At most zoos, people walk around and look at animals in enclosures. That, however, is not the case at Australia’s Monarto Zoo.
Those who wish to pay the zoo’s lion pride a visit are the ones who end up in a cage.
“The experience is designed to basically reverse the concept of a zoo.”
It’s all part of the Lions 360 experience, which allows visitors to get up close and personal with the big cats.“The experience is designed to basically reverse the concept of a zoo,” said Elaine Bensted, the chief executive of Zoos South Australia.
Lions are free to roam their 10 hectare (or 25 acre) habitat and visitors, after going on an educational bus tour, are led through a tunnel and into an open-air cage.
“Then the lions can choose if they like to come and look at them [the humans], jump on top of the cage and circle it,” Bensted explained. “And really, the visitors are immersed into the heart of the lion’s den.”
During the experience, which happens twice a day, visitors also have the opportunity to feed the lions. Beforehand, keepers explain to the visitors how to feed the lions with tongs so that no one gets hurt.
It’s all meant to showcase the natural behaviors of lions.
As part of Lions 360, visitors get to witness lions displaying territorial behaviors they use to establish dominance in the wild.
“While the pawing and growling during Lions 360 certainly makes for a hair-raising experience for visitors, it’s a completely healthy behavior for our amazing lions,” the zoo explained in a press release.
Bensted explained that while the experience is good for the lions in terms of sensory stimulation, it also gives their keepers the opportunity to see the big cats from a different perspective.
“They can check out the underbelly of the lions when they sort of go up on all fours, they can see their teeth, their claws — so it’s a really nice way of doing extra health checks which we like to do with our animals,” she added.
For the visitor, what’s been described as an “awe-inspiring” experience, also becomes an educational one. Bensted said visitors learn about the biology of a lion, how they are cared for at the zoo and how the experience helps raise money for lions in the wild.
During the last 21 years, the wild lion population has declined by 43 percent and the zoo notes that there could be as few as 20,000 lions left in the wild. The African lion is also listed as “vulnerable to extinction” by the International Union for Conservation of Nature.
Bensted added that the Lions 360 experience is helping the zoo increase their financial contribution to conservation work, “which was really another critically important part for us in designing this experience.”
In the future, Bensted said they may try to create this experience with other animals like the zoo’s hyena pack.
Read more stories from Alix Hines on Circa.