Every animal lover that lives to travel knows the struggle that comes with experiencing as much wildlife as possible abroad without giving money to organisations that profit from animal abuse. A National Geographic study found that despite wildlife attractions accounting for between 20-40% of all tourism, 80% of reviewers didn’t realise that certain attractions weren’t good for the animals. So all I ask, is perhaps try to learn about it beforehand so you can be an ethical tourist and protect the animals we all love so much.
Some travel companies such as TripAdvisor have taken steps recently to prevent cruel companies from selling tickets on their site, the problem still remains. As a long time vegetarian and animal rights advocate, the fact that these companies are legal and enabled with the money of so called animal lovers is infuriating. Having had the opportunity to travel around South East Asia this summer I noticed that cruel animal exhibits, particular elephant riding were not only ubiquitous but advertised as a staple part of the tourist experience.
I’ve drawn together a list of five key animal experiences to avoid when travelling, along with an ethical alternative for each. I hope that at least one person reading this will avoid giving money to a company that makes its money from exploiting animals.
1- Bullfighting (Spain): Often seen as the quintessential Spanish cultural event bullfighting involves a matador fighting one or more bulls in a bullring before a crowd. Before being killed in the ring the bulls are beaten, have their horns shaved to mess with their balance, and have petroleum jelly rubbed in their eyes to impair their sight. The bulls themselves are not the only victim of this cruel sport as horses are often used to run bulls in circles to add excitement to the fight which can result in them being gored or even killed by charging bulls. Fortunately, opposition against bullfighting is growing and in 2010 Catalonia’s Parliament banned it. However, it is still a tourist trap in Spain.
Recortadores: if you want to experience the culture of bullfighting without the bloodshed bull leaping or recortadores is a great alternative. You get to watch performers use their intuitive connection to the bulls perform acrobatics alongside them.
2- Lion Walking (Southern Africa): Lion Walking experiences can appear to be relatively harmless as the baby lions are seemingly not harmed as a result of the encounter with humans. However things aren’t always what they seem; the lion cubs you meet are prematurely taken from their mothers to supply the lion tourism industry and will face a lifetime of captivity. Their day to day lives consist of being roughly handled and posed with for pictures until they are killed when they grow too big to be kept.
Safaris: When done with an ethical company, such as the AfriCat foundation in Namibia, watching lions and other animals in their natural habitat is a far more rewarding experience than seeing them in captivity. In general, any experience that allows you to touch a wild animal is usually to be avoided as often these animals have to be sedated or brutally trained to interact tamely with humans.
3- Elephant Riding (South East Asia): Seen as the ultimate experience when visiting countries like Thailand and Cambodia, elephant riding is actually very cruel and damaging to the elephants. Unlike African elephants the backs of Asian elephants are not able to withstand the weight of a human let alone a heavy seat. Many tourist-carrying elephants have nerve damage and chronic inflammation in their spine; which is why traditionally mahouts (elephant riders) sit on the elephants’ necks when riding them. Moreover, in order to train them for a life of people carrying these elephants are separated from their mothers at a young age and beaten and stabbed with bull hooks. However ethical a company claims to be, know that elephants are never supposed to be ridden by anyone but a mahout and certainly not by a tourist.
Elephant sanctuaries: Visiting an elephant sanctuary, such as Elephant World in Thailand, not only allows you to see beautiful elephants up close, but it is a great way to support charities that rescue elephants from cruel trekking companies.
4- Tiger Temples (India and Thailand): Tiger Temples are possibly one of the cruelest exhibitions you can visit in Asia. The purpose of visiting them is to see a ‘wild’ tiger up close and then pose for a picture. What is less commonly known is that in order to be placid enough to pose for your selfie the tigers are heavily sedated and made to lie in the boiling sun to be petted. They spend the rest of their time being confined to solitary cells for twenty hours a day and beaten with sticks by the monks that keep them.
Tiger reserves and safaris: Companies such as TOFTigers in India which allow you to view tigers in the wild are particularly good because they put a portion of their profits towards tiger conservation efforts.
5- Dolphin parks (Worldwide): PETA’s campaign against SeaWorld’s dolphin and Orca captivity programme has shed light on many of the cruelties associated with dolphin parks. Any place which keeps dolphins or other sea mammals in captivity should be avoided. While in the wild dolphins swim long distances every day and exist as part of complex social groups; yet in dolphin parks they are limited to swim in monotonous circles in tanks that are the equivalent to a bath for humans. In these conditions they become depressed and aggressive; furthermore, the tricks they perform come from training centered around food deprivation. Orcas suffer further with many experiencing broken teeth from chewing on the metal bars that surround them. At least forty-four orcas have perished at SeaWorld in the US from causes including psychological trauma to intestinal gangrene; and over sixty bottlenose dolphins have died at SeaWorld in the past 10 years alone.
Boat trips to see dolphins and whales in the wild: Avoid any institution including aquariums that keep dolphins and orcas in captivity and treat yourself to a fun boat trip where you can enjoy these beautiful creatures in their natural habitat.
Beyond this list the golden rule for being an ethical tourist is to research EVERYTHING. If you are interested in visiting an organisation that provides experiences with animals it takes two minutes to Google the name of the company. Red flags should show if they have any history of cruelty to animals, if they are known to keep animals in cages and if they are a for-profit organisation rather than a sanctuary or an animal charity. When in doubt it is simply better to find an alternative activity. Remember animals are not entertainment, props for selfies or workers, they belong to themselves and it should be a privilege not a right to view them in their habitat.