I am an animal lover. I always have been. The very first thing I ever wanted to be was a world wildlife photographer (I was 4). My grandpa had these books filled with amazingly beautiful color-photos of every animal you could ever think of. Reading all about these animals was one of my favorite things to do. It only makes sense that as an animal lover, I had wanted to get close to some of my favorites, to have experiences with these beauties and make memories of my own.
I have done it all throughout my 27 years. I’ve been to circus shows, I’ve ridden an elephant, I’ve swam with trained dolphins, been to Sea World shows, bottle-fed leopard cubs and more. I did all of these things because I love animals. What I didn’t realize was that by actively taking part in these activities and spending money on animal tourism like this, I was harming animals – even if it wasn’t the specific animals I was interacting with. There’s an entire code of ethics of animal tourism.
I am not an expert, I’m not a biologist, nor have I personally interviewed experts in this field. But I have talked with other travelers who were more educated than I was, I’ve done more research since and I’ve talked to other volunteers (I’ve even volunteered at a Thai zoo) who have tried their very best to better the lives of these animals. I also understand that there is some gray area in these issues. Researching this post was incredibly eye-opening. I just wanted to share some of the information that helped shape my new views. I truly believe life is about education and the more knowledge you can get, the more accurately you can shape your own opinions.
This post is going to touch on three topics specifically: elephant rides + shows, big cat interactions and marine mammal shows/trained experiences, along with forms of animal tourism that are much more ethical.
The Problems with Elephant Tourism
I was devastated when I realized that the experience I had been craving with my favorite animals was actually harmful.
It’s not a secret that elephant shows are unethical. That’s why circuses all throughout the Western World have stopped featuring them, but in Southeast Asia, and especially in Thailand, elephant shows are often a big part of zoos and other performances.
When I went to Asia, I had heard how harmful the saddles that many elephants are forced to wear are and that elephants that are used for rides are often over worked because they are forced to walk over and over all day long. I didn’t know about the abuse that most (if not all) elephants go through while being trained to be ridden. So, I didn’t ride an elephant with a saddle – I thought I was doing the right thing; Stacey and I rode bareback on an elephant, right behind her ears. We took a short ride (maybe 10 -15 minutes) and it was only done once a week at the zoo we volunteered at. The elephants were ridden down to the river that runs through the zoo to let them cool off even more and play in the water.
Riding bareback into the river to bathe Jim, this beautiful elephant.
Honestly, it didn’t feel wrong: a mahout was with us, but he never struck her, we weren’t using a saddle and I don’t feel like she was overexerted. We rubbed her down, as elephants respond very well to physical touch, and I was full of joy. Plus, I personally met the zoo’s head mahout who had just come back from nearly being killed by an elephant and he said that he loves the elephants and has never hit or beat an elephant. It was when I returned from Asia that I read more and learned more about how elephants are stollen from their mothers and “broken” in order to be trained. I’m not going to describe it or share a video because it’s awful. They’re a quick google search away, and they’re seriously disturbing [here’s an article from Peta]. It is because of this initial abuse inflicted by the people who capture + break the elephants, the the wide use of harmful saddles and the continued abuse inflicted by some mahouts that I will not be riding an elephant on my next or any other trip to Asia, or anywhere for that matter.
Want to Interact with Elephants in a More Ethical Way?
There are loads of places where you can interact with elephants in much more ethical ways. Some don’t allow elephant rides at all while others have saddle-free rides (similar to the ride I took at Safari Park). Below are three options for you to choose from for your own ethical elephant experience!
Baan Chang Elephant Park in Chiang Mai, Thailand offers ethical mahout training courses along with other interactions with these beautiful animals. Training includes feeding, bathing and more. They allow elephant rides and perform them without saddles.
Patara Elephant Farm, also in Chiang Mai. Their description seems similar to the park mentioned above. My friend Izzy over at ‘The Next Somewhere‘ made a stop at Patara and put it on her top-five list for all of Chiang Mai! She felt that it was ethical and had an unforgettable time!
Elephant Nature Park is based in Chiang Mai, but offers volunteer opportunities in Surin, Thailand and Cambodia as well. Here you can bathe elephants, feed elephants, walk with (instead of ride on) elephants and watch them roam free. This is a sanctuary, so elephants are brought here to get away from the typical animal tourism. Here you can visit to simply enjoy or you can volunteer. This is definitely on my list for my upcoming trip to Chiang Mai. I just have to convince Matt that this is a great opportunity!
Of course, you can always take the journey to go see them in their natural environment! The above examples are just a few that I’ve found during my research for our upcoming trip to Chiang Mai in September. There are many other ethical elephant adventures to be had in other countries.
The Problems with Big Cat Tourism
Tigers are often exploited in Southeast Asia
We’ve all heard about places like Tiger Temple, which was shut down in the not-so-distant-past. Although there are many debates about whether or not that was the right move. I’ve read comments about the negative accounts of this place and I’ve personally known people who volunteered and worked there who say they never once saw any drugging or mistreatment. It’s yet another gray area for me, having not spent any time there. However, during my time volunteering, I did see things I didn’t like, but I also saw change happening to better the lives of these cats. Many places have tigers that are overfed and inactive, laying on tables. That isn’t any way to live a life. Not to mention, many places that have grown big cats are also taking advantage of their cubs. Many cubs are bred illegally and sold on the black market. Of cubs that are kept, many are also overfed when tourists are allowed to bottle feed them.
Morning feeding while working at the zoo I volunteered at in Thailand
Once again, when I was volunteering at Safari Park Zoo, it didn’t feel wrong. The volunteers who were working with the big cats had been working with them since they were born. They loved them and the bond between the gorgeous animals and Big Cat Team was apparent. Most change happens in small steps and Safari Park Zoo no longer has a tiger on a table to pose with – and has decided not to do it again – and their cubs are fed actual meals by volunteers (part of the feeding I’m doing in this photo) and tourists are given very tiny amounts of supplement to feed the cubs and since there are multiple cubs at the zoo, they’re rotated as not to overfeed. Is this system perfect? No. But is it progress and examples of small steps toward better lives for these animals? Yes. Are there more ethical ways to see these big cats? Yes.
Want to Interact with Big Cats in a More Ethical Way?
Instead of checking them out in captivity, go on a safari! People often think safaris are limited to Africa. However, there are many places in Asia that you can catch glimpses of several large animals including tigers. Be sure to research the company you use and make sure they’re ethically + safely getting you to these animals.
The Problems with Aquatic Mammal Tourism
The Shamu show is impressive, but made for the happiness of the humans watching, not the whales.
There have been many ethical issues with the training of marine mammals. Whales and dolphins are known to be intelligent, sensitive and self-aware. Like, I said in the intro, many people worked with these animals and trained them because they loved them and are fascinated by them. However, these animals who had millions of square feet of ocean have no business being confined to tanks for the entertainment of humans. I went to Sea World a couple of times with my family. For a long time as a child, I wanted to be a marine biologist because of the beautiful animals I had encountered on a trip there. While, Sea World has done many things for helping injured animals, preserving populations and researching these beauties, the animal shows were detrimental to these animal’s physical and mental health. While I have enjoyed these shows in the past, upon doing more research, I’ve seen how detrimental these shows are for the animals. The documentary Black Fish was insanely eye-opening, so eye-opening that even Sea World Inc has put an end to shows (although some won’t end until 2019).
An orca + a Dall’s porpoise I saw on a whale watching trip in Alaska
Want to Interact with Aquatic Mammals in a More Ethical Way?
Take a whale-watching or dolphin-watching excursion. Although there isn’t a 100% chance of seeing these beauties, it makes when you do see them so much sweeter. It’s also really fulfilling to see them in their natural habitat. There are also many places where you can see aquatic mammals without leaving the shore. Ask locals where you can see them and they’ll usually know good spots. I know we were able to see a few dolphins from the Kalalau Trail in Hawaii and I saw a couple from a dock in North Carolina. Just keep your eyes open and you may get a special treat!
I really hope that this post didn’t come off as insanely preachy. I just wanted to educate people on some of the ethics of animal tourism. I’ve done so many things that I wish I could take back. I’ve absolutely made many mistakes during my travels. I’m sure ignorance will allow me to make more mistakes in the future, and I hope there’s someone to help guide me then too.
Have you made decisions while traveling only to learn it was unethical? Do you disagree with these arguments for the ethics of animal tourism? Join the conversation!
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