a small arena of mud-covered horses, their space, like that of the hooved animals near the front, was all dirt and mud with no grass to be seen. There are also peacocks, elephants, camels, monkeys, an impressive tractor and vintage car collection, and a bunch of other animals. Although I’m a sucker for peacocks, we couldn’t stay any longer. We met my family friend at the entrance, who took us into the center of town for some delicious lunch at one of his favorite restaurants and then Anna and I took a nice long nap on the #57 back home.
So where does this leave me… Am I glad that I went to Zoo Luján? Yeah, not really. Although I now have a stronger appreciation for animal rights, I am still sickened to think about how much we contributed to animal cruelty that day. In my opinion, animal rights groups have plenty of reason to question and investigate the happenings at this facility. Let’s just say that you would never ever see anything like this in the USA. Unfortunately, Argentina does not have the same animal rights norms that we have established up north. That being said, most of the income generated is through tourism, which leads me to question the values of those who visit the zoo (many of whom, like Anna and I, are from the US). To be perfectly honest, I think our disgust (in both the zoo and ourselves) was a unique reaction. The majority of those whom we observed in the zoo were absolutely loving it. They were beaming with excitement to be able to feed milk to a lion or be in the presence of a cub. Perhaps they were thinking.. so what if it’s passed out, maybe it was just sleepy… Ignorance is bliss. Consumption of the exotic: it draws us in and intrigues us. If you had the opportunity to pet a lion, would you do it? I did. I wouldn’t do it again, but that’s because I already did. The zoo continues to operate because they continue to generate a profit. As long as people continue to pay to get their once in a lifetime experience with the wild beasts, this zoo will remain in existence… no matter what the cost is to the health and well being of these animals. It’s truly a shame. This is why I write this post. If you ever find yourself in the province of Buenos Aires, my advice would be to save your money and your conscience and skip out on Zoo Luján.
For some animal lovin, check out Zoo Buenos Aires. It’s much more fun, cheaper, not to mention more aesthetically pleasing. You’ll also get to have some true Snow White moments with some other cool-looking animal friendz without feeling like you’re contributing to animal cruelty! Win win win.