Nearly 20 years ago, Topsfield resident Martha Sanders and her husband took their two young sons to SeaWorld Orlando, where the family fed seemingly happy dolphins and cheered on majestic orcas as they rocketed out of the water and landed with pronounced splashes.
“The tanks did seem small, but other than that, there were no apparent red flags,” says Sanders, 62, who manages an events venue in Topsfield. “Then I watched [Gabriela Cowperthwaite’s documentary] ‘Blackfish’ and learned more about orcas and I was horrified. Would I go again? No, because I know better now and wouldn’t want to support it.”
Sanders is not alone.
The tourism industry is seeing a marked shift in travelers who want to see wild animals in their natural habitats, but not infringe upon them — and certainly not witness them in captivity (a concern raised in “Blackfish,” the 2013 film about Tilikum, a performing whale who killed three people — one at an aquarium in Canada, and two at SeaWorld Orlando).
And tour companies are listening. At least two large travel outfits in Massachusetts — EF Education First in Cambridge and TripAdvisor in Needham — have partnered with World Animal Protection to make wildlife-friendly changes.
Banning interaction with elephants — including riding on them, petting them, and taking “selfies” with them — is at the forefront of World Animal Protection’s efforts. In a report titled “Taken for a Ride,” the London-based organization investigated 220 elephant tourist attractions in Asia and found that 96 percent of the venues offering rides keep the giant mammals in “cruel and unacceptable living conditions.”
“All wild or captive-bred elephants are isolated, chained, and abused until their spirits are broken in a barbaric training method called ‘crush’,” the report states. “The cruelty doesn’t stop there. Elephants are controlled with fear and pain so that they’ll perform and take people on their backs.”
Alesia Soltanpanah, executive director of World Animal Protection US, says there is “so much” that goes on behind the scenes at elephant tourist attractions and that if visitors knew, they would be “appalled.” “They’re beaten with these bull hooks [sharp, steel-pointed tools] to be submissive so they will interact with humans without — most of the time — harming them. It’s never natural for a wild animal to want to be [petted] or hugged,” Soltanpanah says. “Sometimes they’re drugged, but most of the time they’re beaten into submission, so much so that when they are introduced to other elephants in an animal-friendly venue [after being rescued], there is a period of time where . . . they don’t even know what to do because they are so trained to do whatever the mahouts — the trainers — want them to do. So they just stand there.”
By raising awareness about mistreatment of elephants and convincing travel companies and tour operators to stop promoting attractions where elephant shows and rides occur, strides have already been made, with groups like World Animal Protection persuading some venues to change their ways.
“Last year we converted an animal-cruel venue [in Thailand] to an animal-friendly venue. It’s now called ChangChill [which means “relaxed elephant”] and tourists can come and see the elephants in their natural habitats, but they do not interact with or touch them,” Soltanpanah says.
But there is still a long way to go — especially when celebrities like Kim Kardashian pose with animals in captivity for social media. Kardashian received a great deal of backlash for pictures she posted last year and again last month. Her representative did not return calls from World Animal Protection to discuss them.
“We understand that most tourists who take wildlife selfies do so because they are animal lovers, but they don’t understand how destructive this is,” Soltanpanah explains, adding that World Animal Protection’s work with Instagram in 2017 launched “Our Wildlife Selfie Code,” an initiative in which the site educates its users about how posting and sharing pictures with wild animals may be supporting behind-the-scenes animal cruelty.
Rachel Matthews, deputy director of captive animal law enforcement for PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) says her organization urges tourists to skip “any attraction that comes at an animal’s expense.”
“Kind travelers would be sick to their stomachs to learn that wild animals used for rides, photo ops, shows, or any other hands-on interactions were likely prematurely separated from their mothers, suffered horrific training sessions to break their spirit — and sometimes their bones — and face lives of extreme deprivation and cruelty,” she says.
While many tourism companies — like TripAdvisor — have signed World Animal Protection’s elephant-friendly pledge, others, like EF Education First have taken animal welfare a step further.
In addition to not offering tours that include elephant rides — or any interaction with elephants, for that matter — EF doesn’t offer tours that include animal performances, horse-drawn carriage rides, or dog sledding.
“We’ve also removed swimming with dolphins from all of our tours and we’ve removed anything around selfies or taking photos holding animals,” says Kerryann Driscoll, vice president of EF Educational Tours, a division of EF Education First which works with teachers to bring students to foreign countries. “The activity itself doesn’t seem to cause harm, but when you really have an understanding of what goes into creating those types of opportunities, that’s where the question of animal welfare really comes into play.”
Lael Kassis, vice president of EF Go Ahead Tours, EF’s adult travel division, says in the past year his company has “really taken a deep dive into all the places where customers were riding [horse-drawn] carriages and finding alternatives for them.”
For example, customers used to take horse-drawn carriages to get to the entrance of Neuschwanstein Castle in Bavaria. Now, they take shuttle buses or they walk, he says.
And river-cruise vessels no longer stop at the Temple of Horus in Edfu, Egypt, because, Lael says, the primary means of transportation to the temple is via a horse-drawn carriage.
“Instead, we’re going to keep our customers on the river cruise and actually have a presentation by an Egyptologist tour director on the Temple of Horus and what it’s like to be an Egyptologist . . . all of the training and education involved.”
Soltanpanah says that even though World Animal Protection’s priorities have not extended to getting companies to pledge not to offer tours that involve horse-drawn carriages or dog sledding, she thinks it’s “great” that EF has done so.
“[These] are cruel practices and I think that EF is particularly concerned about being an animal-friendly organization,” she says.
Driscoll states that EF takes the education component of ethical tourism very seriously, and works to inform everyone from tourists to tour operators to suppliers about the company’s initiatives.
“Change doesn’t happen overnight,” Kassis adds. “The more transparent we are with what we offer and the more that we educate our travelers, the better off we’ll be — and hopefully I think we can be a thought leader in the industry.”
Sanders, who led a citizens’ petition in Topsfield that resulted in a bylaw being passed last month banning the use of elephants and other wild and/or exotic animals for entertainment in that town (where the popular Topsfield Fair is held), said she is pleased to see tourism companies stepping up to the plate on animal welfare issues.
“It’s taken time, but people are finally starting to learn and are rejecting this form of entertainment,” she says. “We’re on the winning side of this thing.”
Bryan Hoyt, senior director of corporate communications for TripAdvisor, says that while tours offering horse-drawn carriage rides and dog sledding may be booked through TripAdvisor, those are two areas that “we continue to look at [and] we’re doing research on.” He says the company works with animal welfare organizations including World Animal Protection, PETA, and other conservation and academic outfits to develop policies.
Hoyt maintains that horse-drawn carriage rides and dog sled rides fall under the company’s “domesticated animal rule,” so, for now at least, they’re open for tour bookings.
He says that last year, the company amended its 2016 policy against elephant rides to include “no longer booking attractions where animals were forced into unnatural situations for entertainment purposes.”
Hoyt also explains that while TripAdvisor does have a tour-booking component, it is different from the website’s business listings.
“We believe that consumers have the right to write [comments and reviews] about their experiences — the good, bad, or ugly — and so especially if it’s a business that’s not taking care of animals well . . . we want to make sure that consumers are accurately depicting how animals are being cared for,” he explains. “The reason we believe [all businesses] should be listed is that if we pulled them from our site because of their disreputable behavior, they would be able to operate without transparency . . . in the darkness.”
Soltanpanah says that transparency is key, and that through social media, a growing number of people are being made aware of cruel animal practices — and not just in the tourism industry.
“Young people especially . . . they’ve grown up in a different environment and we are already seeing changes. The younger generation is educating their parents and other older people,” she says.
Driscoll says that as forthcoming as travel companies are, consumers need to be proactive in making sure their travel experiences are not harming animals.
“I encourage everyone to do research before you travel,” she says. “If you’re thinking of partaking in an animal activity, make sure that not only the activity itself provides a good living environment and good existence for the animals, but the supplier you choose to use . . . is putting the welfare of animals before all else.”
Visit www.worldanimalprotection.us for an animal-friendly wildlife attraction and sanctuary checklist.
Juliet Pennington can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.