“Most people love animals and don’t want to see them abused. But the sad truth is that animal lovers — in their desire to be close to wildlife — inadvertently contribute, in a major way, to animal suffering,” says Ben Williamson of World Animal Protection, an international nonprofit animal welfare organization (www.worldanimalprotection.us). Whether it’s riding elephants in Asia or going to see an orca show at a marine mammal park, our patronage of captive animal entertainment presents a real threat to captive animals and their wild counterparts, Williamson says.
Simply put: Cute cat videos aside, animals are not entertainers. The tricks animals in captivity are forced to perform are completely unnatural, Williamson says. In real life, bears don’t dance, and dolphins don’t walk on their tails. Biologically, elephants were not built to carry humans on their spines. That once-in-a-lifetime experience for you might mean a lifetime of suffering for the animals.
As travel journalists, we have participated in many activities like this in the name of adventure. Those close-up encounters that once seemed irresistible now get a hard pass. Bottle-feeding a baby tiger may garner more Instagram “likes” than a distant view of a big cat on safari, but, no.
“This is about animal welfare, but it is also part of the broader concept of responsible travel, which encompasses supporting local communities and environmental sustainability. These are interconnected themes,” says Lael Kassis, vice president of Market Innovation & Development for EF Go Ahead Tours, the adult division of global education and travel company EF Education First (www.goaheadtours.com). “Our travelers want to understand, now more than ever, what we’re doing to ensure that the places we visit are being helped, and not harmed, by our presence.” The company began collaborating with World Animal Protection in 2018.
Those dolphins are not smiling
Avoiding dolphin shows is a no-brainer. “Marine mammal parks force captive dolphins to give rides and perform unnatural tricks such as waving and even breakdancing for thawed frozen fish. This is no life for these intelligent animals,” Williamson says. “Dolphins cannot thrive in a tiny, barren concrete tank that is several hundred thousand times smaller than their natural home ranges.” While it might look as though a dolphin is smiling, this is just the shape of their jaw.
Even something as seemingly harmless as washing an elephant, or taking a selfie with a tiger, is a sign that animal abuse is occurring, he explains. Elephants used in the tourist trade are “separated from their mothers, tied to wooden uprights, and jabbed with bullhooks (spiked sticks) until their spirits are broken and they’re subservient enough to be close to tourists,” Williamson says. And any big cat who is docile enough to be hugged by a tourist has probably been drugged, and was likely taken from their mother as an infant to be chained in a cage.
Research carried out by the University of Oxford’s Wildlife Conservation Research Unit, commissioned by World Animal Protection, uncovered the global suffering caused to up to 550,000 wild animals by irresponsible tourist attractions. They compared expert scientific reviews of wildlife tourism venues with more than 50,000 tourist reviews, and found that 80 percent of people left positive reviews for venues that are treating wild animals cruelly. If people knew the truth, “they’d put their phones and cameras away and steer clear of these venues,” Williamson says.
Unfortunately, regulatory oversight of captive animal entertainment facilities is poor everywhere, in the United States and overseas, he notes. (Think “Tiger King.”) “A commercial elephant camp in Thailand can call themselves a ‘refuge’ even if they’re breeding the elephants — which a true refuge would never do,” Williamson says. Some companies hide their egregious practices, such as captive breeding and circus-style shows, behind a smokescreen of animal rescue, and contribute only paltry sums to conservation, according to World Animal Protection research.
Travelers are getting the message. For example, elephant rides are becoming unacceptable to tourists, so elephant venues in Thailand have begun to advertise the fact that they don’t offer rides. “But what they offer instead are other direct contact activities such as feeding and washing, never mind that elephants have been washing themselves perfectly well for thousands of years,” Williamson says. “All close contact activities with elephants require the same cruel training techniques,” he notes. “The best way to enjoy wild animals is by observing them from a safe and respectful distance, in the wild, where they belong.”
Bottom line: If you can hug, ride, or take a selfie with a wild animal, it’s best to skip it.
Do this, not that
As a result of working with World Animal Protection, “Our programming has changed dramatically,” Kassis says. EF has ended relationships with many suppliers and attractions, impacting hundreds of itineraries worldwide. “We no longer offer elephant rides, rides on horse-drawn carriages, or any activity that allows people to interact with animals in unnatural ways.” Sometimes there is an easy fix: “Travelers used to ride elephants to the Amber Fort near Jaipur, India. Now we ride Jeeps. But sometimes we have to nix attractions entirely, such as the Temple of Horus in Egypt, which is only accessible via horse-drawn carriage.”
There’s an educational component as well. “For example, we now have an anti-poaching expert join for part of every East African safari we offer,” Kassis says. They seek like-minded organizations, and those that are working to change their operations to embrace an animal-welfare approach, like Chang Chill, an elephant sanctuary near Chang Mai in Thailand (slogan: “Where elephants can simply be elephants,” www.changchill.com). “That’s where we want to direct our business.”
Responsible wildlife tourism can boost local economies, creating a market for wildlife watching instead of captive wild animal experiences. Since 2010, more than 250 travel companies have joined World Animal Protection to implement wildlife safety policies. The organization offers a downloadable guide on how to be animal-friendly on vacation at www.worldanimalprotection.us. While there is no single certifying authority, organizations such as the Global Federation of Animal Sanctuaries and programs such as Whale Heritage Sites are a good place to start, but they only cover a small spectrum of wild animal activities. “The best thing we can do is educate ourselves,” Williamson says. “Ask yourself: Is the animal in their natural home and not in captivity? Are they free to move and not being restrained or baited with food? Are you at a safe distance and not in a position where the animal could harm you or you could harm them? If the answer is yes to all of these questions, then we’d likely consider that a wildlife-friendly activity.”
If you’re still not sure, contact the group at firstname.lastname@example.org and they’ll weigh in. If it’s an elephant venue you’re considering, you’re in luck: World Animal Protection has visited and inspected almost every elephant camp in Asia and they keep an up-to-date list of high welfare venues on their website. They’ve also recently partnered with the World Cetacean Alliance to launch America’s first Whale Heritage Site in Dana Point, Calif.
If you want to commune with animals on your vacation, the best thing you can do is see them in the wild. The next best option: See them in a legitimate sanctuary that offers observation only, so the animals are free to display their natural behaviors. But, realistically, captive animal shows may never disappear. Ultimately, it’s up to the public to shift away from animal-exploitive shows to seeing these magnificent creatures in the wild — far enough away so we don’t impact their actions, Williamson says. “Animals need people to show compassion, and just let wild animals be wild animals — in the wild, where they belong.”
Want to go where the animals are? Check out these wild(life) adventures
We asked Lael Kassis of EF Go Ahead Tours to share what’s popular right now among travelers. Here is his response.
“People have started to dream about big ‘bucket list’ trips. We are seeing a huge increase in interest in safaris. When done right, they are among the best ways to see animals in their natural habitat. From visiting the Maasai Mara National Reserve in Kenya to exploring the Serengeti National Park in Tanzania, safaris are an incredible way to see the ‘big five’ animals, learn about conservation efforts, and get close to these amazing creatures from the safety of your vehicle.
We’ve also noticed strong interest in birding. People wanting to travel to places like the Galapagos, where you can see hundreds of different species of bird, or to Costa Rica where you can observe resplendent quetzals and keel-billed toucans in their natural habitat.
We’ve also added many new animal-centered activities this past year that we think will be really popular with our travelers once they get traveling again. One experience takes you to Jane Goodall’s Chimp Eden in South Africa, located just outside of Kruger National Park. They work to rescue and rehabilitate chimps that have survived the bushmeat trade, or been rescued from the illegal pet or entertainment trade.
It’s definitely possible to have a meaningful experience with animals in their natural environments without disrupting the creatures or their home. You have to put a bit more work into it [if you’re planning a trip on your own], but the reward is great.”
Diane Bair and Pamela Wright can be reached at email@example.com