Visiting Thailand brings with it some pretty tempting tourist attractions. Some of the most notable things to do while visiting include elephant rides and getting up close and personal with tigers. It’s pretty easy to see why both these activities appeal to people; the animals are majestic and beautiful and getting to be so close to them and have an interaction with them is something you don’t get to do often. Sure, you can go to the zoo and peep at them through glass, but the chance to snuggle up to a tiger cub? Come on… that’s awesome.
A few years ago I probably wouldn’t have thought twice about doing either of these things. I would have jumped up on that elephant’s back and gone for a ride, I also would have happily petted a tiger or snuggled a tiger cub. But the more I learn, the more I’ve begun to realise that using animals to make money like this isn’t something I want to support. Tigers don’t want to cuddle me, I want to cuddle them and when it comes to a wild animal, what I want doesn’t matter.
This way of thinking isn’t new, thankfully there are a lot of people who are aware of the harsh treatment these animals receive and how they’re used as money making machines. In some cases there is little to no regard for their well-being or needs, they are just living tourist attractions. Luckily there are many people fighting for the rights of these animals and doing everything they can to educate others and make the exploitation of animals stop.
While I was writing my guide on 36 Things to do in Chiang Mai, I warned people about visiting places where you can ride elephants and pet tigers. A little further down the list, though, I listed the snake farm as a potential thing to do. Immediately I started to wonder if I was being a huge hypocrite. If I’m warning people off visiting places where tigers and elephants are exploited, shouldn’t I be standing up for the snakes too?
The snake show isn’t that different to any other animal show. The snakes are kept in their bags or tanks then let out in front of a crowd where some guy puts on a show and we all pay money for it and snap our photos. When I think about it, the only reason I have for not standing up for the snakes is that I don’t like them. Snakes gross me out, they don’t fill me with that same sense of wonder and awe I get when I look at an elephant or tiger. So I can’t help but think… maybe I’m being discriminatory against snakes? Maybe I am a speciesist? I think that’s a thing… auto-correct didn’t try to change it, so it must be.
I feel like I have to make a choice here, either another animal’s life matters to me or it doesn’t. I have to have a consistent approach here, right? I can’t go around telling people not to contribute to the exploitation of wild animals and then tell them that snakes aren’t included in that. “Guys, DO NOT get up on that elephant’s back. It’s not cool. But, if you do want to have some fun, get yourself down to the snake show. You can’t ride it, but it’s still pretty great.”
This line of thought pushed me deeper. What about zoos? I’ve been to zoos before. I’ve held a snake and had my photo taken with them. I’ve also gotten up close to Meerkats and hand fed them fresh fruit. I was lucky enough to meet my most favourite animal in the world, otters, and get to have one sit on my lap while I hand fed her fish. This little animal was absolutely beautiful and I was completely in awe of her, suddenly wanting to learn and do more for otters. Now, before I do anything that could potentially stuff up a water-way, I think “What if this water got to an otter? What would it do to its environment?” Being that close to them educated me and gave me an awareness I didn’t have before. But, I’m not sure if that makes it okay or not.
Let’s be fair, I’m not about to strap on a very small saddle to an Asian Small-Claw Otter and try to take a ride on it, but still, the size of the animal shouldn’t matter, right? If I’m paying to interact with the animal at a wildlife park or zoo, am I going against something I believe in? Maybe I’m contradicting myself.
What’s the difference between the otters at the zoo and the elephants in Thailand? I’m paying for both, both are kept in captivity and both experiences are for my benefit. The differences I can see are the conditions the animals are kept in, it feels to me like the otters have a better life and their needs are put first, with a focus on conservation, awareness and protection. Whereas the elephants are forced to undergo huge amounts of physical strain daily and are used like an amusement ride. Also, the rules of interacting with the otters were very specific. I was not to touch them or grab them and if they didn’t want to interact with me they would not be forced. It felt like it was up to the animal, not me.
Another thing that has been toying with my mind is horse riding. I grew up around horses and love to ride them, not that I’m very good at it. I love the smell of them, the way they move and how amazing it feels to be connected with this beautiful animal, both of us trusting the other one. But, wait, if I’m not supporting elephant rides, should I not be supporting horse rides too? I have no idea where to draw the line.
I’m not writing this with any life-changing answers in mind, it’s just something I’ve been thinking about a lot lately and something I’m trying to work out in my mind. I’m really happy we have access to information that lets us know some animals aren’t being cared for properly and misused by some tourist vendors. I’m also really grateful we have amazing vets, volunteers and keepers who work really hard to care for animals, rehabilitate them and keep the species growing.
When I met the people who cared for the meerkats and otters they were extremely passionate about the care and conservation of the animals. They didn’t see them as captive creatures used to make money, they saw animals who needed to be cared for and whose safety was a huge priority for them. My desire to be near them, as a visitor, was low down on the scale of their priorities. As it should be.
The good news about all of this is I know I’m not alone with this and, as a result, we have more choices when it comes to travel. We have the ability to stay at eco-friendly hotels and visit animal rescue sanctuaries, where hard-working and dedicated people give their time and love to helping animals. There are some of these places in Thailand too, though I read somewhere that some of them may not be what they seem, which is why it’s always really important to do your research before visiting any of them. Still, we do have more choices and more information available to us and that’s wonderful.
I shared all these thoughts with a reader and friend, Anna of One Happy Leaf. Her words were wonderful and simple, “When you know better, you do better.” That is a great starting point. A few years ago I didn’t know enough about what happened to these animals and it was impossible to make an informed decision, but now I do. I can’t guarantee I’ll get it right every single time, but as I learn more and understand how different aspects of the tourism industry work I’ll be able to continually make better choices. All I can do is try to be a good human and make the best decisions possible.
I’d love to know your thoughts on animal-friendly tourism. What would you do and where do you draw the line? What decisions have you made about visiting animal-based tourist attractions? Please share your thoughts in the comments below or on Facebook.
Watch Matt’s video from his trip to Singapore’s incredible Wildlife Reserves
Phoebe Lee is a travel writer and award-winning blogger with a love for storytelling. Phoebe creates practical, fun and engaging written content designed to inspire and energise travel-lovers and dreamers. Follow her and Matt’s adventures at home and around the world, right here on Little Grey Box and through Instagram, Facebook, and YouTube.