One of the most wonderful things about travel is getting the chance to see new and interesting animals. While Australia has a lot of great native animals, seeing an adorable little wallaby nibbling by the roadside is vastly different from spotting a huge elephant in the Thai jungle. With the wonder of these animals comes the lure of interacting with them and, in many countries, savvy locals have seen this as a money-making opportunity. At first glance, these attractions may seem harmless but dig a little deeper and what really happens is quite heartbreaking.
I’ll be the first to admit I didn’t know all of these animal tourism experiences were bad for the animals. There was a time I thought an elephant ride was a great idea and I’ve even recommended visits to Owl Cafes in Tokyo before. Thanks to other people sharing information on these attractions, I now know these types of experiences aren’t acceptable and when you know better, you do better. If like me, you weren’t aware of how detrimental these experiences really are, I implore you to read and then share this post, so more people can also learn the truth and help end the suffering of thousands of beautiful animals worldwide.
It may feel like the problem is so widespread that one person can’t possibly make a difference. That couldn’t be further from the truth. By refusing to take part in any of these activities, you are reducing the demand. Without the tourist demand and money coming in, providers won’t find it financially viable to continue using animals in this horrible way. You can make a difference by simply saying no.
1. Elephant rides
I suggest you watch this video – be warned it’s extremely traumatic, heartbreaking and very graphic. In order for them to be ridden by or perform for tourists, elephants must be broken in. This process requires a young elephant to be taken from its mother at an early age and repeatedly beaten and tortured until its spirit is broken and it submits to its master. This process is known as ‘the crush,’ and involves continually subjected the young elephant to pain, often with the use of metal bull hooks or wooden battens. The elephants suffer incredible amounts of trauma and stress, not just through this horrific process but also by being continually caged, ridden and forced to perform, unable to roam freely, as they would in the wild.
I was on a press trip in Thailand and asked a Government employee what was being done to end this horrendous treatment of the animals. They told me, rather proudly, that providers must employ a veterinarian to monitor the animals’ health and well-being. Yes, that’s right, someone who is PAID by the provider and has a vested, monetary interest in them being ‘healthy’ is in charge of monitoring their health and assuring they’re fit to ride/perform. If that doesn’t sound right to you, it’s because it isn’t. Self-regulation doesn’t work when money is involved. Here are some better alternatives.
2. Tiger experiences
As young cubs, tigers are torn away from their mothers and, in some situations, drugged to ensure they are subdued and pliable. They are then used as props for photo opportunities and selfies for hours on end. They are picked up, handled and cuddled by tourists as though they were a domestic house cat.
Typically, these are animals are kept in tiny cages, chained their entire lives, living on concrete floors. They will never know the feel of the jungle beneath their feet. They will never get the chance to run, jump, hunt, play and live the full lives they deserve to live.
A 2-year investigation, conducted by Care for the Wild International (CWI) revealed horrific cases of animal abuse and tiger trafficking by the very popular (and now shut-down) tiger temple in Kanchanaburi, Thailand. Here, tigers are drugged, chained to the ground by their necks, have tendons in their legs cut, are taunted with raw meat, have claws and teeth removed and are frequently kicked, punched and dragged by the tail to get them into tourist-friendly positions. It is disgusting. Sadly, shutting down one temple doesn’t end the problem. These practices are still carried out on animal tourism tigers across the world. Thankfully, there are amazing people in the world like Mandai Wildlife Group, working hard to educate people and fight against bad practice.
3. Holding turtles
I was on a press trip where this happened and myself and the other Australians on the trip flat-out refused to take part, trying to explain to the organisers that it was incredibly stressful to the turtles and inhumane. Our words fell on deaf ears.
Holding a turtle causes a huge amount of stress, which can have a terrible impact on its immune system. Given the survival rate, to breeding maturity, is 1%, I don’t think we can really afford to be messing around with their immune system. As it is, sea turtles face a terrible fight for their lives. Many will die by ingesting plastic bags, mistaken for their favourite jellyfish snack, or drown, by being caught up in fishing nets.
Not only this but during the times of stress, the turtle may instinctively flap its flippers wildly, struggling to get away. This intense movement can cause fractures and detached claws, not to mention the cases of people who panic when the turtle wriggles and drop it, causing significant injury to the shell, which can result in death.
4. Lion experience
This is an issue very similar to the tiger one above. Young lion cubs are bred and ripped from their mothers within a few short weeks of birth, causing incredible trauma and stress for both the mother and her cub. Tourists are then given the opportunity to handle, cuddle and pose with the young cubs for hours on end. If the cubs become rowdy, they are hit.
Once they’ve outgrown their adorable cub phase and no longer seen as ‘cute,’ they are used for walking with lions experiences. Tourists are given sticks, with which to ‘gently’ reprimand them if they get too close. Seriously, if you’re using a stick to reprimand a lion, you’ve got bigger problems in your life. After 18 months on the walk rotation, they are then locked up, with limited opportunities to hunt, run, play and stretch their legs.
It’s important to note, these organisations may tell you the lions were orphaned and/or they will be released back into the wild, even after interacting with humans. Neither of these statements is true. Don’t buy the bullshit they are trying to sell you. It’s possible you will be encouraged to visit a conservation park, lured in by the promise you’re helping out by contributing to their breeding program of captive lions. According to experts, contributing to these programs is of no actual conservation value. Instead, you’re best placed to visit protected areas where the money goes into conserving the protected areas and the wild lion population with them. You can read more here. Again, not all of these places are bad, you just need to do your research to find the good ones.
5. Dolphin shows
When caught in the wild, dolphins are often chased by high-speed boats, caught in nets and hauled aboard. Their lives are spent in tiny spaces, a drastic change from the wide open spaces they are used to and desperately need. When bred in captivity, they never know the sensation of true freedom and there are reports of mothers drowning their cubs by not allowing them to come to the surface to breathe.
Captive dolphins often suffer psychosis, spending their lives in small tanks, leading to heart attacks and gastric ulcers. They are routinely given antibiotics, vitamin supplements, and ulcer medications as they are fed a diet of frozen fish, which does not carry the full range of nutrients they require and obtain naturally in the wild.
Forced to perform each day, they face a lifetime of suffering, posing for photos with tourists, pulling them through the water by their dorsal fins and swimming with them in small enclosures. The pools are often treated with chlorine, causing health problems for them, including skin and eye irritations.
6. Street performing monkeys
In places like Thailand, especially, you’ll often see macaques being used as performers on the streets and even in venues. If you’ve ever seen a wild monkey, you’ll know they’re very spirited, lively and cheeky. In order to get them to act as performers, they are repeatedly, aggressively and painfully trained to walk and mirror human behaviour.
When they aren’t being forced to perform and earn their keep, they are chained in small cages with little in them to entertain their minds. They often fall victim to disease and infection as the chains grow into their skin, becoming embedded.
7. Bear enclosures
In heartbreaking situations, bears are kept in concrete pits, some in small cages they can scarcely turn around in. Devoid of any kind of mental stimulation or behavioural enrichment, the bears are crammed into overcrowded pits, a far cry from the relatively solitary lives they lead in the wild.
The animals endure huge amounts of stress in these awful captivity situations. They often lead to injuries sustained due to fighting in the crowded pits and contract bacterial infections as well as suffering a whole range of mental health issues.
In certain situations, bears are forced to perform. They are dressed in costumes and forced to ride bikes and balance on objects. The process of getting them to do as they are told involves strenuous and unnatural training.
8. Kopi Luwak
Kopi Luwak is popular in Indonesia, where adorable little Civets greedily and happily eat coffee cherries. The beans in the cherries, excreted by the Civets, are collected and turned into a very expensive and, supposedly, delicious coffee. Drive through Ubud and you’ll see many places selling Kopi Luwak and some offering experiences to tour the ‘farm’ and see the Civets.
If the excreted beans are collected in the wild, the Civets are not harmed and the experience is cruelty-free. However, when there’s money on the line, things often change and foraging through the jungle for Civet poo is time-consuming and expensive. So, in an attempt to increase production, Civets are captured and caged in tiny, crowded, metal cages, fed an unhealthy amount of coffee cherries. I’d recommend you watch this.
They suffer at the hands of force-feeding, resulting in poor health due to bad nutrition. They are subject to disease and injury as well as mental-health issues often resulting in self-harm and mutilation as well as pacing. The abused animals are kept in captivity indefinitely, without the opportunity to explore a tree or feel the branches under its feet, confined to a horrid cage until death. You can read more here.
9. Snake show
If you happen across a snake charming show on the streets of Thailand it may feel like the person performing is a dare-devil, risking their lives to kiss a cobra on the head and somehow living to tell the tale.
The reality is, the Cobras are often captured in the wild then subjected to the horrific practice of having their fangs forcibly removed and their venom ducts either blocked or removed entirely. These procedures are not just inhumane, they are often conducted by people who are not animal-medicine professionals, using unsanitary equipment that can lead to infection and death.
10. Crocodile Farm
While it may seem harmless to visit a crocodile farm, the reality behind them is heartbreaking. They are bred en masse to supply the demand for their meat and to supply the fashion industry with their skins, often being skinned alive. If you have the stomach for it, watch this video of crocodiles being skinned alive in Vietnam. It broke my heart. The skins are used by fashion brands including Louis Vuitton.
Before you purchase any crocodile skin product, I’d urge you to put yourself in the position of that animal and imagine being skinned alive. Imagine the trauma the poor soul would have experience in its last appalling moments so someone could have an expensive handbag, belt or pair of shoes.
The conditions at crocodile farms are often horrendous. They can be housed in squalled, overcrowded and unhygienic pits. These awful living conditions obviously create a terribly stressful situation and can lead to septicemia. Unable to fight the infection, fatal diseases develop and the crocodiles can die. In addition, there is a lot of in-fighting, due to the limited space, food and water. It’s not uncommon for crocodiles to rip limbs off each other, often dying from the injury.
11. Assorted photo opportunities
When you travel, you’ll come across many opportunities to take a photo with an animal. This can take the shape of wild cats and foxes, birds of prey and even adorable little creatures like otters. Truth be told, Matt and I took a photo with a fox along the roadside in Morocco, caught by young local children. I feel incredibly ashamed of it and sick to my stomach about it now but at the time I didn’t know better. Thankfully, now I do and I can make informed choices.
Let me just say this – if you can touch, hold, smooch, cuddle and take a photo with an animal you need to assess the situation and figure out if it’s appropriate or not. There are some who do it well, Australia Zoo and Mandai Wildlife Group are two great examples of best practice, where the animals interact with you if they choose, but you do not interact with them (no grabbing, patting etc).
I’d also like to take a moment to say that this is not a comment on all animal experiences. There are many organisations out there devoted to the protection, conservation, rehabilitation and unconditional love and support of animals. There are thousands of selfless souls working hard to rescue and protect animals from bad situations while also seeking to educate people. Please do your research and look for these people instead.
What can you do to make a difference?
- Refuse to attend animal performances or take photographs with animals, unless in situations organised by world-recognised, reputable, conservation-style programs (Mandai Wildlife Group is a shining example of best practice!). By reducing the demand for the ‘experience’ and reducing the money to be made from them, you are reducing the supply.
- Report any case of animal cruelty you see. Download the Wildlife Witness App to your smartphone and use it to report animal abuse, animals show or products for sale, spotted around the world. These reports are anonymously sent to TRAFFIC, who investigates them.
- Remember this slogan – ‘You buy, they die.’ Purchasing animal products creates demand for them. By making the conscious decision to stop purchasing animal products, you are directly fighting the cruelty many animals sadly receive.
- Do your research! There are many amazing animal organisations out there that offer the chance for you to see native animals and, most importantly, learn about them. Go through reputable, reliable organisations only. You can still meet elephants in Thailand, you can still see lions in Africa, you just need to take the time to make sure the organisation behind the experience is reputable.
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