LUJAN, Argentina — Manu Peclat, a tourist from Brazil, had already fed vegetables to elephants, thrown fish to seals and posed for pictures with two white tigers. Now, it was time for the bears.
A zookeeper unlocked a gate and led Peclat and a few other visitors inside. After trading chunks of raw sweet potato for pesos, the keeper roused 3-year-old Gordo from his slumber.
The brown bear languidly lumbered over.
Peclat held out his hand, and Gordo gently gobbled up the snacks. Their close encounter lasted long enough for Peclat’s friends to snap several photos with their phones. Then, they took turns feeding the bear.
At the private Zoo Lujan, a short bus ride from Buenos Aires, a $25 fee allows visitors not just to look at the animals but to go inside their pens. While Peclatwas cozying up to Gordo, a group of high school students from the United States stroked the mane of a full-grown lion.
The zoo’s managers say that it’s all perfectly safe and that there have been no accidents since its opening in 1994. Animal-rights activists say it’s only a matter of time before there’s a deadly mauling, and they accuse zookeepers of doping the animals to keep them docile.
It was a blustery day in the middle of Argentina’s winter. This being the slow season, only a few dozen visitors strolled the sprawling zoo grounds. They were outnumbered by the animals.
The zoo’s collection includes 80 lions, 25 tigers, seven camels and three cougars, as well as monkeys, foxes, llamas and a herd of deer. Behind the cafeteria, two elephants padded around an enclosure and a group of sea lions splashed around in an above-ground pool that would have looked at home in a suburban American backyard.
The property on the border of a Buenos Aires suburb and the vast, flat countryside was packed with cages, as well as several dozen antique cars and tractors, giving it the feel of a surreal farm.
When owner Jorge Semino bought the zoo property in 1994, it had sat abandoned for several years. He knew a thing or two about how it worked because his family, which owned a farm, had supplied the zoo with food when it was running in the 1980s.
Semino started with two tigers and a lion, according to his cousin, Claudio Nieva, who is now the zoo’s manager and spokesman.
From the beginning, Semino wanted to breed animals tranquil enough for humans to touch, Nieva said.
Semino takes credit for developing an unusual system of domestication that begins even before the animal is born.
Take a pregnant tiger. In the final days of her pregnancy, she is sequestered and cared for by zookeepers, who massage the mother’s stomach and deliver her cubs. Their first contact outside the womb is with humans. Instead of fighting with their siblings to nurse, they are placed, one by one, at their mother’s nipples.
The zookeepers continue the close interaction and make sure the growing tigers are never hungry. Soon the cubs are introduced to other animals, which the zookeepers encourage to put the tigers in their place when they show signs of aggression. That way, the official explanation goes, the tigers never realize their true strength.
Nieva fiercely denies accusations of drugging the animals. Keeping the animals sedated day in and day out would be extremely costly and risky, he said.
He said zookeepers take good care of their charges, although he acknowledged there’s no way of knowing what the animals think.