RAWR

Hollywood’s Favorite Sham Petting Zoo

Celebrity visitors go there to take selfies with baby lions. Animal activists say it’s a bogus sanctuary looking for profit.

01.07.16 5:01 AM ET

Eduardo Serio loves his cats—all 200 of them.

The felines aren’t normal-sized. They’re “big cats”: jaguars, lions, and tigers that range in age from newborns to adults. Most have been purchased from circuses and petting zoos through The Black Jaguar White Tiger Foundation (BJWT), an organization the Mexico native founded in 2013 to “rescue” them.

BJWT isn’t your typical animal sanctuary—actually, it’s not even registered as one. Situated near Mexico City, it appears to consist of a house with a modern interior and a 100-acre property filled with grass. What it lacks in size it makes up for in likes, boasting 4 million followers on its five-post-a-day Instagram.

From pictures of fierce lions eating chicken to videos of tiny tigers chewing shoes, it’s a world almost too adorable to believe. Most posts feature Serio, who calls himself “papa bear” posing with the animals. They nuzzle into his lap or playfully nip at his hands.

In one particularly gut-wrenching video, he feeds a baby lion like an infant, positioning a bottle of between its tiny claws. In another he films a stunning full grown tiger gnawing at his left hand. “She inherited her gorgeous looks from me hahaha,” he writes.

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The posts, which regularly get hundreds of thousands of likes, almost always include social activism hashtags like #SaveThePlanet, #BoycottTheCircus, and #SaveLions. They’re a not-so-subtle nod to Serio’s mission: “Rescue big felines from cruel circumstances and provide them with the best lifestyle possible.”

While the general public is not allowed to visit BJWT, Serio’s foundation does include a monthly sponsorship section where donors win prizes based on the dollar amount. Fifty dollars a month, for example, earns you a “beautiful dedicated photograph of your sponsored baby.” One thousand dollars a month earns you both FaceTime calls “with your baby” and a two day visit to BTWJ.

Celebrities seem to have a free pass, with the likes of Debra Messing, Kellen Lutz, and, most recently, the Kardashians stopping in to pet the cats. The last visit landed Serio on a new episode of Keeping Up With the Kardashians and inspired him to name the newest tiger cub “Khloe.”

The event seems to have propelled Serio and his brand further, leading to even more backlash from the animal activist world. To celebrities like Khloe Kardashian, it’s a place to learn about white tigers and take selfies with baby lions. In the eyes of animal activists, it’s a dangerous non-sanctuary run by a man who’s “fooling millions” into believing he’s saving big cats, when he’s actually just exploiting them for profit.

Of the activist sites, 911animalabuse.com seems to have been following it the longest, disclosing that it’s tried reaching out to Serio for a year.

“Black Jaguar White Tiger is nothing more than an ego project from a well-meaning, but seemingly delusional man,” they write. Adding later: “I don’t think he’s only in it for the glory—he genuinely seems to think he’s ‘saving the world’ by ‘rescuing’ every circus cub in Mexico. Sadly, like so many animal hoarders, he can’t see the harm he’s doing.”

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In the most comprehensive report on the foundation to date, writer Jacalyn Beales takes an even firmer stance against Serio. She points out that while his website mentions eventually obtaining “thousands” of acres for his “angels,” he currently has less than 100. That’s less than one full acre per cat.

Physical space, it seems, isn’t the only problem. While under Serio’s care, the animals are “constantly getting human warmth and attention,” creating what he calls a “bond of pure and innocent love.” But while anyone who’s looked at his Instagram can see that he cares deeply about the creatures, no one can say if he’s actually aware of what this much human contact can do. In Serio’s mind, the best lifestyle for these cats is one that’s “governed by LOVE and RESPECT.”

This mindset, according to Beales, isn’t just ill-advised, it’s dangerous.

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“The basis of the Foundation is to raise these animals on interaction and human dependency so as to nurture and foster a healthy environment,” she writes. “But if one were to look at any of the credible, ethical sanctuaries and organizations which—globally—rescue and care for large cats, it’s startlingly clear that such methods are not only unsustainable and foolhardy, but a disaster waiting to happen.”

While some studies have shown benefits of human to animal connection, including a recent survey of zookeepers nationwide, most experts advise against it. In a section on petting zoos, Big Cats Rescue explains how the interactions can delay or even stunt big cats’ development.

“Being held under the arms and tossed up in the air is… an unnatural and unpleasant experience that causes the cub stress, making them temporarily stop doing the behavior that is natural.”

Beyond the potential risks for the animal, interacting with 500-pound animals can be deadly. According to the Humane Society, there have been more than 300 dangerous incidents (PDF) between big cats and humans in the past 26 years, spanning 44 states. Many of the incidents turned fatal, and at least of four of them involved kids.

Serio, it seems, is either woefully unaware of these risks or in denial. In his FAQ section he insists that his “babies” will not turn on him—which mostly boils down to “treating all beings with love and respect,” and expecting to receive the same in return.

“As a team who prides themselves on treating all beings with love and respect, we trust that we will receive the same back,” he writes. “It’s the bond of pure and innocent love that keeps us living harmoniously among one another. We are family.”

To his credit, he admits that there are “boundaries,” ones his team is both aware of and respects, even urging against people owning them as pets. “It takes full-time commitment, awareness, experience, and all of the right resources to successfully care for these Angels. Please do not let our relationship with these beings fool you,” he says. “Remember that they are strong, fearless, wild Angels and this fact should not be taken lightly.”

On top of concerns about safety are accusations that BJWT is, more or less, a modernized version of a petting zoo. While it’s likely few would dispute how much Serio cares for the animals, many have pointed out how exploitative it is to be constantly filmed and photographed—especially when money and Hollywood are involved.

Beales, echoing others on Internet forums, calls Serio’s foundation a “private rescue project of one man” who has completely disregarded the consequences. “[It] may appear to many to be a sanctuary, but its apparent methods of utilizing its animals for donation mongering and notoriety all but nullify its status as anything other than a playground for the rich, famous and ignorant,” she writes.

The allegations raised by Beale and others highlight the need for international rules on animal conservation and stricter boundaries between humans and wild animals. Without them, as Serio’s situation proves, the line between adoration and exploitation can be irreparably blurred.

Multiple attempts to contact Serio and his team before the article was published went unanswered.