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Zoo Draws Outrage After Video Shows Guests Playing Tug-A-War With Lion

One of the great frustrations of animal lovers comes down to how difficult it can be to know what they're thinking at certain times.

Sure, it's sometimes pretty obvious when one is really happy or under a great deal of suffering, but anyone who has ever been bitten by a dog wagging its tail knows it's not always so easy to read an animal's feelings. After all, they can't talk to us.

If they could, that would certainly make it easier to settle one debate taking place behind one of a British zoo's practices shown in the full video.

If you haven't heard of the Dartmoor Zoo near Plymouth, England, you may have heard about how it began.

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That's because its owner, 53-year-old Benjamin Mee, chronicled his experiences in starting it up into a memoir that would eventually inspire the 2011 movie We Bought A Zoo starring Matt Damon.

But the zoo hasn't just received attention for how it started.

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The keepers there also participate in a method to train its lion and tiger that's attracting controversy.

"In the cooler weather Dartmoor zoo’s keepers occasionally do rope-pulling with their big cats for enrichment purposes.”

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“This type of activity, which is common at many zoos, is very important to keep the animals fit and healthy as it encourages exercise, which builds muscle mass,” a zoo representative told The Guardian.

The zoo recently announced that it will open this activity up to the public with what it calls the "Human vs. Beast" competition.

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For the equivalent of $19.58, guests as young as eight years old can join in on the tug-of-war exercise in which they try to pull meat from the animal's mouth.

As the full video shows, the activity is usually done in groups of four.

The reason that kids are allowed to participate is that the tug-of-war is safe for the guests.

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The rope they pull runs through a gate that separates them from either Dragan the Amur tiger or Jasiri the African lion, depending on whose turn it is that day.

However, the concept of letting guests pay to engage in this competition with the animals has rubbed animal rights advocates the wrong way.

One by the name of Sue Dally set up a petition calling for the attraction's end that, as The Guardian reported, has gained over 2,000 signatures.

As she said, "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 into a novelty plaything for tourists."

But as far as Mee is concerned, there's no reason to scrap the attraction.

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

A spokesperson from the zoo also told The Guardian that it's up to the cats involved to participate or not engage with it and that they aren't forced to in any way.

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They also said it takes only a few minutes once a day and they alternate between the lion and the tiger daily.

They also said that the activity lets guests learn about these rare animals and experience firsthand how strong they are.

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Moreover, they say the money raised from the competition goes towards the zoo's conservation, as well as education and research projects to protect threatened wild habitats and and improve care for captive animals.

Critics counter that the animals aren't necessarily enjoying the experience, but rather acting out of instinct because there is fresh meat involved.

It is also worth noting that the Facebook post promoting the "Human Vs. Beast" competition, as captured in a screenshot above, is no longer on the zoo's page.

The criticisms don't end there, either — dozens of concerned viewers have responded to the video with strong opinions.

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Twitter user @raccoon_mama wrote "Really? This is entertainment to you? This is selfish."

"That lion is acting out of instinct & you are teasing him. This is not fun or funny."

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"Perhaps you need to do more research on animals in captivity. True enrichment & stimulation does not involve exploitation!" they concluded.

Nonetheless, other posts promoting the keepers' use of the technique remain so they show every indication of standing behind the practice itself.

You can see guests participating in the tug-of-war for yourself in the full video.