37 In Animals + Wildlife/ Travel/ Travel Talk

Let’s Get Real – The Ethics of Animal Tourism

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

Ethics of Animal 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

Ethics of Animal 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).

Ethics of Animal Tourism   Ethics of Animal Tourism

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!

Did You Enjoy This Post? PIN IT So Others Can Too!

You Might Also Like


  • Reply
    June 28, 2017 at 5:21 am

    Nice article.

  • Reply
    June 28, 2017 at 6:48 am

    On a recent tour in Thailand, one of the excursions that were offered was elephant rides. I told them I wouldn’t do it because of the abuse they must have gone through. But on the shuttle ride to the camp, I started feeling like I was going to miss out so I convinced myself I would. BUT as soon as we stepped into the camp and I saw the elephants, I just felt the sadness in the air. I couldn’t do it.

    I ended up skipping the ride. They did put on a little show afterwards that I watched and got trunk kisses from a baby elephant.

    Seeing them all chained up was so depressing. I’ve never been to a big cat show but they always look so sad and lifeless in tourist pictures.

    This is a very nice informative article! I like that you offer alternates for those who still want to see the animals. Thank you for this!

    • Reply
      Paige Wunder
      June 28, 2017 at 8:18 pm

      It is depressing and the same breaking goes into those shows as the rides. It’s heartbreaking. I’m glad that the US has banned elephant shows in circuses. I know, like me, people want these interactions out of love, but we don’t see what happened before we got there, after we left or behind closed doors. Thank you so much for reading and leaving such a thoughtful comment to join the conversation.

  • Reply
    Patricia Steffy (@PLSteffy)
    June 28, 2017 at 10:04 am

    I’m really glad that writers like you are starting to shed light on these practices. I didn’t really know anything about how elephants were “broken” for rides or about the overfeeding of the big cats. I do love animals, and I would much prefer trying the more ethical approaches you outlined than adding to the problems (or potential problems). Plus, helping bathe an elephant at a sanctuary just sounds like a lot of fun. Thanks for sharing!

    • Reply
      Paige Wunder
      June 28, 2017 at 8:19 pm

      Thank you so much, Patricia. I hope that others can learn from this as well! I wish I had known more when I was there. It’s easy to be blind to the harm behind these shows and attractions.

  • Reply
    Claire Summers
    June 28, 2017 at 10:35 am

    It makes me happy how people are finally realising how cruel so many of these things are. I’ve also rode on an elephant. I even have a picture of me as a child sat on one at the Circus!! I’m 35 so this was like 31 years ago. I also swam with dolphins about 10 years ago. I would never do any of these things now. There is so much information about how bad these things are there really isn’t any excuse to not know.

    • Reply
      Paige Wunder
      June 28, 2017 at 8:21 pm

      I’m glad more and more people are talking about it too. I wouldn’t do any of these things again either. It’s tough because there’s a zoo I worked at in Thailand that is making huge strides in this way of thinking, but the change is coming slowly. I loved my experiences there and their focus on enrichment. However, I also know that they’re not doing all the best things that they could.

  • Reply
    Clazz - An Orcadian Abroad
    June 28, 2017 at 12:32 pm

    No, you preach girl! This stuff is important.

    I’ve been to SeaWorld too, and I came out with such mixed feelings about it. I actually did this incredible behind-the-scenes tour with beluga whales, who had all been rescued and were being rehabilitated until they could be safely released again. I don’t think they were really “on show” and all the people working with them had such an infectiously enthusiastic attitude about their work and clearly cared for their welfare. I still can’t decide if I did a good thing or not. I think the organisation does really important work, but then imbalances it with the publicised shit they do.

    Also – Elephant Nature Park is SOOO worth it!! I volunteered there for a week a couple of years ago and it’s honestly to this day the best experiences I’ve ever had! DOOO EEET!

    • Reply
      Paige Wunder
      July 7, 2017 at 5:45 pm

      It is important! Thanks for the encouragement!
      I agree that SeaWorld as an organization does great things. When I was there the first time we went to the “behind the scenes” manatee section with the same intent – the manatees we rehabilitated and released back into the wild. It’s just the shows, breeding and keeping animals in insanely small enclosures for life that I don’t agree with. I think if they get back to more of showcasing the animals’ natural personalities and beauty while rehabilitating they’ll still do very well.
      That’s GREAT to hear! I am DYING to do it! My husband is the one who is unsure about it. However, you’ve convinced me! He’s just going to have to suck it up! Ha!

  • Reply
    June 28, 2017 at 1:18 pm

    I love how you wrote this post. I didn’t know much about animal tourism until I started reading more about it through frequent travelers. I wish I would have known sooner about many of these things, but better now than never. I love that you offered links to alternative ways for people to enjoy animals 🙂

    • Reply
      Paige Wunder
      July 7, 2017 at 5:47 pm

      Thank you. I love that there are more ethical options now and rescue centers for the animals that were harmed in the wake of unethical animal ethics.

  • Reply
    June 28, 2017 at 8:01 pm

    Thanks for sharing this. While I haven’t participated in any of the animal tourism in Asia or elsewhere, I have gone to the circus as a child (not by choice) – but I’m glad the world is waking up and realizing these activities are harmful and urging others not to participate.

    • Reply
      Paige Wunder
      June 28, 2017 at 8:22 pm

      I’m so glad as well. I think you’re definitely in the small percentage of people who haven’t participated in animal tourism! That’s amazing! Thanks for joining in the conversation and I’m sure you’re doing your part to let other travelers know about the harm behind these popular attractions.

  • Reply
    Sandy N Vyjay
    June 28, 2017 at 9:35 pm

    This is such a thought provoking article and the need of the hour. I think the agencies concerned in all countries should have strict laws and monitor this area of tourism to ensure that the best interests of the animals are protected and they are not exploited. Many countries are awakening to the importance of ensuring that animals are not harmed or the fragile structure of their environments are not destroyed. Hopefully we will see more and more awareness on this front.

    • Reply
      Paige Wunder
      July 1, 2017 at 8:29 pm

      Thank you. I agree that countries should strictly monitor this. I think most are moving that way and the more people speak out the more on top of it they will stay. I’m just happy to be spreading some awareness where I can!

  • Reply
    June 28, 2017 at 11:29 pm

    As an animal lover, this is always a burning issue for me. Esp if I want to visit a park/ sanctuary or see animals up close – its always a struggle – what IS ethical? Recently I visited the KL Bird park and had to go and ask them how they ensure the birds are not mistreated (coz well they are free and flying around everywhere or walking alongside visitors). I was happy to hear they DO take good care of the birds..but its ALWAYS a pressing issue and I am vary of whats happening behind the scenes anyways.

    • Reply
      Paige Wunder
      July 1, 2017 at 8:33 pm

      It really is a struggle. You’re absolutely correct that it’s very difficult to pin down what exactly is ethical. I’m glad that you found that they take good care of the birds. It’s like the zoo I volunteered at in Thailand. I loved my experiences and I could absolutely see their movement to more and more ethical practices, but it takes time and voicing our opinions with the owner while we were there was the best thing we could do and only take part in things we felt were ethical or truly bettering the animal’s lives. Like making enrichment and exercising animals that were in enclosures. I just wish we could go back to only experiencing animals in their natural environment, but it’s going to take a very long time to get to that point.

  • Reply
    Megan Indoe
    June 28, 2017 at 11:49 pm

    I couldn’t agree more with your post. I like that you admit to doing some of the things that you now are aware of and are bringing to light why alot of animal tourism is cruel and unethical. It’s hard to be aware or know of the atrocities going on (especially when you’re just growing up and learning yourself) but what’s important is that you were able to learn from it and use your platform to spread awareness. Another great responsible elephant experience is in Sen Monorom, Cambodia (Mondulkiri) at Elephant Valley Project. The guy who runs it has a big chunk of land and rehabilitates rescued elephants from tourism and logging jobs while also helping the local community. We did it back a few years ago and it was such an awesome experience!

    • Reply
      Paige Wunder
      July 1, 2017 at 8:42 pm

      Thank you. It was hard a little to admit especially since my ignorance lasted much longer than it should have, but I wanted to be honest. Thank you of the tip of Sen Monorom. I love hearing about other’s experiences in ethical alternatives. Plus, I want to give all the animals that were mistreated loads of love.

  • Reply
    June 29, 2017 at 2:22 am

    I just came back from Thailand and I’m glad I interacted with the elephants in an ethical way. It’s also important to point out that some “sanctuaries” can pose as such but are really in it to exploit these animals. It’s always good to do your own research before visiting these facilities.

    • Reply
      Paige Wunder
      July 1, 2017 at 8:49 pm

      That’s great that you did! I’ve heard that some places are scamming as sanctuaries – even Tiger Temple was shut down even though it was supposed to be a sanctuary. (Although, like everything else, I’ve heard mixed reviews about it as well.) You’re absolutely right, you need to do your own research and make your own decision as to what you’re comfortable with.

  • Reply
    June 29, 2017 at 12:48 pm

    This is an important post that needs to be read by many! I’m guilt of my travel mistakes as well. The worst being traveling to the Tiger temple that shut down. I don’t know how much of what is told is true, but I certainly didn’t like what I saw, and I wished I never went there soon after I stepped in, a feeling that has never left me! Thankfully, I have been more aware of my choices & decisions. I once took a dolphin tour and spotted one, looking happy where it belonged! Hope more organizations become ethical.

    • Reply
      Paige Wunder
      July 1, 2017 at 8:51 pm

      Thank you very much, Reshma. My wish is that someone would learn something new about this touchy ethical subject. I’m not sure what is true either – I have friends who worked there and swear it’s all lies, but I didn’t personally visit or work there. I know that I’ve heard more people who, like you, felt uncomfortable there. That’s awesome that you did that! I spotted a couple of Irrawaddy River Dolphins in Cambodia from a safe distance while they did their own thing in the wild. It was fantastic.

  • Reply
    June 29, 2017 at 6:31 pm

    You are bringing up a very important issue. We, travellers, need to draw more attention to what we get involved in. While I have not participated in any of those activities, I’ve seen a lot of people who have, and usually they are not aware of how poorly these animals are treated. It is absolutely heart-breaking to watch elephants, horses, you name it, suffer from their exploiters!

    • Reply
      Paige Wunder
      July 1, 2017 at 8:55 pm

      It is absolutely heart-breaking. I’m glad for you, that you’re able to say that you haven’t taken part in this actions. I hope you’re spreading the word as well! Thanks for reading and taking the time to comment!

  • Reply
    June 30, 2017 at 3:37 am

    I so love your honesty and transparency in this post. Not to mention, the fantastic education that you are providing to travel lovers who may not have thought about it in the way that you or I do. Not preachy, teachy. 🙂 Super job, Paige! xoxo

    • Reply
      Paige Wunder
      July 1, 2017 at 8:57 pm

      Thanks, Liz! I’m glad you thought it was teachy, not preachy. It’s hard to admit when you’re wrong, especially in a really public way, but I hope that this will keep others from making the same mistakes I did. Thanks for reading and I hope all is well! Xx

  • Reply
    June 30, 2017 at 9:40 pm

    A lot of people don’t know about the ethics of riding elephants. It is great to provide alternative ways to interact with elephants without hurting them. On my recent trip to SE asia I had to inform my friend about the issue and why I wouldn’t be riding the elephants.

    • Reply
      Paige Wunder
      July 1, 2017 at 9:22 pm

      You’re absolutely, a lot of people still don’t know. Thank you for the words of encouragement, and I’m very glad that you were there to educate her friend.

  • Reply
    Rochelle | Adventuresfromelle
    June 30, 2017 at 9:59 pm

    The only form of animal tourism cruelty I’d known about was that of dolphins. In Jamaica I’ve never heard of cruelty inflicted on these beautiful mammals at our waterparks (Dolphin Cove) but seeing the size of their enclosures compared to their vast natural ocean habitat made me not too fond of visiting. I’ve read articles on how the tiny space can cause depression and psychosis in them, no way to live! So thanks on opening my eyes to the downside of animal tourism

    • Reply
      Paige Wunder
      July 1, 2017 at 9:27 pm

      It’s so true. Whales and dolphins are so intelligent and feel so deeply. I swam with dolphins in Mexico as a teenager and their face’s look so naturally happy with all those teeth and I enjoyed my time so much that I naively didn’t even think about whether or not they were happy. As an adult, now, my heart breaks for those beautiful dolphins that are forced to perform tricks for someone’s bottom dollar. I’ve much more enjoyed my time viewing them in their natural habitats, as you said, in that vast ocean.

  • Reply
    July 1, 2017 at 4:26 am

    Thank you so much for writing this. I feel the same as you, I have had experiences with animal tourism in the past before I had any idea of how cruel it was. Now I am skeptical about anything that has to do with animals and always try to do my research first. It’s a good point about the marine animal shows too – I generally avoid aquariums and think this is a subject that people are not aware of.

    • Reply
      Paige Wunder
      July 1, 2017 at 9:29 pm

      I’m with you. I’m all about researching first! I’ve not been back to an aquarium since really getting into the ethics of animal tourism. I think that uses as a rehabilitation center or a rescue center – if that’s truly all it’s being used for, but that too takes a lot of research. I won’t give money to any place that has a marine animal show ever again.

  • Reply
    Jen Joslin
    July 18, 2017 at 5:29 am

    Thank you for your honesty in writing about this sensitive but important subject. I also rode elephants, saw whale shows at Sea World, and went on a tiger park in China that looking back was definitely not okay. The more we educate ourselves and others the better able we’ll be to shift our mindsets and behaviors relating to animal tourism. In June I had the opportunity to go to the Elephant Conservation Center (ECC) in Sayabury, Laos. With caps recently put on logging in Laos, 300+ elephants and their mahouts are out of work, and many new elephant camps have sprung up for tourists. The ECC is working on educating people who visit their center, and management at other camps on ethical practices with elephant tourism. Animal tourism isn’t going to go away, and in fact that isn’t necessarily the best solution. But like you said, steps need to be taken to do things in a better way. As travelers the places we choose to spend our money matter, and by supporting centers that are doing things well, hopefully others will follow suit too.

    • Reply
      Paige Wunder
      July 18, 2017 at 4:18 pm

      Thanks for your comment, Jen! It’s really hard to know everything in the moment, isn’t it? Thanks for letting me know about the Elephant Conservation Center. I’ve been looking into a lot of more ethical ways to interact with animals and help them live a more enriched life. It’s so hard because these animals that have been held captive can’t just be released back into the wild. It is all about the steps toward better ways to take care of the animals. I’m definitely going to check out the ECC. Thanks for the thoughtful comment.

  • Reply
    The Animal Magnetism Of Africa - For the Love of Wanderlust
    October 19, 2017 at 6:32 am

    […] It differs from its Asian counterpart due to its more enormous ears and is a must to spot for many animal lovers.  Luckily, there are several places well know to be great sites to see Elephants in Africa, […]

  • Join the Conversation!

    %d bloggers like this: