A zoo has been condemned by animal rights campaigners who have said it was cruel to charge visitors £15 to play tug-of-war with lions and tigers.
More than 2,000 people have signed a petition calling on Dartmoor zoo, near Plymouth, to end the attraction pitting four people against a big cat.
The “human v beast” competition allows visitors as young as eight to pull on a rope running beneath a gate and attempt to prise a slab of meat tied to the other end from the jaws of an animal.
The zoo, in south-west England, argues the activity helps keep the male Amur tiger, Dragan, and African lion, Jasiri – who weigh 25 and 23 stone respectively – fit and healthy.
But an online petition set up by Sue Dally called the competition cruel, adding that it showed “a total lack of respect for these beautiful majestic wild animals”.
Writing on petition website 38 Degrees, Dally said: “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 into a novelty plaything for tourists.”
One supporter who signed the petition wrote: “If these animals need intellectual activity they should be provided with suitable enrichment activities and not circus tricks to entertain humans.”
Meanwhile, the charity RSPCA said: “We understand that the zoo feels this will provide physical enrichment for these big cats but there are many alternative ways of doing this and we feel it should not be marketed for public entertainment and that this activity does not promote respect for animals.”
Others disagree, with one visitor posting a video of the experience on Twitter last week, adding: “Absolutely amazing experience yesterday at @DartmoorZoo with my wife! Tug of war with a [lion] and yeh we lost lol!”
The zoo’s owner, Benjamin Mee, has refused to scrap the attraction, which was launched this month and is open to children as young as eight. Mee’s memoir chronicling his experience of setting up the zoo, which is based in a 33-acre site, inspired a film starring Matt Damon and Scarlett Johansson. We Bought a Zoo was released in 2011.
The 53-year-old zoo owner told Plymouth Live: “People are making a fuss about nothing. I think this is 100% the right thing to be doing; the lion loves it.”
A spokeswoman said: “In the cooler weather Dartmoor zoo’s keepers occasionally do rope-pulling with their big cats for enrichment purposes. 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.
“Over February half-term, the zoo is for the first time enabling a small number of visitors to join in with the keepers, to experience for themselves the strength of the animals and to learn more about these threatened species. The zoo is a charity and money raised from participation in the experience goes toward the zoo’s conservation, education and research efforts to improve captive animal management and protect wild habitats that are being destroyed or lost.
“The enrichment activity works by attaching meat to a rope, which is fed through to outside the animals’ enclosure, and waiting until the animal picks it up. It is completely at the cat’s discretion if they want to engage with the enrichment and they are not forced to participate in any way. The experience is just for a few minutes once a day and will alternate daily between our lion and tiger.”