Dartmoor Zoo hits back at animal cruelty claims

The owner of a British zoo which starred in a Hollywood film has hit back at animal cruelty claims over guests playing 'tug-of-war' - with a lion.

Dartmoor Zoo launched the "human vs beast" challenge earlier this month - charging visitors £15 to try and wrestle meat from the jaws of a lion or tiger. But some claim the practice is cruel, and a petition was launched to ban the activity at Dartmoor Zoo in Devon.

Owner Benjamin Mee, who was played by Matt Damon in the 2011 film We Bought a Zoo, insists the activity is good for the big cats and mimics life in the wild.

The 53-year-old, told the Plymouth Live that not only do the animals "love" the experience, it is an "enriching exercise" and helps earn cash that can be used to rebuild the 30-year-old lion enclosure which "needs upgrading".

"People are making a fuss about nothing," Benjamin said. "I think this is 100 per cent the right thing to be doing; the lion loves it.

"One of problems people have potentially raised is the lion doesn't get fed unless he wins, but obviously that isn't the case. Another issue is around his teeth - well, have you seen pictures of lions tugging at wildebeests' faces? Their teeth are really strong - they are not coming out. But that's nature isn't it, it's gruesome. In the wild the level of force a lion puts its whole physique through is considerably more than we can replicate.

"They do genuinely tug with other animals over carcasses and one of the things for him personally is he understands it's for his benefit."

Zoos across the the world host similar tug-of-war experiences, but have also attracted criticism from groups including PETA and Born Free. The latter urging Dartmoor Zoo to reconsider it's 'Human vs beast' offering:

Furthermore, a petition against the tug-of-war activity started by sue Dally on the campaign website 38 Degrees says: "Dartmoor Zoo are selling tickets for £15 each to have a tug-of-war with a captive lion or a tiger. It's cruel and shows a total lack of respect for these beautiful majestic wild animals.

"It feels like we're going backwards, the zoo is acting more like a circus rather than somewhere that really cares about the health and safety of the endangered animals in their captivity.

"The zoo claims it's to give the animals intellectual exercise and fun, but it comes across as putting profits before the animal's welfare. There are plenty of ways that experienced professionals can care for the rare animals, without turning them in to a novelty play thing for tourists."

Britain's best zoos
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Britain's best zoos
Chester Zoo is the most visited wildlife attraction in Britain and has 12,000 animals from 400 different species, around half of which are on the threatened list. The zoo has just opened the first stage of their Islands project which will see the sights and sounds of South East Asia brought to the park. 

Colchester Zoo is home to a number of rare and endangered species including sun bears from Canada. Visitors can feed the elephants and giraffes themselves before taking a ride of the Lost Madagascar Express train. For the little ones there's the Jungle Tumble soft play area which gives adults the chance to relax after touring the park.

Blackpool Zoo has a large number of popular exhibits including Giraffe Heights, the Big Cat House and Gorilla Mountain. The children's zoo allows younger visitors to enjoy a more hands-on experience with the chance to feed and handle the animals living there. The zoo is also home to a collection of life-size dinosaur statues which make up the Dinosaur Safari exhibit. 

The Cotswold Wildlife Park and Gardens is the largest privately owned zoological collection in the UK and houses more than 260 different species of animal. Visitors can watch the penguins and lemurs being fed daily or you might be lucky enough to catch one of the big cat feeding times.

Folly Farm Adventure Park and Zoo is home to the only giraffe in Wales as well as many other exciting animals including lions, penguins and rhinos. The Jolly Barn and Farm boasts a number of farmyard animals and visitors have the chance to get up close and personal with their favourites in this section of the park. 

At Paignton Zoo the animals are categorised by their habitats with exhibits including the desert house, the tropical forest house and the tropical savannah area. Once you've seen all the animals you can take a relaxing stroll along the Nature Trail or meet Paignton's bird population in the Bird Show before getting involved with feeding the animals.

The vision behind Durrell Wildlife Park was that it would not only be entertaining for visitors but also a centre of research, education and animal conservation. The wildlife park works with some of the most endangered species from across the world and the park is home to animals from the Galapaos, Madagascar, the Caribbean and more. 

Drusillas Zoo Park is a small zoo aimed at young children between the ages of 2 and 10 years old. The park is home to a number of rare and endangered species including red pandas, black lemurs and ring-tailed lemurs. Visitors can also get really hands on at the park and take part in one of Drusillas 'Keeper for the Day' sessions where you'll be able to clean and care for a number of the park's animals. 

Whipsnade is home to a number of exciting animals including Nepalese rhinos, hippos and cheetahs. The zoo covers an area of 600 acres and due to its size visitors can travel between enclosures either by foot, on the park's bus service on in their own cars. You can even spend a night at the zoo in the Lookout Lodges which are next to the white rhinos. 

Axe Valley Wildlife Park is run by a husband and wife team who offer guests a range of experiences while visiting the animals. You can choose to spend some time with your favourite animals, enjoy a handling session with some of the animals or even get up close and personal with some creepy crawlies if you're brace enough.

In response to the petition Mr Mee said the activity continue regardless, adding it would be "bitterly ironic if animal rights campaigners stop animals getting enrichment in zoos".

"I will not be persuaded not to do the activity unless someone provides me with evidence against it and I would be amazed at that," he said.

"I understand some of the criticism is around it being a form of public entertainment, and we are being paid to entertain crowds, but it is engagement at its purest form. People get a real appreciation of the power of the animal, which you just can't get from a documentary."

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