At Zoo Lujan in west Buenos Aires, you can walk around in the lions' den, give baby tigers their bottle, and even sit on their backs and take selfies with them. The same goes for the giraffes, elephants, grizzly bears, and many other animals at the zoo, from parrots to turtles, goats and sheep.
This is one of the only places in the world where wild animals appear to accept being handled by strangers all day long, 365 days a year (the establishment is open every day of the year and only closes at night).
But if you take a closer look, the animals don't really have a choice. They're stuffed into minuscule enclosures, languishing away while they are chained up on tables so visitors can take photographs with them.
The animals appear to be drugged and depressed – they barely move, as if in a constant daze, and their eyes are glassy and lifeless.
"Save the planet"
The zoo asserts that their only goal is the "active promotion and conservation of biodiversity and the environment." They even offer a program for schools designed to "educate children to live an eco-friendly lifestyle [...] and promote sustainable use of the planet and its resources."
Because of their outreach programs, the zoo has compared itself to big institutions like the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) and even UNESCO.
They also deny using sedatives on the animals and say the "calm" nature of the animals in the zoo is a result of being exposed to humans from birth.
In parallel, the establishment offers so-called "zootherapy" which puts young children with handicaps in contact with animals like goats, horses and ponies.
Zootherapy has been recognized as an effective method for treating people suffering from mental, physical or social disorders because it significantly reduces stress. But animal-assisted therapy is typically done with domesticated animals like dogs, horses, rabbits, cats and occasionally dolphins.
So the fact that Zoo Lujan, an establishment that exploits wild animals for profit, claims to be an activist organization, is extremely disturbing.
Speaking with Oddity Central in 2012, Martha Gutiérrez, president of the Born Free Foundation, said:
"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."
TripAdvisor, what are you doing!?
Unsurprisingly, many organizations have started petitions to close Zoo Lujan and relocate the animals to better establishments, as was done with the old Buenos Aires zoo last year.
Under fire from critics, the oldest establishment in the city closed its doors for good, releasing nearly 1,500 animals to sanctuaries. But as for Zoo Lujan, they seem impervious to criticism.
Their website proudly displays a 2015 medal from TripAdvisor, claiming to be one of the top 5 zoos in South America. And when you look at the TripAdvisor website, Zoo Lujan has four out of five stars, 3,574 reviews, and is ranked as the second best tourist attraction in the province.
Except the comments are far from positive, saying things like: "Awful," "This is animal torture," "Shameful," "This zoo should close," and "A scam and a shame on this country and its visitors."
Last year, TripAdvisor announced they were going to stop selling tickets to attractions with wild animals due to a new anti-exploitation policy aimed at organizations that allow you to swim with dolphins, pet tigers or ride elephants – which is exactly what is advertised at Zoo Lujan.
So why is the zoo still listed on TripAdvisor along with their address and website, and the TripAdvisor award on the first page? It would serve TripAdvisor well to stop promoting cruel places like Zoo Lujan.